New & Used BMW 3-Series: In Depth
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The BMW 3-Series is a compact luxury car. While it's primarily known in the U.S. as a sport sedan today, it's been offered in a wide range of body styles, ranging from a coupes and convertibles to hatchbacks and wagons. To many driving enthusiasts, it's often assessed as the quintessential BMW, and elemental to the dynamic, driver-centric qualities continued by the brand's entire lineup.
For the current generation--it started in 2012 with the new 3-Series sedan--BMW has carved off a new lineup of 4-Series coupes, convertibles, and confusingly, sports sedans. The 3-Series lineup going forward will include the sedan, a pretty hatchback Gran Turismo, and a sporty wagon--as well as the mighty M3.
The BMW 3-Series has its strongest competitors in vehicles like the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, with the Cadillac ATS coming on strong, and the new Infiniti Q50 threatening even more than its G37 predecessor could bring.
MORE: Read our 2015 BMW 3-Series reviewThe first-generation 3-Series, the E21, was launched in 1975 but didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1977. It served as the replacement for the 2002 and was originally only available as a two-door and with four-cylinder engines. The first straight-six-powered BMW 3-Series didn’t arrive until 1977.
The E21 was replaced by the E30 BMW 3-Series in 1982. This second-generation model came in a two- or four-door sedan body style with both four- and six-cylinder engines. This model also saw the introduction of the 3-Series Touring wagon, which was introduced in 1987, as well as a 3-Series Convertible. Another highlight of the E30 BMW 3-Series was the addition of the vaunted M3 in 1989, which came packing a 192-horsepower four-cylinder engine and many other unique pieces.
The E36 chassis code represents the third-generation BMW 3-Series, which arrived in the U.S. in 1991. Its appearance is similar to the E30's, but slightly larger and more angular. The E36 brought with it a new hatchback model, sold here as the 318ti. The E36 M6 used a straight-six engine. The follow-up was the E46 3-Series, which came for the 1999 model year and was very successful, selling a total of 561,249 copies worldwide in just the 2002 model year.
The fifth-generation E90 BMW 3-Series came onto the market in the 2006 model year and was facelifted in the 2009 model year. It was based on a completely different platform to the outgoing E46, including changes to engines, transmission, the passenger compartment, suspension technology, as well as the addition of a host of high-tech features and options. Coupe and Convertible models were launched in the 2007 model year and were updated for the 2011 model year. The E90 BMW 3-Series also saw the M3 model pick up a new V-8 engine. Other engine options available in the U.S. include a pair of six-cylinder gasoline units as well as a turbodiesel (in the 335d sedan). Both rear-wheel and all-wheel drive configurations were also offered.
The sixth generation of the 3-Series, the F30, was introduced for 2012, with an all-new body structure, a new, low-shouldered look, and a base turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in the 328i models. With 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, the four provides slightly better acceleration than last year's naturally aspirated V-6, though--and EPA highway ratings are as high as 34 mpg thanks to a new eight-speed automatic. A 300-hp, 3.0-liter in-line six is offered in the BMW 335i. Otherwise many top-notch tech features like blind-spot detection, a head-up display, and a parking assistant have trickled down from the 5-Series to the 3er. Space in the 3-Series is adequate for four adults, although a fifth can be squeezed in should the need arrive.
A new set of M Performance Parts for the 3-Series was announced in late 2012, and for 2013, BMW added an M Sport line with special 18-inch M wheels, an M steering wheel, Aluminum Hexagon interior trim, and other upgrades.
The BMW ActiveHybrid 3 was new for 2013. Additionally, BMW has introduced a new 320i sedan, which offers a version of the turbo four making 180 hp and 200 lb-ft--yet still able to get to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds. The new-generation 3-Series Sports Wagon also returned to the U.S. market in early 2013, offered with the 240-horsepower unit found in the 328i sedan, or the 181-horsepower four-cylinder diesel for 328d xDrive Sports Wagon models. Both come with the automatic transmission--although an M Sport package is offered. The wagon includes a power tailgate, separate rear window, and a Comfort Access opener that allows you to use your foot to open the tailgate.Another new model joined the 3-Series range in late 2013 as a 2014 model: the 2014 BMW 3-Series Gran Turismo. Available in both 328i and 335i forms, the 3-Series GT is longer, taller, and roomier than the sedan, and its hatchback-like looks should suit buyers needing more room, but not keen on the look of a wagon. Beginning in the 2014 model year, Coupe and Convertible models were carved away and placed under the 4-Series badge along with a new 4-Series Gran Coupe. Then the 2015 model year brought only minor feature changes otherwise, with some new trim materials and Bluetooth audio streaming now included on the entire model line.