By JAY RAMEY
The debut of a new BMW 3-Series is a special occasion – one that could easily be its own auto show. The seventh-generation 3-Series that made its debut at the Paris auto show this week joins a lineup that traces its roots to 1975, and further still to the beloved 2002 Neue Klasse cars that provided the initial recipe for this model. The 3-Series is nothing short of an auto industry legend and one of the most enduring successes for any German automaker, a success that has kept up with the times while setting the standard for a German luxury sports car.
Out of reach of competitors for most of its existence, the 3-Series is a brand in itself, one that requires no introduction across the world.
A new generation of the 3-Series does not come along all that often, so let’s take a stroll into BMW history with a look back at the first six generations of the model.
1st Generation: E21
It’s hard to believe, but the BMW 3-Series is 43 years old this year, having debuted in Munich in July 1975. The E21-generation 3-Series is where it all began, transforming the Neue Klasse 2002 into the midsize (for Europe) two-door sedan model range and resetting the clock on the rest of the model range along with it — a model range the might seem tiny when viewed through today’s eyes.
The 02 models were very much the forerunners of the 3-Series that materialized in 1975, and they had earned their place in this segment by being some of the greatest sales successes for the Bavarian automaker in the postwar period. The E21-generation 3-Series took the 02 family a step further by offering a fuller model range that attempted to appeal to a wider audience of buyers. The new model also pushed the 2002 formula in new dimensions, featuring shorter overhangs and more efficient use of the interior layout, in addition to upgraded engines.
“The all-four cylinder range started with the 316 that delivered 98 bhp but weighed only 1,010 kg and consequently ensured a spirited driving performance from the entry model,” BMW said about the E21-generation 3-Series. “The range also included the 318, 320 and the halo model 320i. With its 125 bhp, the 320i offered near-sports car performance with a top speed of 112 mph, aided by an independent spring strut suspension at the front and rear to deliver a truly revolutionary sporting drive.”
The Paul Bracq design still featured many of the Neue Klasse design elements, remixing them with more modern shapes that previewed the look of the 3-Series for the next two decades. Featuring chiseled sides and a blunt nose wearing the twin kidney grille, the E21-generation cars kept the circular headlights that would soon become the trademark of BMW models, with the range-topping E21 models adopting the twin-headlight look that would prevail well past the year 2000.
“The interior of the BMW 3-Series witnessed the debut of the now familiar driver-focused cockpit design,” BMW said. “The vertically stacked controls in the center of the dashboard were angled clearly toward the driver, making them easier to reach and read. This new development helped to optimize ergonomics and remains a signature feature of BMW models to this day.”
2nd Generation: E30
The E30-generation 3-Series made its debut in 1982, capitalizing on the success of its predecessor and offering a wider range of options along with a larger interior and a wider track. The E30 3-Series also brought with it a four-door model, one that debuted in 1983, some eight years after the 3-Series itself was born. This development would see the 3-Series lineup transformed from a relatively compact successor of sporty 2002 cars into a more serious lineup of still-compact luxury models, which would prosper during the economic climate of the 1980s.
“The new car’s lines were significantly tauter and smoother than those of its predecessor, and its drag coefficient had been reduced by almost 15 percent,” BMW said. “All model variants, regardless of engine size, were now fitted with twin circular headlights as standard. Although the second-generation 3-Series offered 4 centimeters of extra legroom inside, its body was actually 3 centimeters shorter than the previous model. The front indicator lights were relocated from the wing tip into the bumper. The characteristic side view was given a fresh interpretation, while a broader B-pillar painted matte black provided a stronger-looking center. The 35mm-wider track, meanwhile, gave the new car a muscular appearance. To top it all, the BMW development engineers had shaved around 30 kg off the car’s weight -– despite its more generous equipment levels.”
Now powered by four- and six-cylinder engines, the E30 kicked off the range with the 316 model offering 90 hp, while the more complete 323i served up 139 hp and a top speed of 126 mph. The 325i offered 171 hp — impressive figures for a six-cylinder engine at the time. The E30-generation 3-Series also served up a more chiseled look that hinted at things to come, while the debut of the second generations of the 5-Series and 7-Series, as well as the first generation of the 6-Series, defined the look of the model range for years to come.
The E30 remained in production for an enviable span of time, from 1982 till 1994 in some bodystyles — a product cycle difficult to picture now — and in many ways it was this iteration of the 3-Series, rather than the E21, that set the stage for the evolution of the model. Available not only a as a two-door coupe, two-door convertible and four-door sedan, the E30 introduced the five-door station wagon to the range, plus models available in gas and diesel form, along with all-wheel drive in their later years.
“The development engineers’ well of creativity was still far from dry. For example, the BMW 3-Series Touring revealed in 1987 represented a whole new way of combining driving pleasure and functionality,” BMW said. “Sporty, agile and visually appealing, the first BMW 3-Series with a generously sized rear compartment offered something different from the existing norm in this breed of car. And that set it apart as something of a trendsetter. The variety of BMW 3 Series models now available to customers played a major role in ensuring the second-generation car notched up 2,339,251 units in sales, outperforming its predecessor by almost a million cars in the process.”
The E30 generation also saw the debut of the M3, which kicked off this popular line in 1986. Wearing wider fenders and using an inline-four engine, the first-generation M3 served up 192 hp in its debut form, later dialing that up to 212 hp.
3rd Generation: E36
The third generation of the 3-Series, codenamed E36, debuted in 1990 while the E30-generation cars were still in production. Growing in size once again the 3-Series by now was a solid hit, offering luxury accommodations along with sporty handling and plenty of performance in just about every engine version. Planned with a sedan bodystyle in mind, the new 3-Series was longer overall while offering new levels of comfort. The two-door model was now a true coupe rather than a two-door sedan, while the convertible made use of the new and longer wheelbase to take shots at competitors much larger and more expensive than itself.
“The third generation of the BMW 3-Series employed a single-joint strut suspension with anti-roll bars at the front axle,” BMW notes. “At the rear, meanwhile, a new central control arm with two lateral control arms, one above the other, now ensured optimized directional stability (especially under high cornering speeds), harmonious roll characteristics and increased suspension comfort. Both the front and rear axle featured twin-tube gas-filled shock absorbers. And for the first time, the engineers had made the car’s track wider at the rear than at the front. This arrangement remained a fixture of the 3-Series’ design in the model generations that followed.”
The M3 model of this generation cemented its reputation as a sporty and tremendously capable model right out of the box. BMW also added a new bodystyle with this iteration of the 3-Series in the form of the 3-Series Compact that previewed the 1-Series hatches of the 2000s. A station wagon debuted in 1995 as well, a model which the U.S. did not receive.
“With its range of no less than 31 different models, this 3-Series range, comprising Saloon, Coupe, Convertible, Touring and Compact models, reached a grand total of 2,745,773 – 69,794 of which were M3 variants,” BMW notes.
4th Generation: E46
The E36 was a worldwide hit for BMW, one which reconfirmed the range as the Munich-based automaker’s bread and butter offering – and forced other automakers to spend quite a lot of time figuring out how the 3-Series worked. The E36 also spent a long time on the assembly line, entering production in 1990 and leaving in 2000 at its longest stretch; the compact hatch pushed it into the year 2000. Its replacement, the E46, debuted in 1998, featuring a new and more aerodynamic skin along with a wider range of engines than its predecessors.
“1998 saw the introduction of the new most recent 3-Series, codenamed E46. Initially only available as a Saloon, the E46 followed the pattern set by its predecessor in additionally offering Coupé, Convertible, Touring and Compact variants,” BMW said. “The saloon version again grew in size by 4 centimeters and, when compared to the original 3-Series of 1975, was 12 cm longer. Rear-seat passengers also enjoyed a further 10mm of legroom over the outgoing E36 model.”
The E46-generation 3-Series combined softer exterior shapes with a much wider model range that saw the return of the hatchback, as well as an ever-more luxurious lineup of range-topping models including the Convertible, which debuted on this platform in 2000. The M3, making its entrance at the 2000 Geneva auto show, was no longer trying to hide the power underhood, adopting more extroverted exterior design along with a “power dome” for its six-cylinder engine.
“BMW developed a new lightweight chassis and innovative driving stability systems for the fourth generation of the BMW 3-Series model range,” BMW notes. “Its basic construction and a raft of technical highlights elevated the chassis to a level previously only explored by some luxury cars. Aluminum now accounted for around 20 percent of the chassis’ weight, while the targeted use of high-strength steel in the front and rear axle carriers shaved off a few more kilos.”
5th Generation: E90
The fifth-generation BMW 3-Series debuted in Geneva in 2005, the first 3-Series in the era of flame surfacing. Adopting a much more muted exterior than its larger siblings, the E90-generation 3-Series stayed close to the recipe that made its predecessors so successful.
The sharper exterior styling masked the fact that the new 3-Series was about as large as the very first 5-Series, spawned by the Neue Six models in the 1970s, but the sedans around it had grown at about the same pace. The new 3-Series was now far from its sporty and a little spartan compact sedan roots, dwarfing the 2002 model that launched the E21-generation model range. Trading the somewhat minimalistic interiors of yesteryear for luxury, the E90 also extended the family look and equipment of the larger sedan and coupe models from Munich down to the junior model in the range.
The product cycle of the E90 also happened to overlap with the debut of the 1-Series, which sprang from the 3-Series Compact models that appeared with the E36 generation, highlighting the exterior and interior growth that had occurred for the 3-Series with the passage of time.
“All the variants of the fifth-generation BMW 3-Series offered an unsurpassed combination of space, comfort, safety, dynamics and efficiency – regardless of their body type,” BMW noted. “The new BMW 3-Series Touring stood apart from its predecessor and surged to the top of its segment on the back of significant increases in many areas (aside from weight), as well as featuring an upper-case initial in its model designation for the first time. The five-door variant, also presented during the course of 2005, was 42mm longer, 78mm wider and 9mm taller than its predecessor. Occupant comfort and load capacity were among the winners here, and the car’s driving characteristics were also enhanced, as the 35mm longer wheelbase helped to reduce vehicle vibrations.”