- Used BMW 3 Series Models Comparison
Bayerische Motoren Werke, Bavarian Motor Works in English, or BMW as it is known to the world in general has been producing some of the world's most coveted luxury sedans since 1928.
One of its most successful lines has been the entry level 3 series line of vehicles.
The 3 series offers many of the luxuries that the public seeks, but at a price that is affordable to a wider group of buyers.
In addition to its luxury aspects, the 3 series has been consistently named to “Top 10” lists for quality, owner satisfaction, and maneuverability.
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The BMW 3 series is an entry level luxury sedan that is meant to be more affordable than the 5 series and 7 series vehicles while offering many of the luxury options that BMW customers expect. The 3 series has been in continuous production since 1975, currently features mulitple body styles, and accounts for thirty percent of the company's annual sales. The 3 series embodies BMW's core commitment to building driver oriented cars for the luxury market. The 3 series is a great alternative to the higher price tags of the entry level Mercedes-Benz and Audi offerings.
First Generation (1975-1981)
The first generation of the BMW 3 series was given the chassis designation E21 and represented a mild model refreshing when compared to its predecessor the BMW 2002.
The updated design and new comfort features were needed so that BMW could remain true to its goal of providing driver oriented cars, while having an entry level luxury vehicle available to the general public.
First introduced at the Munich Olympic Stadium in July, 1975, the E21 was a two-door saloon body, mirroring its predecessor, but the interior introduced a new driver-oriented design philosophy that BMW incorporates into all of its models today. Initially, the 3 series was exclusively equipped with BMW's straight-4 SOHC M10 engines. The three engines in the series ranged in displacement from 1499cc to 1990cc. The standard transmission was a Getrag four-speed manual; however, buyers could request the optional HP-22 three-speed manual. Early on, there were three models available within the series. The entry level package featured the 1499cc(1.6L) engine and was designated the BMW 316. Mid-trim was the BMW 318 featuring a 1.8L engine. The top trim level was the BMW 320, featuring a 2.0L engine. At the end of 1975, BMW introduced the 320i featuring a 2.0L engine fitted with Bosch K Jetronic fuel injection. The new fuel injection system boosted the 320's performance to 125 bhp. For the 1978 model year, BMW added to the engine options for the 3 series. The automaker added two straight-six SOHC M20 engines. Despite the addition of the I6 engines, many buyers felt that 3 series was underpowered. Owners voiced complaints about the handling and maneuverability of the cars within the series.
Second Generation (1982-1993)
The second generation, or E30 chassis platform, could be bought as a two coupe, a four-door saloon, a five-door estate, and as an M3 cabriolet. The petrol engines ranged from a smallish 1750cc M10 I4 to a powerful 2493cc I6. Initially, there were no diesel engines available for the E30 platform. The E30 was a mild rework of the E21 until the 1987 model appeared. The 1987 update included new exterior styling and a switch from the M10 petrol engines to the more powerful M40. 1987 also marked the introduction of the turbocharged BMW 324td diesel. Each engine variant could be paired to a variety of transmissions beginning with a three-speed automatic and topping out with a durable five-speed manual for the performance minded driver. The E30 was replaced by the E36 in 1991, but the E30 platform could still be bought through the 1993 model year. Complaints about the lack of power and difficulty while steering continued to plague the 3 series. The only bright spot seems to have been the 324td.
Third Generation (1991-1998)
The third generation of the BMW 3 series, or the E36 chassis platform, introduced the famous “dolphin” exterior design. The E36 also introduced 3 series customers to the Z-axle multi-link suspension that BMW had been using in the Z1 sport coupe for some years. The majority of the models in the line were powered by DOHC petrol engines that ranged from a 1796cc I4 in the 318is to a 3201cc I6 in the M3 line-up, although a few of the base trim models, such as some 316i models, were powered by SOHC engines. The E36 was so widely appreciated that it was consistently named to “Ten Best” lists by car magazines around the world for its prowess in turns and while maneuvering, marking the first time a BMW vehicle had made such lists. The improvement in handling boosted sales astronomically, allowing the 3 series to overtake the Mercedes-Benz C-class in many markets. In Japan, the most commonly available models are the 318i, model code GF-AL19; the 320i, Japanese model code E-CB20; and the 323i, Japanese model code GF-AM25.
Fourth Generation (1998-2006)
By 1995, BMW knew the 3 series needed a complete redesign to maintain its position within the global market.
The result was the E46 chassis.
The redesign emphasized a commitment to enhanced aerodynamics, but also gave the 3 series an aggressive, nearly predatory stance.
First introduced as a saloon only, BMW eventually added a coupe, cabriolet, estate, and M3 packages to the E46 series.
The redesign and improved performance introduced throughout the fourth generation made the 3 series the brand to beat in its class.
The fourth generation set a worldwide sales record for BMW with sales topping 560,000 units in 2002.
There were many engine and transmission combinations available. The entry level 316i was powered by a 1796cc M43B19 I4 that delivered 104 bhp, while the high performance M3 GTR Strassenversion was propelled by the 3997cc P60B40 V8 offering 350 bhp. The engines delivered just a few more bhp than the E36, but overall weight was reduced to provide more power. In addition to the common petrol engines, BMW offered several turbocharged diesel powerplants. All of the vehicles based on the E46 platform continued to in accolades for their handling and comfortable power delivery, making “Top Ten” lists the world over.
If you're interested in buying an affordable preowned luxury sedan but don't know if the BMW is right for you, our detailed side-by-side comparison between the BMW 3 series vs. Mercedes Benz C-class can help you make the best choice.
Fifth Generation (2005-2013)
The fifth generation of the BMW 3 series was initially offered as a saloon with the chassis designation of E90, but an estate(E91), coupe(E92), and a retractable hardtop(E93) were eventually added to the line-up.
The E93 marked the first time that a retractable hardtop was available within the 3 series.
The fifth generation continued the aerodynamic and aggressive styling of the E46 adding a more distinctive rear-end.
The boot, tail lights, etc were changed to take on what is often called the “Bangle-butt” after its designer, Christopher Bangle.
Because of the multiple roles that the E90 chassis needed to fill, all models of the fifth generation began to offer fully independent suspension.
The improved suspension system incorporates aluminum MacPherson struts up front and steel 5-link Multi-link suspension in the rear.
The E90 also introduced run-flat tyres to the 3 series.
In 2006, the E90 was named to Car and Driver's “10 Best” list for the fifteenth consecutive year, a mark that stands in testimony to the quality of the entire line and its superiority within its class.
The E90 group is powered by a variety of petrol and diesel engines. The engine in all of the base 320i (Japanese model codes ABA-VA20 and LBA-PG20) and the 318i (GH-AY20) is a 1995cc I4, while the 325i (GH-AV25) is often powered by a 2490cc I6. Engines larger than 2490cc are not sold in the Japanese market due to governmental regulations.
Sixth Generation (2012-present)
During an event streamed live via Facebook on October 14, 2011, BMW introduced the F30, its replacement for the E90 platform.
Following BMW tradition, the F30 saloon was the first edition to be released for sale, closely followed by the F31 estate, and the F34 five-door hatchback.
An F35 hybrid was introduced in select markets as well.
The F30 features very few design changes from it predecessor, acknowledging a solid design that is still relevant to the market. The sixth generation does feature a slightly wider stance, gaining 34 mm in the front and 77 mm in the rear,offering a slight amount of cabin and cargo space. The interior has been further refined to enhance the driver oriented design of all BMW vehicles. The interior of the current generation angles all controls an additional seven degrees toward the driver, with all lines centering at a point directly behind the steering column.
BMW opted for small engines for the F30 platform, switching from naturally aspirated I6 engines to the turbocharged N20 I4 2.0L 1995cc engine that has been in use in other BMW series vehicles. Despite a movement toward the N20, the entry level 316i is still powered by the 1.6L I4 N13 petrol engine. Additionally, a 3.0L N55 I6 petrol, a 2.0L diesel I4, and a 3.0L diesel I6 are available in select markets.
In Japan, the most readily available models are the 320 lineup as well as the 335 grouping, and the ActiveHybrid 3.
BE FORWARD Ratings
The BeForward Car Expert recommends BMW 3 Series.
Our car expert gives the BMW 3 series a rating of 8.8 with a noted emphasis on the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations. Early models were somewhat underpowered and tended to under-steer in turns and while trying to maneuver. While BMW addressed the issue beginning with the third generation E36 platform, it was not until the introduction of the E46 series that BMW was able to combine styling, handling, and comfort to a degree that allowed the 3 series to loosen the stranglehold that Mercedes-Benz and Audi had on its class and totally satisfy the vast majority of buyers.
Style & Design - 9.6
Our car experts agree that buyers tend to expect a high level of luxury when they drive any executive class car, but BMW has surpassed its competitors by orienting every interior feature toward the driver. In addition to driver oriented design, the 3 series comfortably seats four passengers, handles superbly, offers an acceptable amount of cargo space for extended trips; all while offering fuel efficiency that is near the top in its class. The aerodynamic, near predatory stance of the later generations of the 3 series give it a curb appeal that is both distinctive and unrivaled, drawing attention everywhere it is driven.
Under the Hood - 8.0
The early generations of the 3 series were a bit anemic under the hood, lacking power and falling short on fuel efficiency.
Recognizing that the very survival of the series depended on its ability to deliver more power and improved fuel efficiency, BMW began introducing more powerful turbocharged engines and reducing the overall curb weight of the entire 3 series lineup.
All of these changes have improved the average fuel efficiency of the 3 series; however it still lags behind other vehicles in its class, especially in its hybrid versions.
The group's fuel ratings lag even further when compared to more modest vehicles offered by Honda and Toyota.
The BMW 3 series has been struggling with a wide spread failure of the high pressure fuel pump. The problem is limited to the larger engines such as the 2979cc 3.0L N54 twin-turbo engines found in the 335 group. Despite the issues with the fuel pump, the quality of the 3 series has greatly improved since the third generation, offering outstanding dependability and owner satisfaction.
Overall, the BMW 3 series offers a great gateway into the luxury car class. Potential buyers need to be aware of the trade-off between the pros of great styling, superior design, and high quality and the cons of a high price point and expensive repairs. With those points in mind, no one who buys a BMW 3 series could ever be disappointed with their choice.