E36's relatively small and lightweight nature can make them fun street or daily drivers. However, with these cars pushing 25+ years old, a few upgrades will go a long way in improving the handling and performance of them. One of the best performance upgrades is replacing the worn stock suspension with a set of coilovers. In addition to lowering the car and giving it more appealing looking stance, coilovers will improve handling and cornering and make the E36 a more fun street cruiser.
The best E36 coilovers really depends on what your budget and goals are. This article is going to walk through some of the basics and then provide 3 different setups specific to your potential goals. The first will be a budget option for stance and entry level street. Second will be a higher performance option for street and occasional track use. And lastly, we'll cover an advanced setup for top-tier street and dedicated track performance.
This guide is applicable to all E36 engines, however, note that fitment differs for XI, TI, and M3 models and the products we mention at the end of the article will have different fitments.
E36 Coilover Basics
Coilovers come in all different budgets, from $400 budget options to $4,000+ racing setups and everything in between. As we mentioned above, the best coilovers really depends on the goals you have for your E36.
This section will cover a few of the basic considerations when choosing E36 coilovers. We'll discuss tube design, damping control, spring rates, and E36 coilovers vs. lowering springs.
If you want a more detailed run-down on coilover functionality, check out this Ultimate Coilover Guide.
E36 Monotube vs. Twin-Tube
Mono and twin-tube refer to the design and engineering of the shocks. If you want to better understand the differences in the design, checkout the ultimate coilover guide mentioned above. Without getting into the nitty gritty, here are the differences.
Monotube coilovers generally offer better performance since they are more sensitive to small suspension movements and more precise. However, this does make them slightly less comfortable for daily driving since you will feel more of the small bumps and movements.
Twin-tube coilovers are less sensitive to small movements which makes them more comfortable for daily driving. However, it also means they offer a bit less performance - although the performance differences are likely only noticeable on the track or during aggressive driving.
Monotube coilovers are also more expensive. So if you care more about budget and ride comfort vs. ultimate performance, then twin-tube is a good route to go.
Damping, or dampening, refers to the stiffness of the shocks. Coil springs hold the weight of the car and compress as weight is put on the spring. Shocks are responsible for controlling the how much the spring compresses and also how aggressively the spring rebounds. Stiffer shocks will allow less compression and rebound whereas softer ones will allow more.
Coilovers can either come with pre-set damping or adjustable damping. Pre-set means that the damping is set by the manufacturer to provide the best balance between comfort and performance. Adjustable coilovers will usually have anywhere from 8 to 32 adjustment settings that you can use to either stiffen or soften the damping.
Adjustable damping is a must have for any cars that see a track. Pre-set damping is budget-friendly and built for those who don't care quite as much about performance and are just looking for ride height lowering or entry-level options.
Spring rates control how easily the coil springs compress. A higher spring rate means it requires more weight or pressure to compress the spring, which makes for a stiffer ride quality. Entry-level coilovers are going to come with one spring option, more expensive setups usually give you the ability to choose your spring rates.
Higher spring rates = less comfortable ride, better for performance
Lower spring rates = more comfortable ride, less performance oriented
Now, since damping controls spring compression and rebound, it does give some flexibility in controlling ride quality. However, if you have extremely stiff springs you are still going to have a brutal ride quality even if you have adjustable damping and set the shocks to the softest setting. On the flip side, getting soft springs and setting the damping to a stiffer setting can cause the shocks to blow out easily.
At the end of the day, unless you are building a high-performance track car, I wouldn't stress too much over spring rates and damping. Manufacturers provide the most optimal combination of spring rates and damping for what their coilovers were made to do.
E36 Lowering Springs vs. Coilovers
If you are just looking for a bit of lowering and slightly better handling, you might consider saving some money and just getting lowering springs.
We always recommend coilovers if your budget allows.
Coilovers provide ride height flexibility which is important if you are trying to fit a set of aggressive wheels or tires. Additionally, even the cheapest set of coilovers is going to ride better than the best set of lowering springs. This is because the stock shocks on the E36 aren't built for the stiffer spring rates you get with lowering springs.
Coilovers will be more comfortable and offer better performance since the spring rates and dampening are optimized by the manufacturers through lots of R&D. The alternative option is to get a set of upgraded shocks along with a set of lowering springs, but at this point the cost is going to be equivalent to a set of coilovers.
BMW E36 Coilover Upgrade Benefits
- Ride height adjustability from ~0"-4"
- Better handling and cornering
- Improved ride comfort and quality
- Great upgrade over old worn suspension
- Shock adjustability (for more expensive setups)
Any set of coilovers, regardless of cost, is going to be a huge upgrade over old, worn suspension. Beyond that, the benefits from coilovers will really vary depending on the setup you choose.
High performance track level coilovers definitely aren't going to improve ride comfort. Additionally, they won't go as low as a set of coilovers designed for stance. And vice versa, a set of entry-level coilovers isn't going to provide track quality performance. So, the benefits really depend somewhat on the setup you choose but in any instance even the most entry-level coilovers will be a big upgrade over old suspension.
Best BMW E36 Coilovers
We're going to cover three different setups here: entry-level street, mid-tier street & occasional track hybrid, and top-tier track quality E36 coilovers.
To mention it again, the best coilovers depend on your budget and your goals. We're trying to capture the three most popular goals here. Keep in mind important factors like whether or not you need monotube's or adjustable dampening, etc.
1) Raceland E36 Coilovers
Tier: Entry Level Street & Stance
Lowering: 1-3" (Classic) & 2-4" (Ultimo)
Buy Here: Raceland BMW E36 Coilovers
Raceland coilovers are our favorite entry-level bang-for-the-buck coilover. With most E36's being relatively cheap nowadays, there is no need for a $1k+ coilover setup unless you track your car or are trying to build a pristine M3.
Raceland coilovers are twin-tube coilovers with pre-set dampening. They are going to offer the best ride comfort and quality while still providing a solid performance boost over stock suspension. They are budget-friendly and offer some of the lowest ride height adjustability on the market. These aren't going to be the highest performance coilovers but they are probably the best option for 95% of E36's.
Additionally, Raceland has great customer service, offers a limited lifetime warranty, and offers financing. It's a good company that offers a quality coilover at a great price. It might not have all the bells and whistles but it's a great entry level option for someone who doesn't ever track their E36.
Raceland has two options: the Classics and Ultimo's. The primary difference between the two is that the Ultimo's offer 1" more of drop. They also have a bit stiffer springs to compensate for the extra lowering capabilities.
2) BMW E36 BC Racing Coilovers
Tier: Mid Level Street & Occasional Track
BC Racing offers one of the more affordable mid-level coilovers for the E36. BC coilovers have monotube shocks and has 30 levels of adjustable dampening. They also offer an add-on feature called "Extreme Low" that will drop the car an extra inch.
Additionally, BC coilovers come with the option to upgrade to Swift Springs for more performance oriented setups. And adjustable camber plates are an additional option for those who need camber for stance.
Overall, BC Racing is a great option for someone who wants a more performance oriented street setup or uses their E36 on the track from time to time. These are a great street coilover but the price might be a bit overkill considering the value of E36's nowadays. Additionally, BC has a set that will fit the E36 M3 while Raceland does not.
3) KW V3 E36 Coilovers
Tier: Advanced Street & Dedicated Track
Lowering: approx. 2.4" max in front and 1.8" in rear
For anyone looking for a top of the line option, the KW V3 is one of the best coilovers without getting into crazy $3k+ overkill coilovers.
These are monotube coilovers and offer independent dampening adjustability that allows for both compression and rebound dampening to be adjusted separately. KW has a reputation for being one of the premiere performance coilover manufacturers and these E36 coilovers fit the bill.
The KW V3's don't offer as much lowering capability compared to the Raceland's or BC since track cars don't need that much lowering capability. These are going to have stiffer spring rates than the other options making them less comfortable for daily driving. However, spring upgrades and rates are customizable with these setups.
Overall, these coilovers are overkill unless you seriously track your E36. However, if you do, then these coilovers are top of the line.
BMW E36 Coilover Summary
Upgrading to a set of coilovers is one of the best suspension and handling mods you can make to your E36 BMW. Especially for older cars that are still running on old and worn out stock suspension.
A set of coilovers will improve ride quality while also making the car handle and corner better, making street driving more fun and engaging. There are a lot of considerations from spring rates, damping, ride height, and so on.
Ultimately, if you don't track your E36 or need an aggressive street setup then sticking with twin-tube shocks and pre-set damping with a setup like the Raceland's is all you need. If you ever track your car you'll want both monotube and adjustable damping - however, this can be considered a bit overkill on a street car especially considering the price.
Raceland is going to be a great setup for the 95% of readers who don't need the expensive monotubes and adjustability. For those who want more performance oriented street setups, then BC is a great option. And for the no-expenses barred street car or dedicated track car, KW V3's are top of the line.
What E36 coilovers are you running or considering? Let us know!