Review and road test of the BMW 3 Series Compact (1994 - 2001)
GOING TO WORK WITH A SAWN-OFF
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The BMW 3-Series Compact is a car that has had a mixed reception in the UK. Many saw the car as a cut-price, outdated BMW for those suckered by the blue propeller badge on the bonnet. Others saw it as an entertaining alternative to the standard hot-hatchback fare. Whichever camp you find yourself in there's no denying that, even with the entry-level models, you're buying into all of the quality and depth of engineering for which the Munich firm have become renowned. As a used buy, the Compact opens BMW ownership up to those who were previously looking at far more mundane transport. A good thing or not? You decide.
(3 dr hatchback 1.6, 1.8, 1.9 petrol, 1.7 diesel [base, SE, Sport] )
Sniffy press reaction haunted the 3 Series Compact from the moment of its launch in late 1994. In a bid to cut complexity, BMW had ditched the clever multi-link rear suspension of the (then) current 3-Series saloon range in favour of the less advanced semi-trailing arm arrangement as used on the E30 series cars from the eighties and nineties. Whilst many thought this was cynical cost-cutting and evidence of an inferior product, the truth is that the original E30 BMW M3, renowned as the best M3 variant to date, used this setup and was none the worse for it. It even carried on in the M-Roadster and M-Coupe models, both cars which could hardly be accused of having prehistoric handling qualities.
The range consisted of a 1.6-litre 102bhp 316i and a 1.8-litre 140bhp 318ti. In September 1995 a diesel model was added to the range, the 1.7-litre 90bhp 318tds. April 1996 saw the 318ti fitted with a 1.9-litre 140bhp engine, and in September 1996 the range enjoyed a mild facelift, which included a revised grille, bumpers, mirrors and lights. Some minor changes were also made to the interior, including a lockable glovebox, lights in the footwells and an extended choice of upholstery types.
A 318ti Compact Sport was launched in February 1998, and in early 1999, the 316 Compacts received a detuned version of the 318ti's 1.9-litre engine, producing 105bhp. Summer 1999 heralded the launch of the 316 Compact Sport, and SE trim level for the 316, 318ti and 318tds.
What You Get
There are of course differences under the skin between the 3 Series Compact and its saloon basis. Don't lose any sleep over them though, unless you really don't want to be limited to the Compact's three-door only bodystyle. This car remains every inch a true BMW and you'll feel it every time you slam the door and slide behind the wheel.
Apart from the door count, the most obvious difference is the Compact's unique fascia. In essence, it's the same as the old-shape saloon's, but this is a different moulding, one that contrives to look cheaper without being cheap, a sentiment which could be said to sum up this car's entire philosophy. The simpler suspension arrangement of the Compact has liberated a significant amount more space in the loading bay than would otherwise have been the case and the result - a generously proportioned, well-shaped boot - speaks for itself. Of course, the fact that the older layout is 10% cheaper to produce is merely a beneficial aside!
BMWs are better specified than they used to be. Even the entry-level 316i Compact gets anti-lock brakes, a driver's airbag, seat belt pre-tensioners, side impact protection, a vehicle immobiliser, central locking with deadlocks and a three year warranty. The crucial thing is that especially as a used purchase, it's no longer a variant that dealers need apologise for.
What to Look For
The ultimate driving machine has an enviable reputation for reliability, but it's not infallible. Early cars have a problem with cold starting and leaking radiators are a frequent issue. The interiors of cars built before the facelift of September 1996 are not as tightly screwed together, so check the quality of trim and fittings on early models. Window seals are also worth looking at, as they have been known to perish and leak. The engines and running gear are otherwise largely trouble-free. It may be worth checking the condition of tyres and listening for groaning rear axles. Being the 'economy' model of the range it's often the case that servicing has been skipped, so make sure the car you're looking at has been properly cared for. Avoid any 'Max Power' specials with wide wheels and spoiler kits, as this will limit the resale to a very specialist audience.
(approx based on a 1998 318ti) BMW spares prices have gained an enviable reputation for good value, and replacement parts for the Compact are no exception. A clutch assembly is around £130, whilst front brake pads weigh in at around £40. A radiator retails at approximately £130, whilst an alternator will cost around £185. For a starter motor you'll be looking at £125 and a replacement headlamp will require £170.
On the Road
Three small words silence the vociferous claims of the hot hatch fraternity. Rear wheel drive. With power going to the back wheels leaving the front pair free to concentrate on steering the car, there's an unsullied purity to the handling of the Compact that many rivals lack. You won't encounter rabid wheelspin or loutish torque-steer when you accelerate the BMW. At higher speeds, the rear suspension betrays its age slightly, lacking the ability to iron flat bumps and dips in the manner of later BMW multi-link arrangements. Still, the car feels entertainingly perky and makes for a fun drive.
The 316i Compact's latest 1.9-litre engine shaves one second off the earlier car's 0-60mph time, but more importantly for everyday use, pulling power is increased substantially: you'll notice the need for fewer gear changes around town as a result. Pressing on, you can expect this entry-level car's 105bhp engine to be more useful than its predecessor. Mid-range is where it shines, producing a 50-75mph time of 11.4 seconds - about the level of a warmish hot hatchback. In addition, the newer engine is more economical on fuel than the previous version, sipping an average of 37.2mpg compared with 36.7mpg.
The 318ti is quicker still, the later 1.9-litre models hitting sixty in 10 seconds flat, whilst the diesels need 14 seconds on their way to a top speed of 109mph. Outright speed is not what the Compact is all about. The ability to direct the car just where you want it to go, that frighteningly logical interior and the feel-good factor of the BMW propeller are the key ingredients to the Compact ownership proposition.
Many will consider a used BMW 3 Series Compact a surprisingly expensive 'budget' car. This is due to the fact that demand is still high for these models and the residual value has held very firm. Whilst this means that it's unlikely you'll pick up a bargain, it also means that unless fashions change dramatically, you'll be able to sell on a Compact for a good proportion of what you bought it for. Early 318ti models are a particular favourite, combining a fair turn of speed with an affordable purchase price. Later cars are slightly harder to shift due to the relatively small price differential between them and equivalent 3 Series saloons. There are no shortage of Compacts around, so take your time and you'll end up with a hatch to be proud of. The Ultimate Driving Machine? Maybe not, but you can console yourself with the fact that it's closer to that target than many hatchback rivals.
BMW 3 Series Compact (1994 - 2001) review by ANDY ENRIGHT