The 3 Series at 40: A Look Back at BMW’s Signature Car

Source: BMW

Source: BMW

In 1975, BMW largely phased out its celebrated “Neue Klasse” cars and introduced a new entry-level model, the 3 Series. The Neue Klasse cars — especially the 2002 — had long been popular in U.S. enthusiast circles, but once the 3 Series came along, the brand really began to take off. Brilliantly pitched to the American public by then-BMW marketing executive Bob Lutz under the company’s new tagline, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” the 3 Series struck a chord with another 1970s creation: the yuppie. For legions of young professionals who demanded the best, had money to burn (but maybe not enough for that Porsche 911), and didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of their father’s Cadillac-Lincoln loyalties, the 3 Series seemed to be the answer to their prayers.

And with good cause. It was brilliantly engineered, sporty, luxurious, great to drive, and a status symbol without being ostentatious — which made it unlike anything else on the market. It’s no accident that even 40 years later, whenever a new entry-level premium sedan comes to market it’s dubbed a “3 Series-fighter.” BMW’s entry-level car simply has the market cornered, and no matter how strong the competition is right now with the Mercedes C-Class, Cadillac ATS, Jaguar XE, Audi A4, and Lexus IS, it looks like things will stay that way for a long time.

With each successive generation of 3 Series, there’s the fear that BMW will somehow screw up the formula, but to BMW’s competitors, its formula has remained maddeningly consistent. Now entering its fifth decade, the 3 Series is as versatile a car as there is on the roads. The current car ticks the same boxes to modern-day yuppies that the original car did way back when, while late-model cars are attractive buys on the used car market, and older cars have become catnip to young-timer classic car lovers and boy racers alike. For a better look at BMW’s golden boy, here (listed by their internal designation names), is a brief history of the BMW 3 Series. 

 1. E21, 1975-1983

Source: BMW

Source: BMW

Replacing BMW’s beloved Wilhelm Hofmeister-designed New Klasse, BMW tapped designer Paul Bracq, who had previously designed the Mercedes 600 Grosser, W113 SL-Class roadster, and Peugeot 505 for the job. He didn’t disappoint — with its clean two-door sedan body, it looked like more of a modernized 2002 than a complete break from the past. In Europe, E21s could be had with everything from a 1.6-liter 75 horsepower inline-four (the 315) to the 143 horsepower inline-six powered 323i. The U.S. got the 320i, arriving in 1977 with a 110 horsepower fuel injected 2.0-liter four. It was enough for the world to take notice: BMW sold 1.36 million E21s over its eight-year production run.

2. E30, 1982-1993

Source: BMW

Source: BMW

Simply put, the E30 is the benchmark by which all 3 Series are judged. Introduced in late 1982 and actually sold alongside E21s for a few months, the E30 was the model’s first great leap forward. Available for the first time as a four-door sedan, convertible, and wagon (in Europe), the E30 was a runaway success, with over 2.3 million sold during its 11-year production run. While the base E30 is quickly joining the 2002 as a collectible driver, the 1986-’92 M3 has become a superstar on the classic car market, with pristine examples now leaping well over the $50,000 mark — thanks largely to the its reputation as the best driver’s car BMW ever built.

3. E36, 1991-1999

Source: BMW

Source: BMW

By the ’80s BMW was finally dealing with some competition by way of the Mercedes-Benz 190e and Audi 80, and in 1981 launched a comprehensive program to redesign the 3 Series from the ground up. Hitting European showrooms as early as October 1990, and America in April 1991 as a ’92 model, the E36 has the strange distinction of overlapping both its predecessor and successor. It may not garner the same affection as the E30 cars, but it offered 50/50 weight distribution, a Z-axle multilink suspension, and improved aerodynamics. For the first time, the M3 was offered as a four-door sedan.

4. E46, 1998-2006

Source: BMW

Source: BMW

While the E36 didn’t win the hearts of enthusiasts like the E30 did (despite it being a massive success for BMW), the beautiful E46 hit all the right notes. The first 3 Series developed under chief designer Chris Bangle, who generally draws an undue amount of ire from Bimmer fans, the E46 was released in 1998 to usher the 3 Series into the 21st century. Its chassis was based on the E36, but with greater emphasis placed on structural rigidity and reducing unsprung weight, making the car handle even better than its predecessor at every trim level. And when ranking M3s, the E46 usually comes in a solid second. Available only as a coupe, and with its silky smooth 338 horsepower 3.2-liter inline-six, this M3 ranks on the shortlist of best BMWs ever made.

5. E90, 2005-2013

Source: BMW

Source: BMW

If the 3 Series ever came close to losing the plot, it was here. The last car to wear the internal “E” designation, the E90 was the second and final 3 Series designed during Chris Bangle’s tenure, and raised a few eyebrows with its unique mixture of round shapes and razor-sharp edges. Despite its polarizing looks, the E90 firmly held its ground as BMW’s best-selling model, and remained a fixture on Car and Driver’s 10Best list. In a major break from tradition, this generation M3 was powered by a naturally-aspirated 414 horsepower 4.0-liter V8, and for the first the time in seven years, it also was available with four doors again.

6. F30, 2012-present

Source: BMW

Source: BMW

Like the rest of the BMW lineup, the F30 has moved gracefully away from the Bangle years, and this generation 3 Series has been every bit as successful as the last. Released in time to be the official car of the 2012 London Olympics, the F30 has seen brought some of the biggest changes the 3 Series has seen in decades. Changes like the coupe version being spun off into its own model, the 4 Series. Also the introduction of a taller, crossover-like model, the 3 Series GT, a hybrid version, the ActiveHybrid 3, and a special long wheelbase version for the Chinese market. In the performance department, the F30 M3 has returned to the inline six (albeit with two turbos), and like the base model, is only available with four doors. For an M-Coupe, you now need to look to the M4.

With competition heating up in its segment, the 3 Series is in greater danger of losing its edge than ever before. An all-new car, codenamed G20, should bow in 2018, with a greater emphasis on quality and versatility than the model has seen in decades. On the low end, expect it to compare to the original E21, with a number of trims, and rumors of a three cylinder engine powering the base-model cars. On the top end, there’s strong evidence that the M3 will probably become an all-wheel drive hybrid, a move that would likely infuriate the faithful, embarrass Porsche drivers, and keep it competitive well into the next decade. Times may change, but for now, it’s unlikely that the 3 Series will become anything but The Ultimate Driving Machine.

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