31st July 2010

Car Disgust: BMW 3-series

posted in Car News Articles |

This is probably one of the most challenging posts I have ever attempted to compose. How does one go about dissing perhaps the most revered sport sedan of the last 30 years, arguably one of the finest automobiles in the world at present? And I have labeled it an Objet d’isgust?

Well, it’s complicated. Often when one attempts to dissect one’s own feelings about a particular object, especially negative feelings, it’s more a matter of self-discovery than anything else. And part of that self-discovery is determining the origin of those negative feelings, which often arise from sources that have nothing whatever to do with the object of hate. In addition, I’ve often found that my perceptions of certain people, places, or things say more about how they’ve been presented to me rather than as a product of my own thought process. And once all the navel-gazing is said and done, I sometimes end up realizing my hate has more to do with my own preconceptions than with any inherent qualities of said object.

And so we come to the BMW, particularly the 3 series. My feelings towards BMWs have always been kind of schizophrenic. On the one hand, I’ve always tended to see them as the quintessential self-satisfied Yuppie-mobile; on the other, as a largely objectively high quality automobile. How to reconcile the two? Well, if you can stand a little amateur psychologizing and ’80s pop culture references with your Car Lust history, join me below the fold as I delve into the swirl of emotions surrounding this car and others like it, all without (hopefully) ticking a lot of people off.

The germ of this post came out of the old SUV Throwdown of a couple of years ago. Feelings are very strong regarding those vehicles and, for all you young’uns, a lot of the same sorts of feelings were here in the ’80s regarding certain cars. Early on, I was a full-bore SUV-hater; later on, I mellowed out on them and generally came down on the live-and-let-live side of that argument, figuring a 400-horsepower sports car made about as much sense on city streets as a fully-equipped off-roader did. By then, I had come to believe that my ire at SUVs was more about my own perceptions of the sort of people that drove them as the vehicles themselves.

Err, but then we have the BMW, which I still have some fixation on. After the awfulness often gaudy but still wonderful era of 1970s car design, the 1980s brought with it a new cleanliness of line that had its start earlier in the States and earlier still elsewhere. BMW had gained some attention in the US with its 2002,
still a favorite among collectors and racing enthusiasts. The 3 series started out as a replacement for the 2002, a more upscale sedan known internally as the E21. It originally came in the three familiar model numbers: the 316, 318, and 320 all with slightly different standard features, although only the 320i was available in the US. The engines, starting out at 1.6 liters and going up to 2.0 liters, were designed for economy, coming as they did on the heels of the oil crises of the early ’70s. By 1983 the 320i’s engine had shrunk to 1.8 liters and only developed 100 horsepower; certainly not laughable but not exactly stellar.

The next generation E30, which started production in 1982 (available in 1984 here), is where the BMW really started to gain wide attention in the US and began its ascent as the “Ultimate Driving Machine”. Where the E21 offered only 2-door models the E30 came in both 2- and 4-door versions with larger, more powerful engines as BMW shifted away from economy and more toward performance. That most quintessential of this generation, the 325i, was introduced in 1985 and put out a respectable 168 horsepower. This was only a few shades less than the muscle cars of the time: the Camaro topped out at 215 horsepower in the IROC-Z and the Mustang GT with around 210.

Stylewise, the E30s were much more aerodynamic and “sportier” than the E21 and had a distinctly muscular look to them, although one more designed to evoke long-distance road-carving rather than straight-line acceleration. With better handling than their muscle car counterparts, the image was quite apt. Meanwhile, in 1988 BMW set forth the first M3 in the US which Car and Driver described as “not a car for yuppies.”

Ah yes, the Yuppies. It was about this time–the mid-1980s–that the Yuppie phenomenon started to take off. The Yuppie, short for YUP or Young Urban Professional, could be described as preppies that graduated from college. The last vestiges of Stagflation having been shrugged off, the US economy started taking off and young professionals with disposable income started looking around for stuff to spend it on. Legend has it that the term originated with Bob Greene in 1983 who compared them to Yippies who had grown up (actually just one, Jerry Rubin, but that’s good enough for us). Probably the archetype was Michael J. Fox’s character Alex P. Keaton of TV’s Family Ties, who welded the connection between the hippie generation of his parents and the new breed.

According to Time magazine “Yuppies are dedicated to the twin goals of making
piles of money and 
achieving perfection through physical fitness and
therapy.” You know the type: guys in silk suits, Wayfarers, Motorola “brick” in hand loudly telling their broker which stock to buy or arranging which wine bar to meet “Tiffany” at later (or, let’s face it, ordering a few lines of Bolivian Marching Powder from “Chas” their erstwhile friend and current supplier).

BMW wasn’t the only car that got “Yuppified” but was arguably the most famous (Saab also figures prominently, but never got its own moniker, like the “Beemer/Bimmer”). Was it fair? Eh, probably to a certain extent; a lot of upwardly mobile professionals gravitated to them much like the gray-flannel suit crowd of earlier days went for the Cadillacs and Lincolns once they hit a certain salary range.

The negative connotation is another story. Frankly, I think much of the negativity directed at Yuppies was more a product of the entertainment industry’s political leanings than anything else. It was the Reagan era, “Morning in America”, a more or less direct repudiation of the ’60s counter-culture which much of Hollywood came of age in, and thus was something to be derided and vilified. To be honest, I bought into the Yuppie-hate thing, although in my case it was far more of a class thing. As a poor starving college student through much of the ’80s, I had a certain aversion to those who would pursue something as gauche as money while I was pursuing the intellectual (i.e., unmarketable skills) life.

I certainly wasn’t the only one who harbored these thoughts. I recall a couple of years ago when my Mustang II was starting to need a lot of work to remain viable and I mentioned to my Spousal Unit that I might consider a BMW–I had by this time started studying cars in more detail and decided that, as cars, they weren’t too bad–and without a fraction of a second’s hesitation she said “But you’re not an [expletive deleted].”

The bad rap is worldwide, of course. In the UK we are informed by the boys from Top Gear that BMW drivers are “[expletive deleted]s” (though I think they have since decided those people drive Audi’s instead). In Australia they are known as “[expletive deleted]s”. And even in Tajikistan the dialect, while somewhat difficult to translate directly into English, refers to them as “[expletive deleted] with [expletive deleted] on a yak’s [expletive deleted] to your mother’s [expletive deleted]“.

I jest, obviously (though both the Top Gear and my Spousal Unit’s comments are direct quotes, more or less). As I say, there is probably some truth to the association; that’s what marketing does and BMW has certainly marketed their cars to the more affluent among us. But I think most of my ire has been a dose of misplaced class warfare, aided and abetted by a media-entertainment complex with an axe to grind. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to all those BMW drivers out there for all the bad thoughts I have directed at you over the years based solely on the car you choose to drive.

Except the ones who cut me off on the highway; you remain [expletives deleted].

Credits: The top photo comes from BMWBlog, the E21 and E30 are from Wikipedia, and the Yuppie photo is found all over the web.

–Anthony Cagle

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