The Car Connection BMW 3-Series Overview
The BMW 3-Series is a family of compact vehicles that has spanned a huge range of models since its introduction in the 1970s and includes today's mega-sellers such as the 320i and 330i.
Many fans of BMW consider the 3-Series to be the core of the brand—a driver-centric sedan that offers space for four, but can come alive on winding roads when commutes turn interesting. It's the lineal successor to what made the brand famous: the BMW 2002.
Though primarily known in the U.S. today as a luxury compact (320i) or sports sedan (340i), over the years the 3-Series has been offered in many body styles ranging from coupe to convertible to hatchback to wagon.
MORE: Read our 2018 BMW 3-Series review
The current BMW 3-Series design dates back to the 2012 sedan and has spawned a new lineup of 4-Series coupes, convertibles and hatchback sports sedans. The iconic 3-Series variants now include the sedan, the handsome Gran Turismo hatchback, a sporty wagon—as well as the mechanically monstrous M3 sedan.
The 3-Series—with its sterling reputation—takes on vehicles such as the Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Lexus IS. Cadillac's ATS is also giving the BMW a good run and Infiniti's Q50 looks even more threatening than its G37 predecessor ever did.
The new BMW 3-Series
The latest 3-Series family arrived in 2012. This sixth generation carries the internal designation of F30, and it wears a new low-shouldered stance, a new body structure, and a new turbo-4 in its 328i versions. That model made 240 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, and turns in better acceleration than the previous year's inline-6. EPA highway ratings were as high as 34 mpg thanks to a new 8-speed automatic.
A 300-hp, 3.0-liter inline-6 was offered in the BMW 335i. Otherwise many top-notch tech features like blind-spot monitors, a head-up display, and a parking assistant have trickled down from the 5-Series to the car, sometimes called a "3er." Space in the 3-Series is adequate for four adults, although a fifth can be squeezed if needed.
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-4 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-hp 328i or the 181-hp 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.
BMW added a plug-in hybrid version of the 3-Series, called the 330e, for this generation. Dubbed eDrive, the system pairs a turbocharged 4-cylinder with an 8-speed automatic with an integrated electric motor. Power is sent to the rear wheels to keep the feeling of a standard 3er. The eDrive 3-Series arrived for the 2016 model year, and the powertrain was offered on the X5 sport utility as well.
A handful of changes were made to the 2016 3-Series. The car received a light visual refresh, with new bumpers and lighting elements at both ends; LED headlights will be an option. The Sport appearance package will now be standard on all models save for the base 320i. BMW has retuned the chassis for better responses, and the 335i and its N55 turbo-6 have been replaced by a B58 engine making 320 hp and badged as the 340i.
For 2017, the most notable change to the 3-Series was under hood. The 328i was replaced with a newer, more potent turbo-4 that produces 248 hp and badged as the 330i. An updated infotainment system is available that includes Apple CarPlay and navigation. The car was largely unchanged for 2018.
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 6-cylinder engines. The E21 3er was launched in the U.S. for 1977, the same year the first straight-6-powered models came online.
The E21 was replaced by the E30 3-Series in 1982. This second-generation model initially came in a two- or four-door sedan body style with both 4- and 6-cylinder engines. This model was also available as a wagon, which was introduced in 1987 but didn't come to the States, and as a convertible, which did make it to the U.S. Another highlight of the E30 BMW 3-Series was the addition of the vaunted M3 in 1988, which came packing a 192-horsepower 4-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 was similar to the E30's, but it was 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-6 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 6-cylinder gasoline units as well as a turbodiesel (in the 335d sedan). Both rear-wheel- and all-wheel-drive configurations were offered.