Is it a classic? BMW 3 Series Compact E36/5

Is it a classic? BMW 3 Series Compact E36/5

Had BMW set out to create a superior mainstream hatchback from scratch, it would surely not have made such a poor fist of it as the Compact. A serious attempt at efficient packaging would have dictated a transverse engine and front-wheel drive. Back to basics, no less. Or forward to Rover. No, the Compact is the product of commercial opportunism, not mould-breaking design. In making a pig’s ear from a silk purse, BMW is guilty of regression, not advance.’

The late, great Roger Bell pulled no punches in his 1994 review of the BMW 3 Series Compact E36/5. He continued: ‘It’s as clear as a stoplight. The Compact is a con-car bait for social climbers. It’s a transparent means of cashing in on BMW’s good name, of luring into the fold a new breed of impecunious yuppie. Once ensnared, marque loyalty will do the rest. In short, the Compact is a snob’s car, a cut-price come-on for the gullible punter impressed more by image than efficacy.’

BMW couldn’t please everyone. It needed a smaller, more affordable car with mass-market appeal, but whatever it came up with would be a compromise. Launch a front-wheel-drive hatchback and risk being accused of destroying its rear-drive heritage (see the response to the current BMW 1 Series). Send power to the rear wheels and put up with the inevitable packaging issues. Compact? The BMW 3 Series Compromise might have been a more suitable name.

There were plenty of ‘gullible’ punters prepared to wait up to four months for delivery of their Compromise. Around 400,000 social climbers before production ended in 2000, if we’re counting. In a stroke of genius, or possibly a bit of luck, an entry-level Compact cost roughly the same as a flagship Ford Escort.

‘A new 3 Series for a song,’ was the headline on the front of CAR, October 1994, and it wasn’t long before Mr & Mrs Blue- Collar were doing a merry dance to their nearest BMW dealer. There, they’d rub shoulders with Mr & Mrs Well-Heeled, who were all too happy to raid their ‘silk purse’ for BMW’s ‘pig’s ear’.

This wasn’t BMW’s first small car: the company started building Isetta bubble cars in 1955. It wasn’t even the first hatchback: the 02-based Touring arrived in 1971. Sixteen years later, BMW launched the 3 Series Touring, after one of its employees, Max Reisböck, converted a 323i saloon in his mate’s workshop.

There was something less authentic about the 3 Series Compact. The E30 Touring was, quite literally, knocked together in a shed, but the Compact felt like a product of the marketing department. It didn’t help that it looked like a ‘cut and shut’ 3 Series: reassuringly familiar at the front, but a little awkward at the back. Less cohesive than a Volkswagen Golf; far less elegant than a Peugeot 306.

But never underestimate the power of a badge – or a twin kidney grille. Why have a mainstream hatchback when you can have a BMW? A smaller boot and some leftovers from the E30 parts bin were small prices to pay for the- kudos of having a 3 Series on the driveway, albeit one with a ‘cut and shunt’ rump. With launch prices starting from £13,500 for the 316i and £15,500 for the 318ti, selling a kidney wasn’t required.

How many 3 Series Compact owners noticed, or even cared, that the car utilised the semi-trailing arm rear suspension from the E30? How many even knew it was rear-wheel-drive? In 2010, BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer famously revealed that 80% of 1 Series owners believed their car was front-wheel-drive.

The kind of stuff car enthusiasts obsess about are of no interest to typical motorists. Did the average 3 Series Compact owner worry about the cheaper plastic on the dashboard or the E30 air vents? Of course not, because there was a BMW logo staring back at them from the centre of the steering wheel. Besides, it was around £2000 cheaper than an equivalent 3 Series saloon.

It would be easy to criticise the Compact for not being as pretty as a 306, as practical as a Golf or as nice to drive as a regular 3 Series, but it’s worth remembering that at the time of its launch, the average BMW customer was approaching pensionable age. The cars were too expensive, the owners were too old, and BMW was losing fresh-faced customers to Volkswagen. In playing Golf, BMW delivered a slightly below-par hatchback to appeal to a new breed of young and upwardly mobile badge snobs. Foreplay to a bigger BMW with a more expensive price tag. Commercial opportunism is no handicap to success.

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