New & Used BMW 3-Series: In Depth
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The BMW 3-Series is available as a mid-size sedan, coupe, or convertible in the frugal 320i or 328i, the quick 335i, and the track-ready M3 models. Whichever model you choose, the 3-Series is one of the most recognizable cars in the world that has an enviable standing for performance and upscale luxury. Next year, though, the coupe, convertible, and M models will receive 4-Series badging.
See our 2014 BMW 3-Series review for pricing with options, specifications, and gas mileage ratings.
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.
Pricing, though not inexpensive, is nonetheless competitive in the segment, and is in part the reason for BMW's introduction of the new 2013 320i model in the U.S.-- a new lower-powered model that hopes to fend off the compact Mercedes-Benz CLA and Audi A3 until BMW can offer its own front-drive compact sedan.
The 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 sedan body style and 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 in 1993. 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.
The third-generation E36 BMW 3-Series arrived on the market in 1991. It didn’t deter much from the design of the E30 but it did see the introduction of a new entry-level 318ti Hatchback model in some markets as well as a straight-six engine in the M3. This was followed by the fourth-generation E46 BMW 3-Series in the 1999 model year, which experienced enormous success in most markets, selling a total of 561,249 units worldwide in 2002 alone.
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 2012 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.
The BMW ActiveHybrid 3 was also new for 2013. Additionally, BMW has announced that new 320i sedan models will join the lineup late in the model year, offering 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.
Meanwhile, BMW has confirmed that it will sell the new-generation 3-Series Sports Wagon in the U.S., beginning in early 2013. The 2013 3-Series Sports Wagon will only be offered in 328i guise, with the automatic transmission--although an M Sport package will be 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.
Coupe and Convertible models carried over in the previous body style for both 2012 and 2013, while an all-new M3 remains a couple of years off.
A new set of M Performance Parts for the 3-Series was announced in late 2012; and on the 2013 BMW 3-Series an M Sport line adds special 18-inch M wheels, an M steering wheel, Aluminum Hexagon interior trim, and other upgrades.
Another new model will join 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.
Looking to the future of the 3-Series, the Coupe and Convertible models will be split off into their own 2014 BMW 4-Series offerings.