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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 classy entry-level luxury car endowed with world-class fit and finish, spirited performance and an exquisite ride-and-handling balance unmatched by most vehicles at any price. That's true no matter which model or year you choose, as generation after generation of 3 Series has offered the same benefits despite constant evolution. Accordingly, buying a used 3 Series is a solid bet -- there's nary a bad apple in this barrel.
As for the new 3 Series, it's slightly larger and faster than its predecessor, yet lighter and more fuel-efficient. It also boasts a bolder look inside and out, revised suspension and steering, and more interior space. Although some may argue that the car's sporting edge has been blunted a bit, we still find the 3 Series sedan and wagon exceptionally rewarding to drive. If you're looking for the current coupe and convertible, note that they're now known as the 4 Series and are reviewed separately.
Current BMW 3 Series
Today's BMW 3 Series is offered as either a sedan or a wagon. It's broken down into 320i, 328i, 328d, 335i and ActiveHybrid 3 models. The 320i and 328i sedans and 328i wagon get a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine that produces either 180 horsepower (320i) or 240 hp (328i). The 328d sedan and wagon are powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel-powered four-cylinder that also makes 180 hp but considerably more torque; highway fuel economy is impressively in the low 40s. The sedan-only 335i gets a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 with 300 hp. The ActiveHybrid 3 sedan pairs the 335i's engine with an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack, resulting in a healthy 335 hp; however, fuel economy is about the same as in the 328i.
Transmission choices are limited to a six-speed manual and an eight-speed automatic, with the former unavailable in the wagon and ActiveHybrid 3. Rear-wheel drive is standard on all 3 Series sedans, while all-wheel drive is available on the sedan (except the ActiveHybrid 3) and standard on all wagons.
Standard features on the base 320i include alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, manual front seats, leatherette upholstery, Bluetooth and the iDrive electronics interface with a 6.5-inch display. The 328i upgrades to power front seats, while the 335i and ActiveHybrid 3 throw in larger wheels, xenon headlights and a sunroof. As usual, the options lists is long and strong, including everything from a hard-drive-based navigation system with a larger display screen to a Dynamic Handling package with a sport-tuned suspension and variable-ratio steering.
In reviews, we've lauded the exceptionally well-rounded nature of this 3 Series. Whether you're devouring miles on the interstate, running errands around town or making time on your favorite back road, the car always feels up to the task, even if its electrically assisted steering is less engaging than what previous generations of the 3 Series offered. Inside, drivers will find a restrained show of luxury, with an emphasis on comfort and involvement. The supportive seats underneath are complemented by a clean, clear analog gauge cluster dead ahead. The four available design "lines" -- Luxury, Modern, Sport and M Sport -- add visual spice to what has historically been a rather drab interior. Materials and build quality are exceptional; even the standard leatherette (vinyl) upholstery looks and feels better than one might expect.
Overall, if you can afford the price of admission, the BMW 3 Series is still the standard-bearer in the compact luxury-sport class. Thanks to its wonderfully balanced dynamics, powerful and efficient engine lineup and wide range of configurations, the 3 Series earns our very strong recommendation.
Used BMW 3 Series Models
The current, sixth generation of the 3 Series bowed for the 2012 model year. You may have to look twice to tell it apart from the previous generation, but a close inspection reveals a more voluptuous hood and sleeker taillights, among other changes. There's also an overhauled dashboard, revised suspension tuning, a new electrically assisted steering system, BMW's adjustable driving settings and additional feature content. Furthermore, the backseat has been enlarged to accommodate adults with greater ease.
Initially, the current 3 Series was offered in 328i or 335i trim with rear-wheel drive. For 2013, all-wheel drive was added to the roster, and both the 320i and ActiveHybrid 3 sedans debuted. The wagon and the diesel engine were introduced for 2014. Notably, the previous-generation 3 Series coupe and convertible were sold alongside the current-generation cars from 2012-'13, while the 4 Series was readied for production.
The previous, fifth-generation 3 Series debuted in both sedan and wagon form for 2006. Compared to the earlier 3 Series, it boasted bigger dimensions, new styling, updated electronics and improved performance. 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.
BMW introduced the 328i and 335i model designations and associated engines for 2007, as well as the redesigned coupe and convertible. This was the first year for the 328i's 230-hp 3.0-liter inline-6 and the 335i's 300-hp engine. Also, the 3 Series coupe could be equipped with all-wheel drive for the first time.
For 2009-'11, a 335d sedan model was sold that featured a 3.0-liter diesel-powered 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 changes for 2009 included freshened styling for the sedan and wagon, as well as the debut of the "xDrive" moniker for all-wheel-drive models (replacing 328xi and 335xi). The high-performance 335is arrived for '11, as did slightly better fuel economy for the 335i's turbo engine that year.
This fifth-generation 3 Series provided perfectly sorted 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. The only notable downsides to the car are limited interior storage space and mediocre rear passenger space, even in the sedan and wagon. Used-car shoppers 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. This iteration of the BMW 3 Series never failed to impress as a top choice in the segment. Our editors consistently attested that the E46's 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 technology were boosted, and all-wheel drive became available. The 2.5-liter model was renamed 325i and produced 184 hp, while the more powerful model was renamed 330i based on its new 3.0-liter, 225-hp engine. An exterior face-lift for sedans and wagons arrived for 2002, with the coupes and convertibles following suit 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 peerless at the time when it came to 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 remains compelling, though keep in mind that maintenance costs can easily outstrip the car's market value within a few years.
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.