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The BMW 3 Series is the company's top seller in the United States and a favorite in the marketplace for good reason: It's a well-built, premium compact car endowed with world-class fit and finish, ample power, and a comfortable ride and handling trade-off that is unmatched by most vehicles at any price. And that applies no matter what model or year you choose, as generation after generation of 3 Series enjoy the same benefits despite a constant evolution. This makes buying a used 3 Series a solid bet -- there's not a dud model among them.
As for new 3 Series shoppers, the current model year represents one of transition. While the coupe, convertible and wagon continue on from last year's design, the sedan represents the new sixth-generation 3 Series. It's slightly larger and faster than the previous 3 Series generations, but lighter and considerably more efficient. It also has a bolder look inside and out, revised suspension and steering, and more interior space. Beyond its improvements, however, the current 3 Series is just the latest generation in a well-bred family of sport sedans.
Current BMW 3 Series
The BMW 3 Series is offered in a variety of body styles (sedan, wagon, coupe and convertible) and engine choices. However, while the sedan has been completely redesigned for 2012, the other body styles carry over largely unchanged for now. Key changes to the sedan include new evolutionary styling, a more visually interesting cabin, revised suspension tuning, a new electrically driven steering system, BMW's adjustable driving settings and additional features. It's also the first 3 Series since the 1990s to come with a four-cylinder engine.
The 3 Series is broken down into 328i, 335i and 335is (coupe and convertible only) models that correspond to engine. For the 328i, however, that engine differs by body style. The sedan gets a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Its EPA-estimated fuel economy of 28 mpg combined is superb for the class. The other 328i body styles get a 3.0-liter inline-6 that produces 230 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque.
The 335i regardless of body style (not available on the wagon) gets a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 that produces 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. The 335is is available only as a coupe or convertible, and features a twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-6 good for 320 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. Rear-wheel drive is standard on all 3 Series models, with all-wheel drive available on the coupe and wagon.
Inside, drivers will find a restrained show of luxury, with an emphasis on driver comfort and involvement -- supportive seats underneath and a clean, clear analog gauge cluster dead ahead. The redesigned sedan is far more visually interesting, however, especially when you opt for one of three design lines -- Luxury, Sport or Modern.
Regardless of body style, materials and build quality are exceptional; even the standard leatherette upholstery looks and feels better than one might expect. In the convertible, the optional leather upholstery features sun-reflective pigments that lower the temperature of dark-colored leather surfaces. For those who avoid convertibles because of the dreaded SBS (sweaty butt syndrome), your open-top chariot has arrived.
If you can ante up the considerable bottom line, the BMW 3 Series is still the standard-bearer of the compact luxury-sport class. Thanks to its perfectly sorted and balanced vehicle dynamics, powerful and efficient engines, and wide range of configurations, the 3 Series earns our very strong recommendation.
Used BMW 3 Series Models
The previous, fifth-generation 3 Series sedan debuted along with the wagon model for 2006 with a complete makeover. Compared to the earlier 3 Series, it boasted bigger dimensions, new styling, updated electronics and improved driving dynamics. Originally, the model designations were 325i and 330i. The former was powered by a 215-hp 3.0-liter inline-6 engine, while the 330i featured a 255-hp 3.0-liter inline-6 engine.
The 328i and 335i model designations and associated engines appeared for 2007, as did the redesigned coupe and convertible (that continue to be sold as new vehicles). This was the first year for the 328i's 230-hp 3.0-liter inline-6 and the 335i's 300-hp engine. That year also saw the 3 Series coupe get all-wheel drive for the first time.
For 2009-'11, a 335d sedan model was sold that featured a 3.0-liter turbodiesel inline-6 that produced 265 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque. Its blend of power and fuel economy was unmatched at the time. Other notable changes occurred for 2009. The sedan and wagon's exterior were freshened to more closely resemble the more handsome coupe, and the xDrive name debuted for all-wheel-drive models (replacing 328xi and 335xi). The 335is arrived for '11, as did slightly better fuel economy for the 335i's turbo engine that year.
The fifth-generation 3 Series sedan (2006-'11) was characterized by its perfectly sorted and balanced vehicle dynamics, strong engines and excellent interior build quality. If that sounds familiar, it's because these qualities have been 3 Series hallmarks for decades now. The only notable downsides to the car are limited interior storage space and mediocre rear seat headroom. Buyers might want to pay special attention to the iDrive electronics interface that came with the optional navigation system -- it was considerably less user-friendly prior to 2009, so we suggest playing around with it before signing on the dotted line.
The highly regarded fourth-generation ("E46") 3 Series debuted as a sedan for the 1999 model year. The coupe, convertible and wagon models fell in line a year later in 2000. Like those that came before and after, this BMW 3 Series never failed to impress as a top choice in the segment. Our editors consistently reported that the 3 Series' world-class suspension, engines, steering and brakes made it a delight to drive, while its interior design and overall quality satisfied those desiring luxury and prestige.
Originally, the available engines included a 170-hp 2.5-liter inline-6 (curiously dubbed the 323i) and a 193-hp 2.8-liter inline-6 in the 328i. You might want to look at the newer models, though -- for 2001, feature content and engine displacement/technology was boosted, and all-wheel drive became available. The 2.5-liter was now matched to the 325i and produced 184 hp. The bigger six now displaced 3.0 liters (suitably named 330i) and it pumped out 225 hp. An exterior face-lift for sedans and wagons occurred for 2002, with the coupes and convertibles following for 2004. Detail improvements like navigation, bi-xenon headlights and rain-sensing wipers helped carry the 325i and 330i BMWs through the remaining few years.
From 1992-'98, BMW's 3 Series was in its third generation ("E36"). Even though these 3 Series models are getting on in years today, they were considered one of the best cars in their time at combining luxury and sport. Body styles included a sedan, a coupe, a convertible and a short-lived hatchback. Engine choices ranged from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder to a 190-hp six-cylinder. In general, any BMW 3 Series from this generation that's been well maintained and has low mileage should be an excellent choice.
If you are looking for newer years, visit our new BMW 3 Series page.
For more on past BMW 3 Series models, view our BMW 3 Series history page.