From a 21st-century perspective, BMW's 3 Series is about as slam-dunk-wonderful a car as there is available. The 3 Series enjoys a well-deserved reputation for packing outstanding driving dynamics, excellent quality and undeniable prestige into handsome sheet metal. It's the standard against which all other small sport sedans are, and must be, measured. Even back in the 20th century, when the 3 Series first appeared, it was widely thought of as the cream of the small sport sedan crop.
In the mid 1970s, BMW faced the task of replacing its aging 2002 coupe. But the company also knew that the 2002 embodied the company's spirit. As such, the 2002's replacement would need to keep that spirit intact while modernizing in other respects.
BMW picked a ripe moment in history to introduce the first 3 Series generation, internally designated E21. The world was just coming off the shock of the oil embargo as the first one rolled off the Milbertshofen assembly line on May 2, 1975, and people who never would have considered a smaller car now found the idea of a fun and frugal machine irresistible. In 1974, BMW sold 184,330 cars, but bolstered by the European introduction of the 3 Series in 1975, worldwide sales reached 221,298. The 3 Series hit North America as a 1977 model, and that pushed BMW production over 290,000 that year and beyond 320,000 in 1978.
The only E21 model available Stateside was the 320i. It was marginally larger than the outgoing 2002 (at 100.9 inches, the 3's wheelbase was 2.5 inches longer and the car's 177.5-inch overall length was 1.5 inches longer), and that extra size imbued it with a more stable, yet still easygoing character. As a direct successor to the 2002, the 320i was still available only as a two-door and carried over most of the styling themes established by that car, such as the forward-leaning grille, clipped rear side windows and low beltline.
Under the skin, the car was an evolutionary step up from the 2002. Basic elements like the MacPherson strut front and trailing arm rear suspension and front disc/rear drum power braking system differed in detail and specification, but were similar in overall design. For power, the car had a 2.0-liter Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injected inline-4 rated at 110 horsepower; it met emissions regulations without a catalytic converter. The standard transmission remained a Getrag four-speed manual, while a ZF three-speed automatic was optional.
The evolution of the American-market E21 320i was incremental. In 1980, the engine shrank to 1.8 liters (though the name remained 320i) and BMW added a three-way catalytic converter to the emissions control system. Though it now produced just 100 hp, the 1.8's performance deficit was ameliorated somewhat by the adoption of a five-speed manual transmission. In any event, this change did not dampen America's enthusiasm for the car, as sales continued to climb, spurred by BMW's growing reputation and a second oil embargo in 1979. As the last few E21s dribbled out of dealer showrooms in 1983, BMW had firmly established its 3, 5 and 7 Series sedan product mix and was ready to move all of its products progressively upmarket throughout the rest of the decade.
In Road & Track's first test of the new 1984 318i, in its July 1983 issue, the first of the second-generation "E30" 3 Series, the most startling thing about it was the price tag. At an as-tested $18,210, this 318i was more than double the price of a 1977 320i, yet in general specification the new car wasn't much different from the old one, at least in two-door form. A closer look, however, revealed that substantial improvements had been made. Designated E30, the second-generation 3 Series was initially available only in two-door form.
While again an evolutionary change, the E30's styling offered significant aerodynamic benefits over the E21. The headlights were almost flush with the grille, which was less radically angled than before. In contrast to the flat hood of the E21, the E30's sloped gently, and the car was generally sportier than before. There wasn't much difference in size, with the E30's wheelbase growing a mere 0.3 inch to 101.2 and overall length actually dropping slightly. But what many reviewers and buyers noticed first about the E30 was how substantial and tight the car felt. Knowing that the "Baby Mercedes" was on the way, the E30 engineering team had redoubled its efforts to exceed expectations for build quality and durability, which were traditional Benz strengths.
With 101 hp from its 1.8-liter injected four, the 1984 318i two-door was an inauspicious start for the E30 platform. But almost immediately following that car was the 325e, which featured a 2.7-liter version of the inline six-cylinder engine first introduced on the larger 528e sedan. With a high compression ratio along with a low redline and economy-minded gearing, the "eta" 2.7-liter mill, like all BMW sixes, was smooth and torquey. While hardly sporting in character, its 121 hp was the most BMW had offered to U.S. buyers since the long-ago 2002tii, and the car was decently quick, making it to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds at 81.5 mph for Road & Track. By comparison, the 318i did the same deeds in 11.6 and 18.3 seconds, respectively, with a 74.0-mph trap speed in the quarter.
The four-door arrived for 1985, and along with it came a new four-speed automatic transmission available with either the four or the six. By 1986, the demand for the four-cylinder 318i had dried up, and it was dropped from the lineup, but antilock four-wheel disc brakes were now standard and a better-handling, sportier-looking 325es two-door joined the line.
The E30 really came of age in the 1987 model year with the appearance of the 325i and 325is models, which abandoned the "eta" reduced-rev/high-fuel-mileage engine concept, as well as the introduction of the 325iC convertible, the first pure convertible offered in the 3 Series. "The new 325is is the first genuinely sporting BMW to reach our shores since the 2002tii went out of production in 1975," wrote Car and Driver upon testing the '87 325is. The 325is engine, though part of the same M20 family as the eta engine and having the same 84mm bore, had a 75mm stroke (down 6mm from the eta) to drop displacement from 2,693 to 2,494 cubic centimeters. That short stroke was one element that opened the rev range a full 500 rpm higher and pushed the output to 168 hp and 164 pound-feet of peak torque — easily the most powerful 3 Series to that moment. Car and Driver's 325is blasted to 60 mph in just 7.4 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds at 88 mph. So gratifying and ingratiating was the new 325i engine that most reviewers felt the car was worth its soaring price tag. In the case of Car and Driver's 325is, that tag read $27,475 — which, the magazine pointed out, was double the price of the old 2002tii, taking inflation into account.
Hard-core BMW enthusiasts will fondly recall the year 1988, as this was the first year the original E30 M3 was sold in the United States. Originally built to take on Mercedes' Cosworth-tweaked 190E 2.3-16 in FIA Group A racing, the M3 employed a 2.3-liter four-cylinder capped with a twin-cam four-valve head that was essentially one of the big six four-valve heads with two fewer cylinders. Dropped into a modified 3 Series two-door body shell (the flared fenders, more steeply raked rear window and higher trunk lid meant only the hood was left untouched compared with more plebian 3 Series coupes), the Bosch fuel-injected "M Power" four was rated at 192 hp at a wailing 6,750 rpm when it finally got to North America.
"This is not a car for yuppies," wrote Car and Driver on its first exposure to the U.S.-spec M3. "This is a car for us. In case you haven't noticed, BMW's U.S. lineup has blossomed to include a dazzling array of leather-lined hot rods that beg to be flogged through the twisties and hammered on the superslabs." Stirring the five-speed manual transmission, Car and Driver blasted that 2,857-pound M3 to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds, blitzed the quarter-mile in just 15.2 seconds with a 92-mph trap speed and screamed to a 141-mph top speed. With an as-tested price of $34,810, the M3 was at that time (and remains for many purists) the ultimate BMW 3 Series.
BMW would build an all-wheel-drive 325ix model in 1988 as well, and the Motorsport fanatics conjured up race-ready "Evolution" models of the M3 for those who found the already high-strung original too tame. With expansion possibilities thoroughly and gloriously exhausted, the E30 3 Series faded out of production in 1991.
Thanks to the E30, the two-door heritage of the 2002 and 320i had been transcended, and the 3 Series was now a full line of compact coupes, sedans and convertibles with serious sporting pretensions. It was also the envy of the industry, as pretenders as suspect as the Cadillac Cimarron and as legitimate as the Audi 4000 Quattro tried and failed to reproduce BMW's 3 Series magic. Replacing a product as successful as the E30 with anything but an evolutionary development was bound to be tricky and fraught with commercial danger.
The replacement for the E30, code-named E36, was the first clear and obvious break from the proportions and styling details established by the 2002. In practically every dimension, the E36 four-door was slightly larger than the E30. At 106.3 inches, its wheelbase stretched 5.1 inches longer than the E30's, and the car was slightly more than 4 inches longer overall. This extra size was put to good use with increased passenger room, a substantially stiffer structure and a perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution. Yet the wedge-shaped body of the E36 kept it from looking much larger than the bolt-upright E30, and its sleek detailing both improved aerodynamics and reduced wind noise.
While the E36's front suspension retained its traditional MacPherson strut design, engineers made the rear suspension more sophisticated than ever before. Called the "Z-axle," the new rear end was a multilink system as opposed to semi-trailing arms used in previous 3s. It offered much better camber-change characteristics throughout its travel. Mounted to its own subframe, the Z-axle wasn't cheap, but it worked spectacularly well and would become the prototype for rear suspensions in subsequent BMWs, including the 5 and 7 Series. While mostly new in design, other elements of the E36's chassis were familiar, such as the rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes and antilock brakes.
A new DOHC 24-valve aluminum head bumped the 325i's output to a robust 189 hp — so robust, in fact, that the first five-speed 325i tested by Car and Driver bolted to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 91 mph. That's just as quick as the original M3 to 60, and just a tenth of a second behind it in the quarter-mile — and this was the mainstream volume-production four-door. By the 1993 model year, the M50 engine would gain BMW's VANOS variable valve timing system, and consequently a sweeter, fatter torque curve.
The four-cylinder engine in the 318i also used a four-valve cylinder head to make 138 hp. But U.S. BMW buyers were increasingly opting for six-cylinder engines in their cars, and throughout the E36's production cycle, fewer and fewer fours were sold.
While the four-door E36 debuted in the fall of 1991 as a 1992 model, the two-door coupe didn't appear until 1993, while the new convertible was delayed until 1994. Unlike previous 3 Series two-doors, the E36 version wasn't an upright sedan with two fewer doors, but an altogether rakish coupe. The front windshield was more steeply laid back than in the sedan, as was the rear window, and from the A-pillar back the 325is coupe was a completely different car. But it looked a lot like the sedan anyhow, a family resemblance that was comforting to most buyers and disappointing to some critics who thought BMW could have been more radical with the coupe.
BMW wouldn't let the U.S. have the wagon model of the E36 when it went on sale in Europe during 1995, but it did bring the hatchback 318ti to North America during that model year. With a chopped tail and the semi-trailing arm rear suspension from the E30 aboard, the 318ti was intended to extend the 3 Series appeal downmarket and attract entry-level buyers. However, the only engine available was the 138-hp 1.8-liter four and the interior decor was rather austere in comparison to the increasingly plush innards of other 3 Series cars. Never fully accepted by many BMW enthusiasts, the 318ti would attract relatively few U.S. buyers before leaving production after the 1999 model year.
For the 1996 model year, the 2.5-liter engine in the 325i and 325iS was replaced by a new 2.8-liter inline-6, and the 325i and 325is were accordingly rechristened 328i and 328is. Horsepower jumped a bit to 190, and peak torque production swelled from 181 lb-ft at 4,200 rpm to 207 lb-ft at 3,950 rpm. In 1998, a 168-hp 2.5-liter version of the inline-6 was offered in the coupe and convertible to create, counter-intuitively, the 323i convertible and 323is coupe. No one has yet come up with a convincing explanation for BMW's decision not to call them 325s.
Of course, the star of the E36 line in enthusiasts' eyes was the M3. Hitting the market for 1995 with a thunderclap of exceeded expectations, the E36 M3 two-door coupe wasn't the narrowly focused track car the E30 version was, but rather an exceptional road machine with a flexible engine and an imperturbable chassis. The U.S. M3 was equipped with a bored-and-stroked version of the 325i's inline-6. This 3.0-liter had 240 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque at its disposal, which it deployed in an amazingly refined, yet generous fashion. European M3s got a 282-hp version of the same engine, but it was peakier, with a less hearty torque curve.
To say that reviewers were enthused about the new M3 would be a severe understatement. They raved about the suspension tuning, they blathered on about how perfectly dressed the car was with its tasteful ground effects, and they nearly plotzed when describing the interior's design and execution. Oh, yeah — and it was fast. Car and Driver's first E36 M3 rocketed to 60 in just 5.6 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 98 mph. That's a full 1.3 seconds quicker to 60 than the E30 M3 tested by the same magazine and nearly a second quicker in the quarter-mile — with everyday livability that the peaky E30 M3 could never approach.
So successful was the E36 M3 that spin-offs appeared quickly. For racers, BMW introduced the M3 Lightweight in 1995 with — you guessed it — reduced weight (about 200 pounds less) for competition. Though they lacked amenities like air-conditioning, a radio and a backseat, and their narrow focus compromised everyday livability and performance, the 85 Lightweights brought to America by BMW sold out quickly.
The M3 Evolution appeared as a 1996 model, and nominal engine displacement grew from 3.0 liters to 3.2. In Europe, that meant output now stood at an astounding 321 hp at a screaming 7,400 rpm. In America, with slightly different bore and stroke dimensions, hp sadly remained at 240, although peak torque output ballooned to 236 lb-ft at a mere 3,800 rpm.
In 1997, for the first time ever, the M3 was offered as a four-door and with a five-speed automatic transmission. Motor Trend tested a manual-equipped four-door M3 and made it to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds.
The M3 was also offered as a convertible for 1998, but by this point the E36 was clearly coming to the end of its life. Many wondered how BMW could possibly improve upon this iconic car.
Following the path it set with the introduction of the E36, the E46 3 Series came to market one model at a time, starting with the 1999 323i and 328i four-door sedans. The most obvious changes to the new 3 Series came by way of its reshaped body and included a new front end, wider wheel arches and a more rounded roof line. The headlights now featured "cut outs" below the lenses, which emphasized the traditional BMW quad headlight design.
Just as the E36 had grown in size in comparison to the E30, so grew the E46. The wheelbase increased by only an inch to 107.3, while overall length was up about an inch and a half to 176 inches. The 3 Series was still comfortably compact and smaller than the contemporaneous Honda Accord.
Mechanically, changes to the E46 were initially rather subtle. Structurally, the body shell was, BMW claimed, 70 percent stiffer than the E36's, and the extended wheelbase allowed the engine to be moved further back in the chassis in order to retain the E36's 50/50 weight distribution. More extensive use of aluminum in the suspension components helped reduce unsprung weight, and the track was widened, even though the basic suspension, braking and steering system designs were almost unchanged. Rear-seat passengers found the E46 roomier than any previous 3 Series, and all the occupants were protected by new structures and a full array of airbags.
Four-cylinder models weren't part of the E46 equation in America, though they continued to be offered elsewhere. The U.S.-market inline-6 engines featured a lighter aluminum block, a more advanced Double VANOS variable valve timing system and a dual resonance intake system. The E46 328i's 2.8-liter mill made 193 hp at 5,500 rpm and 206 lb-ft of torque at just 3,500 rpm, while the 2.5-liter produced 170 hp and 181 lb-ft of torque in the still confusingly named 323i.
For 2000, the E46 line expanded with the introduction of the 323Ci and 328Ci coupe models and, later, the convertible (in 323Ci form only). For the first time, a wagon (only available in 323i trim) joined the line.
Despite still being a fresh face in the marketplace, the E46 was upgraded in both 2001 and 2002. For 2001, the 2.5-liter engine was modified to boost its output up to 184 hp, while the 2.8-liter engine was replaced by a new 3.0-liter version rated at 225 hp. Though wagons were still restricted to the smaller engine, convertibles could now get the big one. In celebration, BMW once again called the 3 Series with the 2.5-liter engines 325s, and those with the 3.0-liter engine became 330s. In addition, the company reintroduced all-wheel drive as an option on sedans and wagons to create the 325xi and 330xi. To the chagrin of hard-core BMW enthusiasts, steering effort was also lightened. For 2002, BMW updated the E46's appearance with a revised front fascia and new taillights.
To no one's surprise, the E46 continued to be just as wonderful as all its 3 Series ancestors. But the E46 M3 was something else altogether.
With flared wheel arches, side gills and four chrome exhaust tips burbling under a unique rear skirt, the M3 was muscular, refined and more than a little menacing — a frat boy who was both the smartest kid in school and an unabashed steroid abuser.
But the best part of the E46 M3 was underneath that sensuous sheet metal. Concealed beneath the aluminum "power dome" hood were 3.2 liters of inline-6 packing every engine technology except thrust vectoring (which is still reserved for fighter aircraft). Output was a staggering 333 horses, fully 93 more than the previous M3's motor, and 262 lb-ft of torque. It was amazing what variable valve timing, individual throttle bodies for each cylinder, an 8,000-rpm redline and an exhaust system BMW calls "one of the freest-flowing ever installed in a production car" could produce. In our tests, the M3 ripped from zero to 60 in 5 seconds flat. Devouring the quarter-mile required just 13.5 seconds at 105 mph.
For 2003 the 3 Series finally received the option of a DVD-based navigation system. Other enhancements fitted as standard included a front center armrest for the 325 models, a rear center headrest for sedans and wagons and a moonroof for the wagons. A Performance package for the 330i sedan brought 10 more hp (for a total of 235), a six-speed manual and a firmer suspension (with 18-inch alloys) to this already superb sport sedan.
A slew of changes took place for 2004; those of the mechanical variety included the expansion of the six-speed SMG gearbox to models beyond the M3 and the availability of an automatic transmission with the 330i Performance package. Visual tweaks were subtle on the 330i sedan (a black grille insert replaced the previous silver unit) and more overt on the coupes and convertibles (new front fascias and light cluster designs). A few new features joined the standard equipment list for sedans and wagons, including rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights.
2005 marked the final year of production for the E46 sedan and wagon. A power moonroof and Myrtle wood trim became standard on all models, a power top was made standard on the 325Ci convertible and SMG transmission availability was limited to 3.0-liter models equipped with the Sport package. The Performance and Premium packages could now be ordered together, and a flat tire warning and white turn indicator lights were standard across the lineup.
Per BMW tradition, the replacement for the E46 3 Series, dubbed "E90," was introduced a couple of body styles at a time. 2006 saw the arrival of the new sedan and wagon models, while the unchanged but still quite competitive E46 coupes and convertibles (including the M3) continued to be sold as '06 models. The nomenclature became more complicated for this redesign, as E90 technically referred only to the sedan, while the wagon was known as E91 and the forthcoming coupe and convertible were designated E92 and E93, respectively. This was also the first 3 Series to be designed on controversial BMW stylist Chris Bangle's watch.
Initial reactions to the new 3 Series' look were mixed. Most agreed that it had mercifully been spared the full Bangle treatment, but some grumbled about odd styling touches such as the sedan's pinched rear taillights. The real question, though, was whether it possessed the superior driving dynamics for which the 3 Series had historically been known. The E90 3 Series quickly served notice to inquiring enthusiasts that the answer was a resounding "Yes," thanks to attributes like an all-new five-link rear suspension, class-leading steering feel and a downright magical ride/handling balance.
While the 3 Series' sporting character had been left intact, notable changes were made to other aspects of the car. In addition to the revamped exterior styling, the E90 3 Series rode on a 1.4-inch-longer wheelbase and had a 1.2-inch-wider track than the E46. The increased dimensions yielded a passenger compartment that was 2.2 cubic feet larger, as well as a trunk that was more capacious by 1.3 cubic feet. These gains resulted in a slight penalty at the scales, as the E90 was about 100 pounds heavier than its predecessor.
Inside, BMW's oft-reviled iDrive interface was available but thankfully not mandatory. There were also plenty of traditional 3 Series traits like accessible, driver-centric controls and a near perfect driving position. Although changes in dashboard design compared with the E46 were mostly evolutionary, one notable difference was the inclusion of a second, mid-dash binnacle atop the optional navigation system. (Models without the nav had the more familiar flat-topped dash.) Rear-seat accommodations remained snug, but there was noticeably more knee room than in the E46.
Like its E46 predecessor, the 2006 3 Series was offered in either 325 or 330 trim and with standard rear-wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive; however, all '06 E90 models were powered by 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engines. The 325's version was rated at 215 hp, while the 330's engine was endowed with a three-stage induction system and other modifications that yielded an impressive 255 hp. Newly optional was BMW's Active Steering system, which promised such tricks as greater maneuverability at low speeds and electronically activated countersteer in the event of wheel slippage; nonetheless, observant drivers decreed that this system gave the steering an un-BMW-like artificial feel. Both sedan and wagon came standard with a six-speed manual transmission, while a six-speed automatic was optional.
For 2007, the rollout of the E90 3 Series continued with the introduction of the E92 coupe and the E93 convertible, the latter being BMW's first vehicle ever with a retractable hardtop. Although the elongated proportions of the new coupe and convertible were not quite as tight as 3 Series past, seductively sleek sheet metal — much of it unique to the two-door models — made these models highly desirable for those who didn't require the functionality of four doors. Also of note was the addition of BMW's excellent twin-turbocharged inline-6 to the 3 Series lineup. Models equipped with this silky-smooth and nearly lag-free power plant enjoyed performance rivaling that of the old E46 M3. Thanks to 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, the 0-60 sprint required only about 5 seconds.
With the advent of the twin-turbo mill, the 330 model with its 255-hp inline-6 was discontinued after just one year of production, as was the 325 model with its 215-hp unit. As a replacement, a new "base" 328 model was introduced, featuring a 3.0-liter inline-6 making 230 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque, while models with the turbocharged engine were designated 335. The E90 3 Series lineup now consisted of sedan, wagon, coupe and convertible models in either 328 or 335 form, with all-wheel drive available on all body styles but the convertible. With a new E90-based M3 due in '08, no M3 was offered for '07.
2008 saw few changes to the ordinary 3 Series lineup. Serious enthusiasts, however, will long remember '08 as the first year of production for the E90 M3. Many who had driven the sublime E46 M3 wondered how on earth BMW could raise the bar even higher this time around. On paper, the company succeeded in grand fashion — the E90 M3 was numerically superior to its E46 forefather by every relevant measure, and it was also available in sedan form for the first time since the E36 generation.
Bristling with 414 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque from its high-revving 4.0-liter V8, the E90 M3 warped to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds and dispatched the quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds at 112 mph. Pulling a supercar-level 0.95g on the skid pad, our M3 tester (a coupe) snaked through the slalom in a barely believable 75.0 mph. Available with a six-speed manual transmission or a seven-speed automated-clutch sequential-shift manual gearbox, there was no doubt that this M3 had the goods to be the best high-performance 3 Series model ever. The question for enthusiasts to debate was whether the car's historically vibrant soul had been diluted.
Some purists opined that steering feel had dropped a notch or two compared with the E46 M3. There was also debate about whether the E90 M3's V8 was a worthy successor to its predecessor's 333-hp inline-6. Performance testing aside, it was suggested that the V8's mechanical engine note proved no match for the glorious turbinelike smoothness of the six, particularly at higher engine speeds. For more than a few dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts, the E46 M3 just felt right — and the E90 M3 felt a bit too encumbered with cylinders and electronics.