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 — 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.
The current-generation 3 Series is 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 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 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, 328d, 330e, 330i and 340i models. The 320i and 330i sedans and 330i wagon get a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine that produces either 180 horsepower (320i) or 248 hp (330i). Topping the range is the sedan-only 340i with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six with 320 hp.
There are also two fuel-efficient 3 Series options. The 328d sedan and wagon are powered by a 180-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel that returns highway fuel economy in the low 40s. Or check out the 330e sedan. It's a plug-in hybrid that has an electric-only range of about 22 miles. Once the battery runs low, fuel economy is around 30 mpg.
Transmission choices include a six-speed manual and an eight-speed automatic, though diesels, hybrids and wagons are automatic-only. Rear-wheel drive is standard on all 3 Series sedans, while all-wheel drive is available on the sedan (except the hybrid) and standard on all wagons.
The amount of standard features on the base 320i is decent, but the other trims have more of the features you'd likely want or expect. Popular optional features to be on the lookout for include a bigger infotainment display, keyless ignition and entry, a premium Harman Kardon sound system, a sunroof, a Track Handling package (improves handling) and a variety of extra safety aids.
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. Materials and build quality are high; even the standard faux leather (vinyl) upholstery looks and feels better than you might expect. Overall, we think the BMW 3 Series is a top pick in the small luxury sedan and wagon class.
Used BMW 3 Series Models
The current, sixth generation of the 3 Series bowed for the 2012 model year in sedan, coupe and convertible form. 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, an 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. The coupe and convertible were still based on the previous-generation 3 Series. 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, and the new coupe and convertible became part of the 4 Series line. The most important year to pay attention to is 2016. It's here that BMW updated the styling, upped the power on the six-cylinder engine (becoming the 340i), and revised feature availability. The ActiveHybrid 3 was also replaced with the plug-in 330e. For 2017, the 328i got a slight power bump and a name change to 330i.
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-six engine, while the 330i featured a 255-hp 3.0-liter inline-six 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-six 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 to '11, a 335d sedan model was sold that featured a 3.0-liter diesel-powered inline-six 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. 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 before 2009, so we suggest playing around with it before signing on the dotted line.
The highly regarded fourth-generation 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-six (curiously dubbed the 323i) and a 193-hp 2.8-liter inline-six 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 engine with 225 hp. An exterior face-lift for sedans and wagons arrived for 2002, with the coupes and convertibles following suit for 2004. Detail improvements such as navigation, bi-xenon headlights and rain-sensing wipers helped carry the 325i and 330i BMWs through the remaining few years.
From 1992 to '98, BMW's 3 Series was in its third generation. 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.