Home » Join The BMW Club: 1989 BMW 535i vs 1995 BMW 318i

Join The BMW Club: 1989 BMW 535i vs 1995 BMW 318i

Sbsd 4 16 2024
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Welcome to another Shitbox Showdown! Today, we’re featuring two vehicles from one of the Autopian staff’s favorite marques: BMW. Both of them run just fine, and both, crucially, are manuals.

Yesterday I asked you to to choose your favorite photogenic wreck, not necessarily the car you thought would be easiest to revive. Lots of you took those instructions and threw them out the window, if the comments are any indication. The already-sold Land Rover won, but I don’t think it was because of its patina or the photos of the cobwebs inside. But yes, any old Land Rover can be revived if you throw enough money at it.

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As far as the photos go, the Plymouth was the ad I spotted first, and it was sunset over the car wash in the background that got me:

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Even without being told, I’d know that picture was taken somewhere in the desert southwest. I love the tone, I love the patterns of rust on the quarter panel, and I love that the chrome at the tip of the tailfin is still so shiny. It’s a beautiful shot of a very, very ugly car.

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As I’m sure you all know, lots of folks around here are fans of BMW’s vehicles. Personally, I very much enjoy driving BMWs; I got to drive my dad’s 730i on the Autobahn when he lived in Germany, and it was delightful. But the ownership experience left quite a lot to be desired when my wife and I purchased a lovely sage-green automatic 2005 325i a few years back. It had all the typical E46 deferred maintenance issues: the cracked coolant bottle, the leaking oil filter housing, the constantly failing window regulators, the rattly VANOS solenoid. It also had a shudder from the torque converter every time it went in and out of lockup, at about 45 MPH – and no way to easily change the fluid and filter to see if that helped, because the transmission had “lifetime” fluid, hence no dipstick or fill tube. But when I learned that it was a California-only SULEV car, and what that meant for potential fuel pump problems, we put it up for sale.

I still wouldn’t turn down the right BMW if it came along, but it would have to be an older, simpler model, and it would have to be a manual. Like these two. Let’s check them out.

1989 BMW 535i – $2,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.4-liter overhead cam inline 6, five-speed manual, RWD

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Location: San Mateo, CA

Odometer reading: 297,000 miles

Operational status: “Runs very well and drives smooth”

Let’s get the alphabet soup out of the way first: The chrome “535i” on the back breaks down as 5 Series, 3.5-liter engine (actually rounded up, but if Ford can put “5.0” on the fender of Mustangs with 4,942 CCs of displacement, BMW can round up 3,430 to 3.5), and “i” for fuel injection. In BMW-speak, this translates to an E34 chassis, with an M30B35 engine. Man, the Germans sure do love their alphanumeric codes, don’t they?

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This silky-smooth inline six sends its power to the rear wheels through a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox. I’ve driven a car in this spec before, and it’s a delight. This one runs very well, according to the seller, despite nearly 300,000 miles on the car. Apparently, the engine was overhauled at 200,000, so you would expect it to still be spinning happily along.

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In fact, the seller was considering parting this car out, but couldn’t do it because it runs so well. It does show its age in a lot of places: the seats are coming apart, and the paint is faded, but it wears its age well, I think. The seller says it “needs” paint, but I think I’d just leave it scruffy. It does need the power locks and air conditioning fixed, however.

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I’ve always liked the style of the E34 5 Series, and I think it has aged well. It has all the classic BMW cues: four round headlights, two sensible-sized kidneys in the grille, and a very subtle Hofmeister kink in the rear quarter windows. Despite some of the more recent styling travesties, when I think of a BMW 5 Series, it’s the E34 that I picture.

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1995 BMW 318i – $4,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8-liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, RWD

Location: Los Osos, CA

Odometer reading: 167,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well

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And here we have an E36-chassis 3 Series, the replacement for the beloved E30 of the 1980s. This is the entry-level BMW, the one you got when you got your first job as an associate with the big law firm or a junior executive position at the studio. The E36 has been the object of derision among BMW fans for years, but I think its biggest sin is probably just not being an E30.

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This is a 318i, the bottom of the E36 range in America, powered by a 1.8 liter twin-cam four. It’s not as smooth as the six, but it’s a good reliable engine that likes to rev. This one also has a five-speed manual. I’ve never driven a 318i with a stick, but I have driven one with an automatic, and even that was a pretty nice car, if a little pokey. I imagine shifting your own gears makes it better. This one has 167,000 miles on its odometer, and “drives wonderfully” according to the seller.

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BMW did instrument panels really well in the 80s and 90s: nice clear round gauges, straightforward controls, and a very driver-focused design. Riding shotgun in a BMW makes it very clear who’s in charge. Even the radio is angled towards the driver, but as we all know, the driver picks the music. The passenger, well, you know.

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This car looks pretty good in photos, but it also looks like it was just washed, so we’ll take the photos with a grain of salt. It could very well not be that shiny in real life. The headlight lenses are badly clouded, but that seems to be a common occurrence with E36s these days. It’s twenty-nine years old, after all. Luckily, replacements aren’t very expensive at all, so there’s no point in trying to polish them.

BMW’s cars have gotten a reputation for being complicated and fussy to deal with, but these two are from a different era when the cars were much simpler and probably better built. Even better, they’re more mechanical, with less bullshit between you and the road than modern cars. Cheap, fun to drive, generally pretty reliable – what’s not to like? Which one is the Ultimate Driving Machine for you?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Ricardo
Ricardo
3 months ago

I used to work on these at a BMW dealership in the 90s.
Even though that is the pick of the e36s with the best engine of the 1.8 litre engines (m43? correct me if I am wrong) and was the updated body etc I would take the E34 535i manual.
The E34 is a comfortable full sized car and if its needs some repairs it is all easy to do in your driveway with cheap aftermarket parts sourced off the internet. Shocks, brakes, filters and plugs. E34s are very bloody tough units and if you wanted to have a play the 3.5 will respond well to basic mods to make it breath better as well.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
3 months ago

535i…I like the older body style

Ford Friday
Ford Friday
3 months ago

As somebody who owns an E36, I think the look was ruined by the stock wheels (except the M3). If you throw a set of E46 wheels on an E36 it looks waaayyyy better.

I still picked the 535i though because I would rather have the I6.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
3 months ago

I have no love for E36 3-Series to this day. The early E36 had the dark grey-coloured bare-surfaced bumpers that looked so awful with certain paint colour, giving it the unfortunate appearance of cheapness. It was an “environmental measure” as the painted plastic parts would be too difficult to be recycled.

For 1992 model year, BMW gave in and started to partially paint the bumpers, matching the body colour. For some models, the bumpers were fully painted.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
3 months ago

I’d choose the 535i, throw some replacement seats in, get the paint polished and call it a day

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
3 months ago

I’ll take the correct engine in the 5 series over the wrong engine in the 3 series.

The 1.8 four cylinder is fine, but it’s just not the one you should be looking for.

Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
3 months ago

E34 ftw. It’s the best 5-series by far.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago

Passed no vote.

Black Peter
Black Peter
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

It’s OK I chose for you

Jared Lokay
Jared Lokay
3 months ago

I went red myself. Interior work is not all that hard to do. If you can find a good interior guy, they typically don’t charge a whole lot to replace leather panels ($40-80/panel). You can pick up a leather dye kit (it’s actually acrylic paint color matched with a leather/vinyl sealer) to refurbish once done so all the leather panels match…if you are picky like me. I redid the seats in my 03 4Runner (the 200k award) with incredible results.
So, with only 100k on that I6, I think it would clean up easily and make the perfect commuter.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
3 months ago

Love that E34, it’s my favorite gen 5 series too, and the M30 is arguably one of the few BMw engines that can actually be described as reliable, if old. If it’s as rust free as it appears I’d rock it.

Ricardo Mercio
Ricardo Mercio
3 months ago

I’ll have to take the 5-series, if only because there’s more room in my life for a classic torquey sedan than there is for another handling-biased 90’s 2-door. I’d be quite happy with either, though.

Jon S
Jon S
3 months ago
Reply to  Ricardo Mercio

Unless 2 of the doors on the 318 have rusted shut, they’re both 4 door sedans.

Ricardo Mercio
Ricardo Mercio
3 months ago
Reply to  Jon S

Damn, I have no idea why I called it a 2-door, I didn’t even stop to look at the exterior image, just completely turned off my brain and dropped a comment without thinking lol. Maybe I assumed 318ti.

Last edited 3 months ago by Ricardo Mercio
Jon S
Jon S
3 months ago
Reply to  Ricardo Mercio

I assume you’d still stick with the 5-series? I might have been tempted more towards the 318 if it were a 2 door but 80s BMWs have a bit more personality.

Ricardo Mercio
Ricardo Mercio
3 months ago
Reply to  Jon S

Yeah, I’m in it for the personality. If I was in need of a daily or track car I’d consider the E36 but the fiver is too attractive to pass up, and that M30 engine is a classic on its own.

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