Tech Tips: E36-Chassis BMW M3

In 1996-and-newer models, the airbag light comes on often in the dash. This is typically due to the active seat belt receptacles located on each front seat. A scan tool will tell you which one to replace and reset your SRS light. Check engine lights are not overly common but are most likely caused by expired oxygen sensors. These sensors are supposed to be replaced every 60,000 miles. Though they typically last much longer before throwing a CEL, that doesn’t mean they are performing optimally. Replace the O2 sensors and put in new spark plugs, and you will typically get right back to factory-new fuel economy.

Software makes a power difference on these cars as well. For 1995-and-older cars, install a Conforti chip in the ECU; 1996-and-newer cars will use an Epic Motorsport ECI or Shark Injector module to reflash the stock ECU.

While we have zero issues with running these engines hard for 100,000, 200,000 or more miles, a full synthetic like Red Line Oil with an abundant ZDDP package will keep the wear down and the engine healthy. The shifter on these cars wears, getting obviously sloppy: You can either rebuild with stock parts for about $50 or use the opportunity to talk yourself into a short-shift kit. If you are tracking, autocrossing, or even street-driving the car hard, a set of performance engine and transmission mounts will keep your transmission selection in place and reduce the chance of an expensive mis-shift.

James Clay BimmerWorld 4085 Pepperell Way Dublin, VA 24084 (877) 639-9648

The E36-chassis M3 possesses a great balance of outstanding torque, surprising maneuverability and superior high-speed handling. With nice examples available for less than $10K in many parts of the country, the E36-chassis M3 is one of the best bargains on the performance used car market.

When buying a used BMW—especially one that already has one or more aftermarket modifications—it’s a good idea to have a prebuy inspection performed by a trained BMW technician. Hint: Prebuy inspections typically cost a lot less than post-buy inspections. Like with any used car, look for obvious signs of abuse, ECU codes for misfire, lean run, oxygen sensor malfunction or mismatched or missing VIN codes on body panels. This indicates collision damage.

Another “must watch for” issue with E36-chassis M3s is the cooling system. When you buy an E36, just budget for and plan on installing a new radiator, expansion tank, hoses, water pump, thermostat, and thermostat housing the moment you get it home. If the seller says they’ve been replaced recently, insist on seeing receipts and check the date. Were they done more than 6 months ago? Stick with your plan, and then you can forget about those items for another 40,000 miles.

If you do come across an E36-chassis M3 in good condition, you’ve found one of the most fun-to-drive street cars on the planet—and the foundation for a proven winner on track or on an autocross course.

1995 M3s came with relatively narrow 7.5x17-inch wheels all around, while the 1996-and-newer models had 7.5-inch up front and 8.5-inch-wide wheels in the rear. Another simple street/track modification is to upgrade to a “square” wheel/tire setup using 8.5x18-inch wheels with 245 tires all around. With a little fender lip rolling in the rear and careful choice of wheel offsets, you can fit a 9-inch wheel and 255 tire all around—sometimes larger depending on the brand—and greatly elevate your cornering fun factor.

Increasing power isn’t difficult either, but here the advice of a good tuner isn’t just helpful, it can be critical. Properly coordinating various modifications and making sure you optimize the software is really important. Cheap off-the-shelf chips or flash programs may work, but they won’t work nearly as well as software customized from Turner/Conforti or The Racers Market for your specific combination of modifications. It may cost a little bit more but is well worth the investment.

Despite what you may read on popular forums, don’t expect huge power gains from a cat-back exhaust. A BMW OE exhaust is extremely efficient. It’s just heavy. Many aftermarket cat-back exhausts will drone you into submission on the highway, so stick with offerings from reputable tuners like Turner, Bimmerworld, Rogue, and UUC.

Differences between the years? The 1995 M3 has a 3.0-liter motor with OBD-I engine management (replaceable chip), 7.5x17-inch wheels all around, is a little lighter, and is available only as a coupe. The 1996-’99 models have a 3.2-liter with OBD-II engine management (flash programming), 8.5x17-inch rear wheels, slightly more low-end torque, and are available as coupes or 4-door sedans (1997-’98 only) for those family excursions to the race track.

Bob Tunnell Bimmer Haus Performance 7233 W. 116th Place, Suite A Broomfield, CO 80020 (866) 327-4287

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