325e: Almost the Ultimate Driving Machine

With the all the coverage of the 1 series and BMWs use of the iconic 2002tii in marketing it is apparent that regaining the sporting mentality of the brand is once again important.

What may be less apparent to most is where in the storied history of the brand did it begin to lose that mentality in the US. After a lot of head scratching and reading we think we may have discovered that point and the specific car engine combination: the 1984 E30 325e. This is not to say this decision was very cut and dry but there are some real cues to a change in the brands marketing and reasons for decisions in design.

Though European markets had been driving the smooth inline six of the 323i for over six years, this model introduced the US market to an inline six-cylinder engine for the 3 series. It was known as the “eta” engine, and designated a badge with an “e” because it was designed for efficiency. The engine produced 121 hp at 4250 rpms and 170 ft/lbs. of torque at 3250 rpms. This low revving engine had an electronic fuel cutoff at the 5000rpm redline mark. Video

It achieved EPA mpg ratings of 22 city and 36 highway. It was available with a 5 speed manual or a smooth shifting (for the time) 4 speed overdrive ZF automatic transmission. The car was not a fast car, making it to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds at 81.5 mph for Road & Track (the 318i: 11.6 and 18.3 seconds with a 74.0-mph speed in the quarter). With the low red-line shift points had to be monitored carefully because the engine peaked just before the fuel cut out!

The basis for the engine in this car was to create a more efficient and low reviving engine that would be enjoyed by the upscale buyer that requires a car with less sporting intentions. The options and engine increased the weight of the car by over 300 lbs. when compared to the sporty 318i making the ride and balance a good deal different.

Upgrades in braking were applied in the form of vented rotors upfront and solid discs in the rear as compared with solid in the front and drums in the rear for its four-cylinder sibling. The “e” also had independent suspension with anti-roll bars in the front and rear to help manage the 54/46-weight distribution. Handling was described at the time as competent but not confident. It was more tuned for the interstate than to the twisties.

There were added sound deadening materials, power windows, locks, sunroof and the first rendition of the onboard computer. Newly designed seats with padding and side bolsters hampered wider individuals from fitting comfortably but were a huge step up from the standard seats on other models. A leather wrapped 3-spoke wheel was also an added feature to the 325e. The cost for a base 325e turned in at $20,970 where the price for a 318i was $16,430 so it was a substantial price jump at the time even with the added creature comforts.

Oh and how could we forget; that the next model year, for the first time four-doors were available on the 3 series! With this option BMW hoped to not only attract the upscale buyer but those with or thinking about having some children.

Car reviews at the time even began to question how the car fit into BMWs well-known image as a driver’s machine, specifically the 3 series. BMW was no longer just concerned about a sporting image but one of luxury and meeting the needs of a demographic they were targeting as potential customers.

BMW would later introduce E30 models that were much more sporty, including the renowned //M3 but this particular model shows a change in philosophy. It appears to be where the shift from true sport to luxury and demographics took place. BMW can always offer a drivers’ version of a car but they have failed in recent memory to truly design a drivers ‘ car from the get go, until the 1 and that may also be in part why we will not see an //M. The car is already the drivers’ version.

The Wall Street Journal also recently wrote an article on the “eta ” engine as viewed in the 5 series of the period which you can find here. We hope you enjoyed this read and look forward to your comments!

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  • Jon

    I believe that the M Division has done a decent job of keeping the drivers car alive at BMW. I do believe though that the 325e was a huge shift in the company’s build ethic. Luxury was starting to be stressed, for better or worse the ever increasing size and weight has caused BMW to move further away. I am very happy to see the 1 Series as I think it addresses a market that BMW has not addressed for a long while. I do still think its a tad overweight but its a featherweight compared to a huge portion of the other cars in the brand.

    I am crossing my fingers for a M developed >2k Z2 heh.

  • and the E23 7 series before that. history doesn’t really see that one as a performance machine. although i think they are great looking vintage bimmers. but i agree the 4 door E30 really sealed it.

    the ’88 E28 Super Eta is highly regarded amongst my 5er buddies as a great daily driver due to its decent mpg and the uprated motronic FI.

  • Derek

    Can it really be known?

    Was the eta a late change to the fabulous-for-it’s-time e30 chassis, or was the eta intended as a placeholder for things far greater?

    Derek San Antonio

  • Jimmy John

    I had one of these. They were such great cars. Much better than the current BMWs. The new beemers are average looking (at best.) Thats I don’t own a current beemer (they’re ugly.) Build this again Bangles (and/or Hooydonk.)

  • Jimmy John

    It IS the ultimate driving machine.

  • Brad:and the E23 7 series before that. history doesn’t really see that one as a performance machine. although i think they are great looking vintage bimmers. but i agree the 4 door E30 really sealed it. the ‘88 E28 Super Eta is highly regarded amongst my 5er buddies as a great daily driver due to its decent mpg and the uprated motronic FI.

    The 7 series has and never really been a drivers car and you are right that it opened the floodgates to “luxury”. As for the ETA, I have been told it is a great daily driver for commuters but that is about where the engine should be, not in a performance driven car. The WSJ article discusses how with fuel the way it is others may start to design engines in that manner once again…. but more than likely BMW will not go that road again.

  • Can it really be known? Was the eta a late change to the fabulous-for-it’s-time e30 chassis, or was the eta intended as a placeholder for things far greater? Derek San Antonio

    The eta was introduced early in the life of the E30 not a late addition, Europe had seen a six for several years in a much sportier version, the reason it was not introduced in the US was for marketing the brand more upscale and luxury. The eta was introduced as was stated in my story…. for the luxury buyer interested in some economy and not interested in the sporting intentions of a high revving engine. It was not a place holder because it did indeed change the brand image and garnered complaints from enthusiasts until the “i” was introduced later on, the same engine ideals Europe had seen some years before.

  • Jimmy John: I had one of these. They were such great cars. Much better than the current BMWs. The new beemers are average looking (at best.) Thats I don’t own a current beemer (they’re ugly.) Build this again Bangles (and/or Hooydonk.) Jimmy John: It IS the ultimate driving machine.

    To each their own, but styling aside there is no way you can call a 325e THE ultimate driving machine…. BMW itself almost did not!

  • Dan S.

    Michael is correct. I’m 65 . My first intro to BMWs was in a friend’s 1971 2002. WOW! I can still remember clearly how that ugly beauty drove. What an engine! What a transmission! And great handling to top it off! I was hooked. So you can imagine my dismay when I watched my favorite brand head downhill with the eta 3 and 5 series vehicles. I am thankful that BMW was not seduced to follow that road very long.

  • Jimmy John

    I still think the 325e is a way better car than ALL of the new Beemers combined. Even the new “sporty” 3 series
    are more luxury than sporty. The interiors are hideous. Don’t get me wrong, I want Beemer to succeed, I just hope they make a turn for the better. I want this…

    http://www.motorsportscenter.com/Gallery/bmw/2002line/images/325Ci%20coupe%202_L.jpg or this back http://www.theautochannel.com/media/photos/bmw/1998/98_bmw_323is.jpg

  • Jimmy John

    ^ @ Michael

  • jlamdin

    I had an ’85 Sedan. Loads of low end torque, followed by zilch.

    Nice car for zipping around town, classic e30 styling, but certainly no 325is!

  • Chris

    I may be younger than most, but I still own a 1986 BMW 325es and I love the car, I am impressed because it was given to me by my uncle, who bought it back in 1987, The car needs restoration but I love driving it, I stopped driving it back in 2008 during the fall because I have a kid and I needed a family sedan so I bought a 2005 Mercury Sable LS Platinum edition, if you thought the Bimmer was heavy this sable beats it in the weight contest, and the engine is a whole lot bigger. I love the 2.7L v6 engine, and it still has the original engine and clutch from when my uncle first bought it. The car’s only noticeable repairs were the alternator, radiator, all four brakes and the clutch slave cylinder. The engine and drivetrain has about 225,000 miles on it and counting. This car is truly an amazing car, and I wouldn’t have it any less. I am hoping that in the future I could swap the engine and transmission out for a 1989 M3 engine and transmission, because I know this car deserves much respect, it isn’t a lot of horsepower but you could always change that. But to me it drives fine and it has great pickup still after all these years. I finally took it out of storage since 2008 and definitely looking for a nice restoration project that can be my daily driver and it still saves a great amount of gas, more than my sable sedan. I love the timeless look of the car with the “diving front bumper/ ground effect”. So I still believe that this car is the ultimate driving machine.