So whilst I promise I have quite a few ‘non-car’ related posts coming up, today sees me finishing off what has come to be a hatrick of BMW centric posts, in honour of the brand’s most popular model turning the big 4-0. Now of course the model in question is the ubiquitous 3 Series, a car which now accounts for 1 in every 4 cars that BMW sells and if you counted all the 3 Series based models (such as the X3 and 4 Series) that figure would be much higher…it’s an incredibly important car.
Many readers may be surprised to hear that the 3 has already reached this giant milestone – I mean 1975 probably doesn’t seem like too long ago and although the world has changed significantly since then (particularly the motor industry), cars like the 3 Series never seem quite as dated as something like the Rover SD1 (a car it predated by over a year), or worse still the Morris Ital, one of British Leyland’s lowest moments even for them! Still on the other hand, for readers like me who were born post 3-Series, it seems like a model which has always been there; I mean if we’re being honest the 3 Series made BMW, at least what it is today if not the core sporting values of the brand. Sure the 02 Series cars did lay the ground work for the model format but it was really the 3 (and more importantly the second generation ‘E30’ models) which really paved the way for BMW to become the powerhouse it is today – the top selling luxury car manufacturer in the world for the past 10 years, mainly thanks to this one model!
So to mark this occasion (and because I have been inspired by similar posts on sites like Jalopnik) I have decided to run through all generations of 3 Series in order of my favourites…maybe a little unfair seeing as though I have little experience of any model, but nonetheless my own small tribute to the Bavarian superstar:
By far and away my favourite generation of 3 Series is the E46, a car which won near all-round praise for it’s subtle yet handsome styling and road holding which knocked the rest of it’s class out of the ball park. For a car that launched in 1998 the 4th generation of 3 Series still comes across as a modern vehicle inside and out, and considering that original examples are now approaching 20 years old (!) it still accounts for itself very well and for many BMW fan’s is arguably the last ‘pure’ design of 3. The only variant which was a bit of a dud was the unusually styled Compact, which was promptly replaced in 2004 with the 1 Series.
Personal pick: Although a 330Ci convertible is currently doing the rounds in my head as a potential second car, the M3 Coupe is the best of it’s name sake and forever has a place in my dream garage.
For those old enough to remember it properly, the E30 3 Series will always be the purest incarnation of the model uncomparable to the much heavier and larger designs that followed it. Indeed the 80’s BMW helped to lay much of the foundation for the company’s success and helped form the questionable stereotype of BMW drivers as yuppies with car phones affixed to their ears in the fast lane. With handsome looks and a sporty chassis the E30 is a prime candidate as an upcoming classic, and indeed sought after M3 models already change hands for money not too far off lightly used examples of the current model! Other models have bottomed out in price too, as the E30 expanded beyond the traditional 2-door saloon design to include 4-door, Touring and Cabriolet bodystyles.
Personal pick: Although the M3 is the most famous E30 I would never pay £30k+ for one, instead I’d settle for a nice 325i 2 door with the traditional BMW straight 6.
F30 (2011 on)
A little controversial this as the F30 is probably the furthest removed from the ideal of the small sporting saloon that the 3 Series is supposed to encompass. Larger and heavier than a 5 Series from 15 years ago, the F30 has moved the 3 towards a comfortable luxury car has also controversially spun the Coupe/Cabrio versions into a seperate line (the 4 Series) and seen the introduction of an ugly-duckling ‘GT’ hatchback variant. In the UK this is also the first official 3 Series with 4wd, although it has been available in LHD markets since the E30! Still people are buying them up in droves, and the F30 is a very attractive car with sleek headlights and a body which overall disguises it’s increased dimensions. It also has an amazing interior and offers top of the class running costs whilst retaining a sharp(ish) driving experience.
Personal pick: There is little reason to deviate from the most popular model so a 320d in Sport trim would do me just nicely; over 50 mpg in real life driving and road tax of £30 a year, plus a spacious and luxurious cabin for under £35k with a few options makes it difficult to look elsewhere.
After the near perfection of the E46, many purists were disappointed with the E90 and highlight it as the point where the 3 Series began to suffer from bloat and go beyond traditional 3 territory. Bigger than before with a lot more luxury features, it’s hard to argue against this although BMW still made sure they endowed it with a degree of magic; it still handled well though, and with increased size came roomier interior dimensions which suited more family customers. Touring, coupe and cabriolet (metal roofed) versions all came with different model designations though (E91/2/3 respectively), a sign of things to come. What damages the E90 for me is it’s so-so looks, as although less Bangle-fied than other models it still looks less sleek than before.
Personal pick: Again I’ve got to pick the M3 Coupe variant; it came with a stonking V8 engine and more striking looks than the dull saloon model – arguably it appeals more than the E46 M3 to me personally and is the last naturally aspirated M3 too.
It’s ironic that the 3 Series I grew up seeing on the roads in my formulative years has ended up leaving me relatively cold when compared to other examples. As successor to the revered E30 things were always going to be a little hard for the sequel, but BMW packaged the E36 in a sharp body which looked a lot more modern than any car in the BMW line up at the time plus an interior which remained focused on the driver but brought along a fair few creature comforts. The E36 came in saloon, coupe, cabriolet and tourer models and a wide variety of engines, but what has damaged the car for me is it’s popularity amongst the lower rungs of society and the plethora of modified and abused models out there.
Personal pick: Although it might be hard finding a clean one, a tidy 328i saloon would be a good sleeper car which handles well on the back roads too.
Lastly we come to the original 3 Series, which just so happens to be bottom of the pecking order in terms of my preferences too. To be honest I’m not even sure that I’ve seen an E21 in the metal, and as they are relatively similar to the E30 in terms of appearance if I have then I may have mistaken it for it’s successor. It’s this rarity which has meant that far from having a negative opinion of the E21, I have little opinion at all…a quick Autotrader search shows only 1 for sale – an aftermarket convertible model. Obviously cars like this are more likely to be sold through a specialist but even then I doubt they come up too often.
Personal pick: anything that’s on sale, although I bet the range topping 323i still has some poke.
So there we have it, a mini history lesson and an overview of one of the most successful vehicles ever and one which has never been anything else but class leading. Even if I did not have a preference for BMW’s it is hard to look past the 3’s sheer excellence and all round abilities in each generation.