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 coupes and convertibles to hatchbacks and wagons. To many driving enthusiasts, it's often seen as the quintessential BMW, an elemental representation of the dynamic, driver-centric qualities the brand is known for.
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, hatchback 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 sedan.
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.
MORE: Read our 2015 BMW 3-Series review
The first-generation 3-Series, the E21, was launched in 1975. It served as the replacement for the 2002 and was originally only available as a two-door and with four-cylinder engines. The E21 3er was launched in the U.S. for 1977, the same year the first straight-six-powered models came online.
The E21 was replaced by the E30 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 but did not come to the states, as well as a 3-Series Convertible that did. 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, motorsports-influenced pieces.
The E36 chassis code was applied to the third-generation BMW 3-Series, which arrived in the U.S. in 1991. Its appearance is similar to the E30's, but it is slightly larger and the design more angular. The E36 brought with it a new hatchback model, sold here as the 318ti. The E36 M3 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 face-lifted 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, and 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. included 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 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 package with an M-fettled suspension, 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 introduced a new 320i sedan that year, which offers a detuned version of the 328's turbo four making 180 hp and 200 lb-ft; the least-powerful 3 is 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 as the 240-horsepower 328i or the 181-horsepower diesel 328d Sports Wagon. Both come with xDrive all-wheel drive and the automatic transmission as standard equipment, but they remain available with the M Sport package for those looking for a sportier sports wagon. The wagon includes a power tailgate, a separate flip-up rear window, and a Comfort Access opener that allows you to use a wave of your foot to activate 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.
In the near future, BMW is planning a plug-in hybrid version of the 3-Series, as well as other models. Dubbed eDrive, the system pairs a turbocharged four-cylinder with an eight-speed automatic that has an electric motor integrated into it. Power is sent to the rear wheels to keep the feeling of a standard 3er. The eDrive 3-Series is likely to arrive for the 2016 model year, and it has already been announced for the X5 sport utility.