Since 1975, the BMW 3-Series has been the young, trendy professional’s admission ticket into the automotive elite. It’s the entry-level car every Bimmer owner purchases before splurging on a 5, 6 or 7 Series. Due to its relative affordability, build quality and topnotch engineering, the 3-Series is BMW’s bestselling car, accounting for 30% of the company’s sales (including motorbikes!). BMW designates each generation of its 3-Series with un-alluring, robotized chassis code such as E21, E30 and F31.
BMW 3 Series E21 1st Generation
It was the 1970s; bell bottoms and ABBA were in style and the BMW 2002 was being phased out. In its place, BMW introduced the first 3-series, the E21 (1975-1981). The oil embargo was in full swing and the country was very receptive to a smaller car. The 3-series sold exceptionally well. The only 3-series available in the United States was the 320i. First generation 3-series cars feature a rear-wheel drive layout and can be found with either a 2.0L or 1.8L 4-cylinder engine under the hood.
BMW 3 Series E30 2nd Generation
In the 1980s, the 2nd generation E30 (1984-1991) rolled right alongside black Trams Ams. The E30 was completely redesigned from its predecessor both inside and out. A couple different trim levels can be found, including a 318i and a 325e, featuring a 1.8L 4-cylinder and 2.7L 6-cylinder engines respectively. A 2.5L 4-cylinder was also introduced later on. In 1988, the first M3 also became available with a 2.3L 4-cylinder engine under the hood.
BMW 3 Series E36 3rd Generation
There are still plenty of third generation E36 (1991-1998) models on the road today. The E36 is bigger than the E30 in almost every way and the 2.5L engine received a redesigned cylinder head, giving it more power. In 1993, BMW’s variable valve timing system, VANOS, also became available. The top of the line M3 came equipped with a healthy 3.0L 6-cylinder engine under the hood, making it an object of desire for many car enthusiasts.
BMW 3 Series E46 4th Generation
The year 1999 signifies the dawn of the fourth generation E46 (1998-2006). All-wheel drive became an option for the first time since 1990, meaning that 3-Series owners could once again slip on their Ugg boots and motor off to a swanky ski resort. Outside, the E46 received a reshaped body and included a new front end, wider wheel arches and a more rounded roof line. The 2.8L engine was dropped in favor of a 3.0L and the 2.5L was modified to provide more power. The M3 was bumped up to a more powerful 3.2L 6-cylinder engine.
BMW 3 Series E90 5th Generation
Next on the list is the fifth generation E90 (2005-2011). Externally, the E90 got a full makeover from the previous model and the wheelbase got bigger. The iDrive infotainment system also became available for the first time. Depending on the year and trim level, a couple engine options were available including a 3.0L turbo. The biggest upgrade was to the M3, which was fitted with a 4.0L eight-cylinder engine.
The 3-Series sedan and wagon were completely re-designed in 2006. The overhaul included new features, more powerful engines, a larger interior and revised styling. For 2007, the 3-Series coupe returned with a twin-turbocharged 6-cylinder engine and a new body. Halfway through the model year, a redesigned 3-Series convertible with a retractable hardtop, and an all-wheel-drive 335xi sedan were also introduced. The 3-Series didn’t see many changes in 2008, except for the 335xi coupe, which adds all-wheel drive to the 3-Series two-door. In 2009, the 3-Series sedan and wagon got styling updates as well as an increase in rear track width. A new iDrive controller was introduced for the navigation system and an optional twin-turbocharged clean-diesel engine was made available. Finally, in 2011, The 3-Series coupe and convertible were restyled and given an additional model, the 335is. A new, turbocharged 3.0L 6-cylinder engine was also added to the lineup.
BMW 3 Series F30 6th Generation
BMW decided to make a subtle change with the sixth generation 3 Series (2012-2015). For what on the surface appeared to be no apparent reason, BMW traded in the ‘E’ chassis nomenclature and decided to designate the sixth generation 3-Series, the F30.
For 2012, the 3-Series sedan was completely redesigned. Major changes included new headlights, additional interior room, and new engine and transmission options. The following year, 2013, brought more changes in the form of standard power front seats, an M Sport equipment line, and the return of xDrive all-wheel-drive. Model year 2013 was also the first year for the ActiveHybrid3 sedan.
The 3-Series makes the goal of owning the“ultimate driving machine” attainable for anyone (well almost anyone). For 2015, the 3 Series starts at $32,950 – not bad for a car with over 40 years of engineering and design excellence under its belt. Here’s to the next 40, Bimmer.