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Tech Article

BMW E30 3-Series Control Arm Simplicity

Last Updated: 07/28/2018
Parts Group: Suspension control arm with ball joint
This article discusses the front suspension control arm (a.k.a. wishbone) simplicity for the E30 (a.k.a. the BMW 3-series as sold in the US from 1984 to 1993). I'm contrasting it with the complex suspension design for the 1999-2004 Audi A6 Quattro. If you're not here for the technical analysis but would rather buy a used BMW unit from us, guaranteed to work and fit, then please select the link below:The information herein is based on me owning several E30s and several A6 Quattros, and adoring the design simplicity of the BMW.

A few months ago, at speed, I hit a curb with my black 2000 Audi A6 Quattro 4.2 V8. My tech wasn't too upset because I needed to replace the front control arms anyway. After 18 years, it's typically time to do this on such Audis. Problem is, if you count the tie-rod ends, that means there are 5 front control arms on each side of the Audi, for a total of 10 expensive parts that I didn't have budget for, for several months. The Audi also needed tires anyway, and with two of them having been damaged by my spirited driving, the time was right to replace these, too. Add in some professional-grade alignment for another $100 to $200, and the tab for all this comes out to close to $1,500 -- which is ironically what I paid to buy the entire car, two years ago. And so, my beloved black Audi has been sitting unused in the parking lot, awaiting funding for all of these parts. Meanwhile, I've been driving my also-beloved 1984 BMW 318i, a car that I've owned for about 25 years now. I bought it for $300 at the time. It still runs great. Even in the middle of the Nevada desert summer, its A/C can still cool down the car very nicely.

The suspension on the BMW also needs work, ironically. The work involves simply replacing the bushings (rubber donuts, essentially) at the end of the lower control arms. Total parts cost: about $40 brand new, plus no alignment is needed.

Can the Audi be safely driven while its control arms are iffy? No. If a control arm were to fail, the car could swerve dramatically. Can the BMW be safely driven while its control arms are iffy? Evidently, yes. It's already failing and at low speed, the steering wheel jiggles, but ... that's about it.

Can the little BMW go around a corner as rapidly as the Audi? Well ... perhaps. The little BMW is only a four-cylinder car, and it's very light due to its minimalistic design. For example, even the window cranks are manual -- and so there are no heavy electric motors in the doors. It's interesting to me to contrast these two cars some more yet:

  • Finding a coolant leak on the Audi is a major pain. Fixing it is worse yet. By contrast, on the BMW, there isn't even a coolant overflow bottle; the coolant system design is so simple that it's almost crude and yet it works well, keeping the motor cool even in the heat of a Nevada summer.
  • Electrically adjusted seats? Nope. On the BMW, to adjust the seat, yank a lever, contort and let go the lever.
  • As to bumpers: I've taken the bumper off an Audi A6 Quattro. It's a heavy beast. By contrast, the E30 BMW bumpers are simple aluminum structures with thick rubber strips attached.
  • As to lights: the Audi has high-intensity discharge headlights with a ballast system that generates 20,000+ Volts on startup. Just the light bulbs themselves are very expensive. By contrast, the BMW headlights are industry-standard, simple round units for which replacements are inexpensive.
  • As to engines: the Audi has a massively powerful, complex double-overhead-cam V8 engine with 40 valves, variable camshaft timing, and variable-length intake runners. By contrast, the little 1984 BMW has a 4-cylinder M10 engine that's pretty much the same as when that engine was first made in 1962. And yet, the M10 engine became the basis of the must powerful Formula One race cars ever built. The engine block in my humble M10 motor is exactly the same part number as was used in cars that generated more than 1,000 horsepower. So in a way, the BMW only appears to be humble. There's a lot more to it than meets the eye.
  • As to reliability: the Audi engine uses a timing belt to connect the crankshaft to the camshafts. It's quiet and energy efficient, but it needs to be replaced every 75,000 miles. If this is neglected, and the timing belt snaps, the resultant engine damage is severe enough to make the engine non-viable to repair. Changing the timing belt on the Audi is a vasty complex process requiring speciality tools so expensive that most people don't buy them; they rent them. By contrast, the BMW engine doesn't use a timing belt at all. It uses a chain instead -- and the chain doesn't break. So, the equivalent maintenance cost and hassle on the little BMW is: zero.

Indeed, the Audi Quattro is ultra-high-tech and it's a very fast, very cool car. But ... in its own way, the humble-seeming little BMW also deserves a special place in my heart.
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