What is it?
It's my friend Jennifer's car…or at least it was back when we were in high school in suburban Atlanta. Copper with a tan interior, Jen's 320i was about seven years old when I got to know it and had been cared for since day one -- her father had bought the car new, handing it down to her once she turned 16.
Jen's dad had optioned the BMW to cope with his expected daily routine which, in Atlanta, required air conditioning. The automatic transmission was a more dubious necessity, but said box had been checked and a T-handle sprouted from the center console.
Unfortunate, but hardly a death sentence, right? Keep in mind this was a 320, not a 325i or even a 2002. Thanks to emissions and safety laws, these two-door sedans weighed more than 2,400 lbs and had only 101 hp from a 1.8-liter I-4, while the slushbox was an ancient 3-speed. Similarly, the A/C used a big, power-hungry Bosch compressor that probably used 5hp just to engage its electromagnetic clutch. Add in Atlanta's hilly topography and climate, and the stage was set for a truly appalling driving experience.
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What is it like to drive?
With the air cranked and the transmission in drive, Jen's E21 320i remains the slowest car I've ever driven, one which also had a marked fondness for overheating when pushed. On a summer afternoon of the kind Atlanta is known for, the car would actively punish you for attempting to accelerate by sending its temperature gauge into the red. I would happily ride with the windows open, but Jen was that certain breed of southern woman who couldn't fathom not using the A/C on any day over 60 degrees, despite the fact the BMW's system barely blew cool.
So off we would go. My subdivision in Atlanta had a large hill just outside the entrance; with the gas floored, the car was simply unable to top 20 mph until we crested the top and leveled out, temp gauge soaring.
While it's possible there was something wrong with the hapless BMW, the car never bucked or hesitated -- there was no misfiring or ominous smoke from the tailpipe. It just couldn't get the job done. You could have a torque converter or an A/C compressor, but you couldn't have both. That impression was furthered by the fact I had my own BMW at the time -- an '82 320is with a 5-speed and no air conditioning. That car was also dog slow -- not unsafe like Jen's, but slow enough to see how the auto-A/C combo might put an end to all forward progress.
Slow as it was, Jen's 320 still possessed that same nimble handling, addictive upright driving position and great visibility the E21 (and the 2002 before it) was known for. It also had personality -- as did its driver; Jen and the BMW were well-matched.
Do I want one?
Surprisingly, yes. Just not one with an automatic and air conditioning. Despite the abuse, Jen's BMW had over 100k on the clock when we were tooling around and had never suffered a major failure. My 320is had 160,000 miles when I bought it; I sold it a few years later to a friend who put another 100,000 miles on the car. Aside from minor electrical gremlins the only thing the car ever needed was tie rods.
With good 2002s getting more expensive and harder to find, is the E21 320i the next entry-level collector BMW? Hard to say -- the cars don't have the same tossability as the '02. But they are engaging drivers -- just don't plan on getting anywhere too fast.
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