The “is” mystique

During the E30 generation, BMW offered a pair of “is” models with sport-tuned suspension, seats, aerodynamics and wheels, all mated to your choice of a four- or six-cylinder engine. Which “is” is more fun to drive: the lightweight 318is or the more powerf

January 11, 2013
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After “M,” the two most important letters in the performance BMW alphabet are “i” and “s.” The changes signified by those two little letters have never been drastic—they’ve usually been limited to Sport suspension, seats and trim, sometimes different wheels—but they’ve resulted in some of the German manufacturer’s most coveted automobiles.

The precedent was set in 1980 with the launch of the E21 320iS, the first BMW to have “is” added to its model name. [Note: The “is” distinction in this case was unofficial on the corporate level, added by BMW’s U.S. dealers to designate 320i models sold with the Sport pacakge of options outlined below.]

The 320iS featured options that, although previously available individually on the 320i, were now grouped together to create a new “Sport” package. The M10 motor and gearbox were standard issue 320i, but the car was otherwise upgraded with a limited slip differential, a larger front anti-roll bar paired a rear bar (the standard 320i did without a rear bar) and 13-inch mesh-design alloy wheels. Cosmetically, the 320iS got a set of fog lights and a large air dam while its interior gained a three-spoke steering wheel and deeply bolstered Recaro seats.

The 320iS was never offered in the U.S., but its successor was, along with a newly sported-up 5 Series when BMW introduced the E30 325is and the E28 535is in 1987. Like the 320is, these two special editions received suspension and aerodynamic upgrades to differentiate them from their standard counterparts, plus leather-covered Sport seats and (for the 325is) 6.0 × 14-inch cross-spoke wheels. While the 535is was only produced in 1987 and 1988, the 325is was built annually from 1987 to 1990.

For 1991 only, BMW also offered the 318is, virtually identical to the 325is but for its engine. Instead of a 2.5-liter six-cylinder M20, the 318is was powered by a 1.8-liter M42 inline four.

Today, both the E30 325is and the relatively rare 318is have become cult classics and sought-after collectibles. E30s as a whole have attained a desirability that’s almost on par with that of the earlier 2002s, the enthusiast fan base having essentially bypassed the intervening E21s. Among E30s, the 325is and the 318is are the ultimate non-M iterations of the range, and only the M3 is more desirable. As many owners can attest, both the 318is and the 325is can be great weekend fun cars as well as dependable daily drivers.

Trouble is, the cars are now at least two decades old, and they’re so fun to drive that many have been flogged nearly to death, with few left in good, original condition. With that in mind, we wanted to revisit both E30 “is” models, provided we could find examples that hadn’t been abused or heavily modified.

Also from Issue 113

  • E90 M3 CRT: 450 hp, loads of carbon
  • M cars at the Nürburgring
  • Anecdotal history of M engines
  • M car specs & descriptions
  • F10 ActiveHybrid 5 road test
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2001-2006 E46 330i
  • BMW lighting technology
  • Christian Weismann's 2000 C
  • 328-based 1948 Veritas RS
  • BMW wins DP, Street Tuner titles
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