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BMW 3 Series Through the Years

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The BMW 3 Series generations have powered their way into enthusiast’s hearts for decades. Race through the history of The Ultimate Driving Machine.

Defining “The Ultimate Driving Machine”

For 104 years, BMW has built vehicles for the enthusiast as “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” And since 1975, the BMW 3 Series generations have been the banner carrier for the brand. To enthusiasts, the 3 Series has been the purest example of what BMW stands for. The 3 is where the M Sport model line began, and although the 3 Series generations have grown in size and there is now a 2 Series, it’s still highly capable as a sports sedan. We’re looking back at the BMW 3 Series history through the years, one of the company’s most popular and iconic cars. BMW 3 Series generations span decades of every body style, multiple sports car racing classes, and success in the street and track. Whether you are an enthusiast or lover of the brand, the 3 Series continues to provide you the benefits of its mission as The Ultimate Driving Machine.

Generations of BMW Series 3 - bmwgroup.com
Generations of BMW Series 3 - bmwgroup.com

First Generation (1975 – 1983)

1984 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com

1984 BMW 3 Series – bmwgroup.com  |  Shop BMW 3 Series on Carsforsale.com

  • BMW’s 3 Series E21 North America version began production in 1976.
  • The BMW 3 Series design was the brainchild of Paul Bracq, BMW Director of Design, from 1970 to 1974.
  • The athletic 2-door Sedan was slightly larger than the beloved BMW 2002 Coupe.
  • The 3 Series included one innovation to become a standard feature in all BMW models: a dashboard angled toward the driver.
  • The US market 2.0 liter was a M10 B20 Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injected inline 4-cylinder paired with a 4-speed manual transmission and a top 103 MPH speed.
  • This car was a runaway success in the US.
  • The BMW 320iS with a 101 HP 1.8-liter engine and upgraded 5-speed transmission was first produced in 1980
  • By 1983, the first generation 3 Series (including the BMW 316, 318, 320, 320i) had reached an astounding 1.4 million sales worldwide.

Second Generation (1984 – 1991)

1984 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
1984 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
  • The E30 BMW 318i replaced the 320 and was twice the price of the previous model.
  • BMW’s new 3 emphasized dramatic improvements in aerodynamics, body rigidity, and safety.
  • The soon to follow 325e featured a 2.7L inline 6-cylinder engine.
  • In 1985, BMW introduced a sport-tuned 325es and slowly phased out the 4-cylinder 318.
  • The bold, high-performance 197 HP, 0-60 in 6.7 seconds M3 appeared with a top speed of 146 MPH.
  • The 325is was introduced in 1987 equipped with 168 HP, 164 lb-ft of torque, and a 0 to 60 of 7.4 seconds.
  • BMW introduced an all-wheel-drive version named 325ix in 1988.

Third Generation (1992 – 1998)

1992 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
1992 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
  • The E36 led this generation down the road to sophistication.
  • Dramatic design changes were led by the A and C pillars’ increased slope combined with the “dolphin shape” exterior.
  • For the first time, the sedan became the flagship of the 3 Series line.
  • A 0-60 time of 6.9 second 3.0-liter, DOHC 24 valve, 6-cylinder engine in the BMW 325i was almost as fast as the previous-generation M3.
  • BMW achieved a near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution on the E36 with chassis improvement and new design proportions.
  • The new Z-axle multi-link suspension replaced the previous E30 trailing arms providing better traction and rough road handling.
  • This generation was known for having 13 different versions of the car to buy.

Fourth Generation (1999 – 2005)

1999 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
1999 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
  • This E46 became bigger in luxury, dimensions, power, and sales.
  • The greenhouse was designed to be larger and a more curvaceous roof was added to help aerodynamics and passenger headroom.
  • BMW developed a new chassis and innovative driving stability systems for the fourth generation of the BMW 3 Series models.
  • The 6-cylinder engine became standard across the line with power of up to 225 HP in the 330i.
  • The E46 was the best-selling of all BMW 3 Series generations.

Fifth Generation (2006 – 2011)

2006 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
2006 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
  • The E90/91/92/92 was awarded World Car of the Year in 2006
  • No longer a sporty coupe, the E90 four-door was now bigger than the original 5 Series.
  • BMW introduced different design languages for the coupe, convertible, and sedan.
  • The M3 fused the three languages for a powerful design.
  • In 2006, every model was powered by a 3.0L 6-cylinder engine producing either 215 hp or 255 hp, depending on the model.
  • In 2007, the BMW 3 Series offered its first retractable hardtop.
  • The first inline 6-cylinder TwinPower Turbo engines were made available in the 328i and 335i, respectively.

Sixth Generation (2012 – 2018)

2012 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
2012 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com
  • The F30/F31/F34 started the Hybrid BMW 3 Series generation.
  • Evolved design more in line with the 5 Series.
  • Provided increased personalization of colors and materials.
  • Three new trim packages: the Modern line, Sports line, and Luxury line.
  • The range of engines included hybrid options (the ActiveHybrid 3, followed by the 330e iPerformance). All of the engines were also turbocharged.
  • A 3.0L inline 6-cylinder engine is also available, producing around 300 hp.
  • The 3 Series Gran Turismo was added in the 2014 model year. BMW ceased production of this Audi A5 Sportback competitor in 2020.
  • The Convertible, Coupé, and the new Gran Coupé formed their own family: the BMW 4 Series.
  • The 6th generation added electronic driving aids a more computerized and luxurious interior.

Seventh Generation (2018 – Present)

2018 BMW 3 Series - bmwgroup.com

2018 BMW 3 Series – bmwgroup.com  |  Shop BMW 3 Series on Carsforsale.com

  • The BMW 3 Series G20 loses weight by 120 pounds and becomes 1.6 inches longer in wheelbase and 3.0 inches longer in overall length.
  • The 7th generation has a 25% stiffer chassis to improve driving dynamics.
  • 11% lower drag coefficient and a flat sealed LeMans style underbody with rear diffuser
  • Yearly Apple CarPlay fee dropped in 2019.
  • BMW includes the “BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant,” which responds to voice prompts preceded by the words “Hey, BMW,”
  • An updated active suspension debuts standard on the M340i and optional on other models.
  • Optional all-digital cockpit with larger screens, driving aids, and WiFi.
  • The usually rear-wheel-drive M3 will have an optional All-wheel drive (xDrive) for the first time.
  • BMW announces the performance plug-in-hybrid 330e and 330e xDrive Sedans for 2021.
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2021 BMW 3 Series 330e - bmwusa.com
2021 BMW 3 Series 330e - bmwusa.com

The BMW 3 Series generations have come a long way over the last 40 years. The 7th generation has evolved with the marketplace’s demands in size, aerodynamics, electrification, and performance. The technology, speed, and cornering would have been unheard of in a passenger car, let alone an F1 car, when the 3 Series first entered the market. The most recent G20 3 Series is luxurious, extremely quick, full of the latest technology, and larger than any generation before it. But its heart still beats to the tune of The Ultimate Driving Machine started in 1975.

2021 BMW 3 Series 330i - bmwusa.com

2021 BMW 3 Series 330i – bmwusa.com  |  Shop new BMW 3 Series on Carsforsale.com

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2016 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Steve Mitchell

Steve's first car had pedals, and he's been filled with passion for four wheels ever since. He lives and breathes the car life as a technologist, futurist, and writer while keeping up with the whys, hows, and plans of the automotive industry. His automotive journey began with a fully restored Triumph TR3b that he sadly never appreciated until decades later. Ownerships of X-1/9's, BMW's, an SVT and a Dodge Ram Hemi have given way to the house of Audi Sport. You'll also find him as an endurance athlete on the bike in SoCal, but you'll know he's thinking about cars.

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