I have a theory. Modern cars suck! That’s really more of a proclamation than a theory, but it’s rooted in sound logic. With each new generation, car models become festooned with electronic gadgetry, riddled with driver aids, and (like their American pilots) increasingly bloated in both weight and girth. This results in bland, boring, and heavy vehicles that from behind the wheel are numb and disconnected. The majority of the car buying population could care less. According many recent reports, the most important trend driving mainstream new car buyers is technology in the form of infotainment and (mobile) connectivity. There are a few new car models that still seek to satisfy the driving enthusiast minority of the population, but even these are generally softer than their predecessors. The sad truth is that the automotive future is likely to be filled with four-wheel appliances that stream Pandora much better than they carve a turn.
To be fair, old cars aren’t that great either. Heat in my old VW bus was provided only the imagination of its unfortunate occupants. After just a 2-minute reposition of my MG Midget from one side of the driveway to the other I emerge saturated from marinating in gasoline, gear oil, and 40-year-old patoulli. Carburetors, condensers, points, drum brakes, manual chokes, and non-synchromesh gearboxes are all delightful bits of nostalgia on a Sunday drive, but debilitatingly frustrating in day to day operation. There must be some compromise between these extremes, no? There is. It’s called the 1990’s.
I believe there is a bell curve of automotive design and technology that peaked in the 1990’s making cars from that era superior in almost every way. They are modern enough to be tolerable in the day-to-day environment yet lightweight enough for even non-sports car models satisfy the driving enthusiast in all of us. Reliability peaked in this period too. Automotive technological evolution was in a sweet spot between efficiency advancements and over-complication. It’s commonplace for an early ‘90’s properly maintained Toyota, Honda, or even certain domestic marquees to have over 200, 300, or even 400 thousand miles on the clock. A comparable vehicle of today, dependent and laden with globally sourced electronic sensors, will certainly not reach similar a lifespan. The advent of minimalist manufacturer-paid maintenance has done nothing to help longevity either. It’s almost as though vehicle obsolescence in early six-digit mileage has been planned in modern cars.
The bell curve of 1990’s greatness begins its rise in the mid-1980’s as the development of fuel injection had matured and trickled down to almost all models. Disc brakes, early air bags, power accessories, and ergonomics followed suit. The second gen BMW 3 Series (the E30) is the quintessential example of this. It’s nearly a subcompact by today’s standards, but its small dimensions, lightweight, and proper balance make it one of the most enjoyable driver’s cars of all time. As the 1990’s progressed, the models only got better. Take the 1991-1995 Honda Civic hatchback. Some models got over 50 mpg, all will swallow four adults in relative comfort, and even the stripper CX provided the driver with a sporty nimble driving experience. Many are still in operation today with well over 400,000 miles logged.
The bell curve starts to decline in the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s when size and technology became counterproductive to both driving dynamics and reliability. By the mid 2000’s model creep had re-defined the size of entire model segments. Small but capable trucks like the venerable Toyota Tacoma had virtually disappeared. Even the pint-sized Mazda Miata had morphed into a portly little roadster. Comparing the early and later models, the latter looks like a fat little sister. Technology like undefeatable stability control systems appeared and failure-prone electric sensors replaced even elegantly simple devices like the oil dipstick. When is the last time you heard of a dipstick failing? I foresee a future where even mundane vehicles of the ‘90’s are highly valued only because of their reliability and efficiency. The Honda Civic VX hatch has already cemented this trend. An unmolested example will fetch upwards of twice its blue book value.
A few models rise to a status far above the already formidable bar of 1990’s greatness. The last generation 92-95 Mazda RX7 and every single Acura NSX ever built comes to mind. A more affordable example is the 1995-1999 (E36) BMW M3. The E36 M3 is so good that almost two decades after its introduction it is still the track weapon of choice for many of Colorado’s most skilled drivers. The E36 M3 doesn’t have the charisma and racing heritage of the E30 M3 that preceded it or the baller looks and comforts of its E46 M3 successor, but it reigns as one of the ‘90’s bests and therefore bests of all time. As the price of the fifty thousand dollar sports sedan plummeted within the reach of teenage drivers and entry-level purchasers, shoddy body kits, shameful abuse, and neglectful disrepair have decimated the E36 M3 population. Finding a good one is not an easy task. Even then, the good ones suffer from the required maintenance that a performance BMW demands.
A discriminating buyer is rewarded with 240 horsepower delivered in the smooth, linear fashion that only a naturally balanced inline 6-cylinder engine produces. That power is delivered only to the rear wheels through a proper manual gearbox and mechanical limited slip differential, both rapidly disappearing pieces of automotive hardware. The driver’s softer side is comforted by such cutting edge ’90’s luxuries as leather heated seats, power locks and windows, premium sound, an onboard computer, a ski pass-through, and dual climate control zones. If properly maintained, an E36 M3 will easily last upwards of the 300,000-mile mark including copious track abuse. Put all this together and the result is a gentlemen’s sports car. It’s not too flash, not too fast, but perfectly balanced and incredibly capable in the right hands.
Last fall a gentleman name Jeff came calling. He was looking for a car that was cheap, fun to drive, and got better gas mileage than his truck. There was only one option. We found a Cosmos Black 1998 M3 sedan with 186,000 miles on the clock for $5400. In sedan form the E36 M3 is both more practical and has better proportions than the coupe. Sedans also seem to be less molested than coupes by the teenage set. Jeff’s car was being sold by an educated owner, had high quality cooling and suspension upgrades, and was in overall great shape for the mileage. Like any high mileage BMW it had a few issues. After all of the pressing issues were corrected we were out the door for a few bloody-knuckled afternoons and bill of just over eight grand. Here’s a brief look at the car and what needed to be done to properly correct its issues.
1998 BMW E36 M3 Sedan
Cosmos Black Metallic, Dove Grey Interior
Stock Except for Bimmerworld Aluminum Radiator, Hoses, Steward Water Pump, and KW ST Coilover Suspension