Tuning the BMW E36

"All you need to know about the best mods for your E36"

We are currently living in an era where everything about cars is digital, bringing with it more control, better driving experience, and requiring a new approach to tuning and modification.

From the speedometer to the growing number of driving aids such as traction control, stability, and cruise control we see cars getting ever more complex. Some people would argue that we are losing what we once called “pure drivers cars”.

And one of those last “drivers” cars was no other than the BMW 3 Series produced from 1990 to 2000. This third generation of the 3 Series is commonly known as the BMW E36 and is still regarded by many as the best 3 series produced to date.

With its wide array of powerful 6 cylinder engines, the E36 was without a doubt, a true driver's car. If you want to learn more about the E36, stay with us.

Please watch my video guide to BMW Tuning. Be sure to keep up with our latest YouTube content and subscribe.

BMW E36 History and Models

The BMW 3 Series with the internal code E36 was produced from 1990 to the beginning of the 2000s.

When it was first introduced, it shocked many BMW purists with a design that was perceived as too modern. Today the E36 hardly looks like a vintage car but has become a timeless classic.

The E36 never received a major facelift, but it received a wide range of 4 and 6 cylinder petrol engines and even two diesel options. At the same time, the BMW E36 came in more variants than ever before.

The engine options for the E36

Please see the links below for more detailed engine tuning guides for each of these.


BMW produced the four-door sedan, a real coupe, the convertible, the estate called “touring” and even the “short” version called the 3 series “Compact”.

Apart from the compact and the touring estate, all variants were also available in the M3 format.

The M3 versions first delivered 286 horsepower and could launch themselves towards the 100 km/h mark in 6 seconds. In 1995, the M3 received a refreshed version of its former 6 cylinder engine and it featured 321 horsepower which was more than a Porsche 911 Carrera at the time. For those with deeper pockets and a thirst for speed and ultimate handling capabilities, BMW also released 65 specimens of the E36 GT.

BMW E36 Engines

As we mentioned before, the most sought after engines in the E36 3 Series are the straight-six 6 cylinder petrol engines.

They range from the 320i M50/M52 engine with 150 horsepower, the 323i M52 engine with 170 horsepower and the more desirable 325i M50 engine with 192 horsepower and the 328i M52 engine with 193 horsepower.

The M3 received the S50 engine which was a performance version of the reliable M50 engine and it featured 286 horsepower before 1995 and 321 horsepower after 1995.

For daily driving the 4 cylinder inline engines were powerful enough, especially the M42/M44 318is version with 140 horsepower.

The 318i was also a decent choice for calm drivers. On the other hand, the 316i with the M43 engine and 102 horsepower was definitely underpowered.

The least popular engine options for the E36 were the diesel variants.

The diesel engines in the E36 were labeled the 318tds with 90 horsepower, 325tds with 115 horsepower, and the later version of the 325tds with 143 horsepower.

E36 Handling/Suspension upgrades

Many E36 owners uprate the handling of their cars with suspension parts as a priority, this will certainly increase your enjoyment of the car.

Rubber bushings can become very worn, and this will cause the handling to be rather soggy and erratic, so as a minimum replacing these bushings, or upgrading to poly bushes will tighten things up (I wouldn't recommend hard bushings though, they need to flex a little or you'll compromise the handling.)

Putting a bit of negative camber at the front wheels and around 1 to 1.7 degrees of toe (in for better stability or out to improve cornering), will greatly improve your E36 in handling and cornering.

We suggest that you fit modified suspension and lower the car by 26mm - 37 mm. Larger drops require arch work - especially on models already equipped with uprated suspension.

Adding better brake discs and better high performance brake pads should make for sharper improved braking.

Note that motorsport friction pads can be noisier and will need to be really hot before they are effective.

In every day driving the brakes are occasionally used so won't be as effective at slowing you up so source pads which work well in daily use.

Best BMW E36 Mods, Upgrades and Tuning parts

When it comes to upgrading and tuning, the six-cylinder engines we mentioned above are a good starting point.

E36 Tuning modifications.

Please watch our video which covers the 5 principles of tuning your E36. Be sure to keep up with our latest YouTube content and subscribe.

For naturally aspirated engines please watch this video instead for tuning your E36. Be sure to keep up with our latest YouTube content and subscribe.

Best mods for your E36

  1. Fast road Camshafts are significant power adders, but they must be installed by someone who knows what they are doing and tracking one down may be hard but there might be a local firm to regrind a stock camshaft .
  2. Intake and Exhaust - Please note that on their own these mods will NOT ADD POWER on most cars, but they can help enhance power after other mods by freeing up a restriction.
  3. Brake Mods - Stopping your E36 ought to be somewhere in your mods list.
  4. Internal engine mods - crank, pistons, conrods & compression ratio including balancing and blueprinting
  5. E36 Handling Mods (suspension) - Replacing worn bushings and shocks greatly enhances your E36 road holding and cornering. Coilovers and Bushings are the usual go to mods
  6. Turbo upgrades - Adding a turbocharger is the most significant way to increase your intakes air supply, this means you are able to burn more fuel and make better power figures. Typically one of the most expensive upgrades it offers big gains.
  7. Engine Tunes - A Remapped E36 ECU provides the biggest gains in terms of cost, replacement ECUs, and inline Tuning boxes are all alternatives.
  8. Lighter flywheels - a lighter flywheel will improve the engines free revving nature. But not always suitable for all E36 engines.

E36 Tuning Stages

Typical stage 1 mods often include: Panel air filter, Alloy wheels, Sports exhaust, Engine Tunes/Remapping, Lighter flywheel, Suspension upgrade (drop 23mm - 43 mm.).

Typical stage 2 mods often include: high flow fuel injector, Ported and polished head, Power/Sport clutch, Fast road cam, fuel pump upgrades.

Typical stage 3 mods often include: Engine balancing, Sports gearbox, Competition cam, Adding or upgrading forced induction (turbo/supercharger), Internal engine upgrades (pistons/head/valves).

Here is a list of our recommended upgrades to increase performance and the driving experience (based on different budgets):

E36 Engine tuning mods.

The following performance modifications are usually carried out by our members, decide how far you want to go before you start.

Low budget (stage 1 bolt on parts)

  • ECU Remap
  • Brakes and Coilovers
  • Cold Air intake
  • M50B25 Intake Manifold (if you don’t have an M50 engine)
  • Exhaust modifications (Supersprint is a popular choice)

Medium budget (Stage 2 needing supporting parts)

  • All of the things listed in the low budget section
  • S50/S52 Camshafts (If you don’t have the M3 engine already)
  • Lightweight pulleys
  • Tube Headers
  • M54B30 Rotating Assembly
  • M50NV Double Valve Springs + 6mm Retainers

High budget (Stage 2 keeping it road legal)

  • All things listed above
  • Turbo kit or a supercharger kit
  • Complete engine rebuild with forged internals to handle the new power (K20 Turbo pistons are a popular choice)
  • Head porting

Stage 3 Off road mods (not street legal in most regions)

  • Vanos delete
  • Cat removal
  • Aggressive cam profile

Getting the correct grade of performance mods for your planned usage of the car is vital. Stage 3 motorsport parts just don't work well on the road hard to control in slow traffic.

Peak power is good on competition cars but for a daily driven car you need a wide torque band and perhaps extending the rev range.

Fast road cams offer one of the biggest torque gains for your money as far as a solitary sports modifications go on a NA (naturally aspirated) engine.

It improves the intake and exhaust durations and pushes up the power if done right. Ideally you'd add other mods and finish up with a reflashed ECU. We'd also caution you not to go with a competition cam as this affects the engines idling and general town driving characteristics.

If you can't source a performance cam, then you can usually find a specialist locally that can regrind your stock cams, and give you a more dramatic power delivery.

E36 Intake and Exhaust Tuning.

Breathing mods are usually next up.

Contrary to popular belief there is usually a small if any power gain reached by fitting an induction kit, they only help and are recommended after you boost the engines power to the point where the standard air intake box cannot cope!

Derestricting the air feed into the engine is the primary part of tuning so get a freer flowing air filter if you find that the car is running lean only if you find the car is running lean.

Induction kits can sound sporty but due to the warm air in the engine bay they will not really increase power and often rob you of power on most cars.

E36 Alloy wheel upgrades.

Alloy wheels can help the brake cooling and are generally lighter than steel ones.

Don't forget that your choice of rubber greatly affects your cars grip and handling.

It is not worth compromising performance with cheap tyres when you can buy soft compound performance tires.The downside to large rims on your E36 is that you're changing your final drive ratio so this will have a detrimental effect on performance and acceleration.

Due to this try to keep the overall rolling diameter of the wheel the standard factory sizes. In all cases not going larger than 18 inches. The 19's may look nicer, but for everyday driving and on wet roads, most drivers will feel happier with 17's fitted.

For more information on Tuning your car please join us in our friendly forum where you can discuss E36 options in more detail with our E36 owners. It would also be worth reading our unbiased BMW tuning articles to get a full grasp of the benefits and drawbacks of each modification.

Please help us improve these tips by sending us your feedback in the comments box below.

We love to hear what our visitors have got up to and which mods work best for them on each model of car. We use your comments and feedback to improve the accuracy of these tuning guides which get regular updates and revisions.

BMW E36 Common Problems, issues and Buyers Guide

If you are in the market for an E36 today, we recommend that you do not buy the cheapest option on the market. Buying a well kept and regularly serviced car will prevent future headaches.

Here is what we recommend you look out for when buying any type of BMW E36:

Rust and chassis

Take a good look around the trunk, rear quarter panels, jacking points, front sway bar mounting and rocker panels. We also recommend you check for any water in the passenger footwell. Check the following chassis weak points: the rear shock towers and the rear trailing arm bushing pocket.

Vanos rattle and steering rack leaks

If you don’t know how the BMW Vanos should sound at idle, we recommend you visit an experienced BMW mechanic. Have the mechanic also check for steering rack leaks, coolant leaks and other oil leaks on the engine and gearbox.

Regular service history

Even though an E36 can still be affordable to buy, especially the older model-year M3’s, the maintenance costs still remain high. So be on the lookout for cars with documented service history to avoid future costs. Make sure that certain rubber bushings have been already replaced and don’t forget about the motor mounts, rear strut mounts, differential mounts and the cooling system which is a known weak point of the E36.

The E36 M3 oil pump

This is a common problem and is well known within the E36 M communities. The E36 M3 has a chain-driven oil pump that features a sprocket which only comes secured with one 19mm nut. If that nut flies off, you are in a whole lot of trouble. Engine failure kind of trouble. Make sure that the nut is secured with a thread locker or any other proven method.

Buying a BMW E36 Today

Buying a BMW E36 today is becoming increasingly harder.

Especially when considering the M3 models. When it comes to regular E36 models, the most sought after are coupes and touring variants with the 6 cylinder petrol engines. Compacts and sedans are not as desirable which means they are easier and cheaper to find in today’s market.

One thing is certain, getting a well kept, rust-free E36  is hard. The E36 is seeing the same price pattern as its older brother the BMW E30.

The prices of E36’s have hit rock bottom in the last ten years and have been steadily rising since then. So if you plan on buying an E36, this is the time!

Whether you are buying an E36 as a future collector’s item or a project car for track days or drifting, the E36 is a great platform.

The prices are expected to rise, especially for cars in 100% original state and as for racing or drifting, the E36 is a perfect platform to modify and upgrade for massive power outputs and fantastic handling.

It is no surprise they are a common sight in drifting competitions and other track day events. They are what they were built to be, a true driver's car and there is not plenty left of those. Get one while you can!

If you would like to know more, or just get some friendly advice on Tuning your E36 please join us in our car forums where you can discuss M20 tuning options in more detail with our E36 owners. It would also be worth reading our unbiased BMW tuning articles to get insights into each modification and how effective they will be for your car.

Please help us improve these tips by sending us your feedback in the comments box below.

We love to hear what our visitors have got up to and which tuning parts work best for you on your car. Which helps us keep our guides and tips up to date helping others with their modified car projects. Your feedback and comments are used to keep this page up to date, and help improve the accuracy of these M20 tuning guides which get regular updates and revisions.

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