I've been thinking about this a lot lately. What would I rather have than a well-optioned 335i coupe? It's a simple question, really. But when you're an enthusiast trying to scratch an itch that says "why am I not satisfied?" it can be difficult.
I thought the issue was that I wanted something "cooler" or at least more unique than a modern BMW 3-series. Then I thought I wanted something more practical that could cart around a few friends or dogs. Finally, I realized what I really wanted was something more pure.
Sitting in my garage is a (to my eyes) beautiful Montego Blue, six-speed, 335i coupe. It's not particularly special in comparison to other BMWs of the same make; it hasn't been tuned, lowered, or modified in any way. Nonetheless, this car is an absolute blast! Stab at the accelerator and it pulls with unending ferocity. The clutch is stiff and the shifting is precise though the travel is a little on the long side.
And the engine. Oh lord, the engine is perfect. I love the N54 and its tiny pair of snails. The horsepower and torque are strong and available early. Both throwing you back into your seat as you hang on and pray your way to redline.
The problem? It's big, heavy, and unpredictable. Back up. With the very intelligent traction control, dubbed Dynamic Stability Control, enabled it's actually quite predictable. So predictable in fact that it’s downright boring. But whatever you do, don’t disable it because the car has a weightiness and lack of balance that strikes fear in your heart as soon as the rear tires break loose. If you find yourself in need of painting some 11s down the street, you’ll need to disable the system entirely which takes about 3 seconds of button holding. Just don’t forget to re-enable it after you’ve melted your tires into the pavement
The other problem? It’s got a million more computers keeping track of everything from oil temperature and tire pressure to your state inspection due date and upcoming traffic jams.
Overall, there is a feeling of numbness that pervades the entire experience. The throttle is controlled by a little computer attached to the gas pedal using a system commonly called “drive-by-wire.” That massive wheel in front of the driver isn’t even directly connected to the wheels on the ground; it uses, you guessed it, another fancy computer that BMW calls “Active Steering” which alters the ratio depending on the speed of travel. Put bluntly, driving a 335 feels like you’re sitting inside playing a game on your Xbox. The nifty iDrive controller does little to assuage that impression.
Kevin wrote about BMW becoming bloated and unfocused. When I read it, I found myself seething because I loved my 335. It was a perfect blend of technology and automotive engineering. What I realized though was that the blend wasn’t perfect, it was more of a mishmash of features and managerial directives that robbed the 335 of anything approaching a soul.
I’ve heard and read a lot about the BMW of the 90s and earlier. I didn’t understand what made them so great until this past weekend.
Enter the E36.
I saw the ’97 M3 online on Friday and even though it was located four hours away, it was in my garage by Sunday evening. I’ve put nearly 500 miles on the odometer since I first laid eyes on its sleek Hellrot Red panels and every one of them has underscored what makes this BMW so much better than my first BMW.
The physical throttle line, the rack and pinion steering, and the tack sharp handling come together in a great symphony of confidence. There is an intense amount of communication going on that leaves you feeling directly connected to the asphalt below. In the 335 you thank your maker for the presence of stability control but in the E36 you're thankful for the lack of it. It simply goes where you want it to.
The engine is naturally-aspirated and rated for 240 horses of which time has surely robbed a few. But if you take it ‘round the track a few times, the experience will be infinitely more rewarding than its modern, younger sibling. With traction control enabled, I’m sure the 335 would come in first but I think the victor would be determined by the width of the smile firmly placing the trophy in the E36's garage. (I’m fairly positive if you tried to take a 335 on a track without traction control enabled, you would die, which of course means you are awarded no smile points).
Do I miss some of the technology? Sure, keyless entry is great as is the ability to play music from my iPod. But those things don’t rob the vehicle of a soul, they just distract you from it. So while I will probably do some upgrades to get some technology back into the car – I do have to drive this thing 70 miles every day – it has fallen from center stage to mere background noise that accompanies the main performance.
And that's what makes the E36 so great; its focus on the performance.
Aron Trimble is a technology and auto enthusiast who also has great taste in BMWs. His website can be found at aroncares.com.