Behind the Hype: BMW E36 320i Driven.

The BMW E36 has risen in popularity in Indonesia over the past couple of years, and I finally drove one to find out what the fuss is all about.

If you’ve been paying attention to the Indonesian car scene, you’d notice that one of the cars that’s been so popular lately is the BMW E36, and I do mean everybody has one: college kids whose just gotten their first car, car enthusiasts be it stanceheads or classic car enthusiasts, and even in motorsport it’s being used for touring car racing and drifting, from grassroots to professionals. There’s even an article from Intersport – a fairly famous drift organizer in Indonesia – that claims that the E36 is the perfect car for drifting.

The E36 is probably one of the most hype and hip cars to drive right now if you’re a young petrolhead in Indonesia, I know at least like five people that currently owns an E36. However, I have never driven one, let alone own one.

Friend and reasonably-priced E36 owner, Glen, has agreed to lend me his E36 for the day so I can see what it’s actually like driving this hyped car, and also to find out why people like this car so much.

Also, I should mention this isn’t a standard car; it has an M-Tech bodykit, a custom muffler, a set of Alpina wheels and the suspension is standard but I think the springs has been cut so it’s lower. Other than that, this is a standard 1992 E36 320i with a 2.0L straight-six engine.

It’s like driving a modern German sedan. But older.

It immediately felt like driving a C-Class. I would’ve said “like an F30” but I’ve never actually driven an F30 3-Series before so I’m going to say W205 C-Class, because it does feel like one. There’s something about the front-engine rear-wheel drive setup and long bonnet that makes the two cars feel similar. Add to that the straight-six noise from the front and it made the E36 felt luxurious, expensive, with a rather dominating presence.

Of course, being a car made in ’92 means, well, it’s showing its age. There are rattly bits here and there, some of the buttons and switches are hard as rock, and loose panels in the interior. That being said, most of the panels are leather or soft touch or whatever you call it, and the interior was a nice place to be in and I do believe if restored to its former glory, this would be an incredibly comfortable place to be in.

It certainly didn’t feel like an old Japanese car, it felt much more modern than it really is. You know what’s not modern though? The engine. Yes, it’s a straight-six and with custom exhaust and it sounds really nice, but it’s only a 2.0L engine and it made 149 horsepower when new, and I’m sure 18 years later it has lost a few of those horses. I’d say this car has no more than 120 horsepower right now, at best.

The car was fine up to 80km/h, but even beyond that it was struggling a bit and above 110km/h it felt more like a vibrator than a car, but to be fair that’s just the age of the car showing rather than a fault with the car itself. I’m sure an E36 in pristine mechanical condition would feel better at high speeds.

Sheer driving pleasure, but not as you know it.

I think when you get into a BMW what you expect is a sporty driving experience with just the right amount of comfort, but with the E36 it was really more the other way around: comfort with a just a little bit of sport.

I went in expecting the car to feel sporty; fun handling and engine, but with enough comfort that I can spend a long time in the car without having to stretch out my ageing back every 30 minutes. However, the E36 really was more of a comfortable cruiser rather than a sports car; it was relaxed, comfortable, sheer driving pleasure, but not quite as you know it.

The car felt like it encouraged you to just take it easy; it was easy to find a good seating position for cruising in, and even the steering wheel felt better to hold with one hand on the top of the steering wheel or with your right arm resting on the beltline. Really it wasn’t encouraging you to hold the steering wheel with both arms and attack every corner like you’re trying to win a touring car race, it just wants you to relax and enjoy the sheer driving pleasure that’s been provided by BMW. Although not quite the same as most other BMWs that you’ve probably experienced.

I’d like to note that I loved having the 5-speed manual gearbox and I would not swap it with an automatic; gear change is smooth and easy, and the clutch is not too heavy that it makes you feel like you’re doing leg day at the gym. It gives you that nice feeling of being involved in the driving experience, which is exactly what I want in an older car. A brand new BMW or Mercedes would feel out of character if it had a manual gearbox, but an old BMW like this – even if it’s just a sedan and not a sports car per se – felt good with a manual gearbox. I’m starting to get the appeal of this car…

It’s an affordable, relatively luxurious German sedan.

I’m starting get why there are so many people buying this car, first of all as I’ve said it felt like a modern German sedan – with the usual old car caveats, of course – to drive; it’s luxurious and comfortable and is generally a nice car to cruise in, for about the 1/10 of the price of a new 3-Series or C-Class.

Sure, the price for an E36 has been raising in the past few years, for example, a few short years ago you could’ve gotten a more-than-decent specimen E36 that’s ready to drive for about Rp70.000.000 (~US$4.700) or even less, but these days you have to be ready to pay as high as Rp125.000.000 (~US$8.400) for a 323i. This 320i is for sale at Rp70.000.000 by the way.

Anyway, price hike aside, the E36 is still relatively affordable, and you get that luxury German sedan feel I was talking about earlier. It’s an easy and cheap way to own a German sedan, is basically what I’m saying, and believe me, is a different experience compared to owning a Japanese car.

It’s a handsome-looking car.

18 years later and the E36 is still a handsome looking car. Obviously the 90s isn’t short on good-looking cars, but really the only other good-looking and similar 90s sedan that I can think of is the Mercedes 190E, and even that is far more expensive than your typical E36 as prices can start from as high as Rp200.000.000 (~US$13.500), not to mention the 190E is relatively scarce in Indonesia, it’s not as common as the E36 or even some other older Mercs. I’m sure you can give me a bunch of other options and of course looks are subjective, but on the top of my mind, the E36 is the best looking 90s car at a reasonable price.

The boxy design is sporty, yet elegant, and whether you want to restore the car to its former glory or stance it so low to the ground it scrapes everywhere you go, it’s a good looking bugger this one.

I personally think the E36 is sort of overused and overdone since everybody owns one these days and they’re modified in pretty much the same way, but really when I take a good look at the car, I can’t help but think “yes, this is a good looking car and I’d like to be seen in one.”

It also screams that “Southern Jakarta” look, and South Jakarta is often thought of as the hype and fancy capital of Jakarta for to be for the young and rich. So, if vanity is your thing – and I’m not judging if it is – the E36 is, again, an affordable handsome looking car and it has that Southern Jakarta look, if you get what I’m saying.

It’s easy to maintain.

I have no experience in maintaining an E36 as I’ve never owned it, but I’ve never heard anyone complain on how expensive or difficult it is, and Glen said it himself that maintenance isn’t a big deal; there are a bunch of BMW workshops scattered around Jakarta, parts are easy to find and relatively cheap, and according to him, the car itself doesn’t breakdown very often.

That’s very appealing, as I’ve found from my experience in owning a classic Mini, the thing I dreaded the most was trying to find a workshop that knows how to fix the car properly, which are few and far between, and also finding the spare parts I need is a chore, and usually costs a pretty penny when I do.

The E36 meanwhile is easier to maintain as parts are available at a relatively affordable price, and there are a lot of mechanics who know how to fix a BMW which means if you don’t like the work they’re doing at one place, you can just go to the next one. Like, literally the next one beside it. There’s THAT many of them.

It’s a good project car.

Much like the GT86 that I drove last time, the E36 is also a good project car. As I’ve said, parts are easy to find, workshops are scattered everywhere like treasure chests in Genshin Impact, and the list of modifications that you can do to the car is pretty extensive.

Bog standard and return it to showroom condition? Can do that, although it’ll probably cost a pretty penny. Get the car so low that you’re closer to the center of the Earth than to the sky? There are infinite ways to do that. Make it go faster? Stroker kits are available for your purchase. Want to go drifting or racing? Yes, you can do that as well, you only really need around Rp50.000.000 (~US$3.300) to buy an E36 in working condition, after that you can spend the rest of your money turning it into a drift or race worthy car. For the record, I’d modify my E36 to an almost bog standard when it comes to looks, but with a stroker kit so it has more power and it’ll be a really nice car to cruise in, as my only real complain was the lack of power from the engine.

Really, just like the GT86, your bank account is the limit here. Beyond that, it’s really up to you on how you want to express yourself. I get why young people are so into this car; it’s cheap yet it feels expensive, and really it's the perfect platform for anyone who wants to express themselves via aftermarket modifications. Which if you’re young, expressing yourself is probably in your priority list, even if you don’t know it.

As for me though, while I have been praising this car throughout this article and I do find myself liking this car a lot, I don’t like it to the point where I actually want to own one. Even though I would struggle to find any other alternatives that I’d rather own at this price point, I still don’t want one. I have found my answers though on why people like the BMW E36, so that’s mission accomplished.

All photos are taken by me unless stated otherwise. Please contact me should you want to use my photos for commercial purposes, or credit me for personal uses.

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