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How The BMW 3 Series Became A Legend Of The Road

Car Culture

A brief history of one of the finest cars of all time.

We've now had time to get to know the seventh generation BMW 3 Series, so we thought it appropriate to have a look back and see how we got here. The first 3 Series arrived in 1975 and only was available with two doors. However, it didn’t leap into the world fully formed. Leading up to what we now know as the 3 Series were the cars that started to shape BMW as a sporty yet luxurious automaker. Before we jump in, let’s remember the car that truly laid the foundations for the 3 Series - the 2002 model.

The 2002 didn't leap out into the world fully formed either, that itself started in the 1960s as the BMW 1600-02, with the 02 defining the number of doors and 1600 being the engine's displacement capacity. It was an entry-level BMW based on the New Klass sedan and as a smaller package with fewer amenities, its light weight made it perfect for drivers that liked sporty cars. That led to the more performance orientated 1600 TI in 1967 but wasn’t available in North America due to emissions regulations. That doesn’t matter too much though because the fun part of this story happened in Germany.

BMW’s director of product planning and Alex von Falkenhausen, who designed the M10 engine, both wanted their personal 1600-02 models to go faster. Without discussing it first, they both had 2.0-liter versions of the base engine installed for their own use. When they saw the difference it made and realized they had done the same thing, a proposal to BMW’s board was drawn up to make a 2.0-liter production version of the car. At the same time, an American importer with a lot of sway called Max Hoffman was asking BMW for a sportier version of the 1600-02 to sell in the United States.

As a result, a coupe and larger four-door version with a 2.0-liter engine version was built and named 2002. The more powerful dual-carburetor high compression version was the 2002 ti and later replaced by the 2002 tii that made 130 horsepower. BMW’s first turbocharged production car, the 2002 Turbo, was then launched in 1973 making 170 horsepower. The reliability and super-sharp handling provided the recipe for the 3 Series and it was a formula BMW stuck to when it was introduced to the world.

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E21 BMW 3 Series: 1975-1983

The first 3 Series was developed over five years and designated internally with the E21 chassis code. It was the smallest BMW yet developed and styled to look like the baby version of the first 5 Series that launched in 1972. The 3 Series was a thoroughly and well engineered rear-wheel drive two-door sedan and came with 4 engine options in the form of the 316, the 318, the 320, and the top of the range 320i model. Then, in 1977, BMW launched its 6-cylinder range of engines, topping out with the 2.3-liter 323i. Now, we truly miss the days when BMW’s model numbers lined up simply with the engine size. 323i stood for 3 Series 2.3-liter Injection.

The E21 also gave us what became a standard BMW feature - the dashboard was angled towards the driver. It was a sign BMW intended the 3 Series to be a real drivers car.

E30 BMW 3 Series: 1982-1994

In the 1980s, the 3 Series became the definitive yuppie car, but it was off the back of its sharp handling and styling, as well as its price tag, that the 3 Series became the darling of the asshole class priding itself on owning the latest and best of everything.

The E30 generation initially came onto the market as a 2-door but went on to have convertible, wagon, and 4-door configurations. Along with the wagon and 4-door options, the E30 was also the first 3 Series to have a diesel option as well as an all-wheel-drive option. The E30 was also the platform the BMW Z1 sports car was based on, but we mostly remember the E30 platform for hosting the first M3 variant.

E30 BMW M3

The E30 M3 came with major differences from the standard model. The only exterior body panels the two variants shared were the roof and hood. The most pronounced difference was the box-flared wheel arches that allowed for the wider track and wheel and tire combination. Under the hood was the high revving S14 engine 4-cylinder engine based around the M88 6-cylinder engine from the very first M car, the M1. The effect the M3 had on automotive culture is profound and sent a message to the world that BMW was a world-class performance car maker. It tore its way through touring car racing in the 1980s and won the 24 Hours Nürburgring five times, ultimately cementing BMW as an automaker that could build incredibly quick and well-performing road cars.

E36 BMW 3 Series: 1990-2000

The 1990s saw a change in society as the young started to push back against the cynical corporate domination of everything. The 3 Series thrived though on a completely redesigned platform by being noticeably bigger but retaining the sharpness of looks and handling. It was also noticeably more powerful once you got past the carryover 4-cylinder engines from the E30 to the brand new 6-cylinder M50 engine. The 320i made 148 horsepower, then a few steps up to the top of the range was the 328i making 189 horsepower. Then, in 1995, BMW introduced the M52 with the 328i making 190 horsepower but bumping torque from 181 lb-ft to 207 lb-ft.

The E36 also had the widest range of body styles to date with options for a coupe, sedan, convertible, touring, and compact, then a whole new variant in the form of the compact hatchback.

E36 BMW M3

The E36 M3 cranked everything the E30 M3 did up a notch. It was the first M3 to use a 6-cylinder engine in the form of the S50 and, in most countries, it made 286 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. It was North America that got the shortest end of the stick with a noticeably less powerful engine. That didn’t change the fact the E36 M3 had excellent grip and handling to go with the extra power.

E46 BMW 3 Series: 1997-2006

As the 1990s shifted into the new millennium, tattoos and piercings went mainstream and the rise of the internet began. BMW also gave the world the 4th generation, and to many, the definitive 3 Series. It was curvier, sleeker, and came with one of our favorite straight-6 engines in 320i and 320ci models and up. The sedan came first, followed by the coupe, convertible, touring, and compact models. The E46 sold 3,266,885 units in total and is, to this day, the best selling BMW model ever.

E46 BMW M3

If you want to start an argument on a BMW message board, then claim anything but the E46 version is BMW’s best M3. Whether you believe that or not, it’s impossible to argue that the M-tuned 3.2-liter S54 is anything but a work of engineering art. It delivered a smooth but punchy 262 lb-ft of torque and 333 hp at 7,900 rpm with a throaty metallic roar. The US version lost some horses through the necessary legislated catalytic converter but, again, the handling dynamics were stellar. The E46 M3 has dated incredibly well and still holds its own as an athletic and thrilling drivers car today.

E90 BMW 3 Series: 2004-2013

BMW diversified the chassis codes here, and it would be more accurate to describe the 5th generation series body style variations under the umbrella of E9X. The sedan was the E90, the wagon was the E91, then E92 denoted the coupe version and the convertible was the E93. The E90 is also what some consider the softening of the 3 Series and ushered in the modern era with heavy styling and modern technology features and options such as the first generation of iDrive, keyless entry, selectable driving modes, parking sensors, and electronic damping control.

This wasn’t a bad 3 Series though. Far from it. The 3 Series had now grown in dimensions, but that meant taller adults could actually sit in the back. The straight-6 engine was as strong as ever while the manual transmission was more than satisfying for the enthusiast to row up and down. The E90 was driver focused with superbly balanced handling and in the Goldilocks zone as a daily driver to boot.

E90 BMW M3

The E90 M3 took a big departure in the engine bay, and the key word there is big. All regular models of the E90 M3 got an S65 naturally aspirated 4.0-liter V8, and it was a peach. In the regular M3 it developed 414 horsepower all the way up there at 8,300 rpm. The engine is closely related to the S85 V10 in the E60 M5 and sounds amazing all the way through the rev range, and then sounds even better as it starts screaming. The power was backed up by serious grip and handling and, if you’re educated and prepared for the issues that can come with it, makes for one of the best performance bargains on the used market.

F3X BMW 3 Series: 2011 - Present

The F30/F31/F34 codes of the 6th generation represent the sedan, station wagon, and 5-door hatchback ("Gran Turismo”) body styles. There’s also a long-wheelbase sedan version for the Chinese market and is part of the reason F3X models haven’t ended production as of the beginning of 2019. The 6th generation is the first 3 Series to use turbocharged engines across the board and the coupe and convertible models split off to become the 4 Series. Hybrid models also became available and the aesthetic design came even more in line with the 5 Series. It also got bigger, particularly in the Grand Turismo version that featured a coupe-style roofline on the sedan along with a longer wheelbase to give passengers more legroom. The M Sports package carried over from the E9X but the F3X gained three more trim packages in the form of the Modern, Sports, and Luxury line.

F80 BMW M3

The M3 got the F80 chassis code as a 4-door sedan only, while the coupe body got the M4 designation. The F80 M3 got a carbon-fiber roof and driveshaft and the twin-turbocharged S55 straight-6 powerhouse of an engine. That made 425 hp through the top end of the rev range and 406 ft-lb of torque from the bottom to the middle. Weight was a big deal to the now much heavier M3 so the use of carbon fiber in the roof, as well as aluminum for the front quarter panels, became necessary. Despite what the neigh sayers may claim, the F80 was a brutal performer and demanded the driver respected it. It went against the grain at the time of performance cars being more sanitized so the badge conscious car park show-offs have less chance of falling off the road.

G20 BMW 3 Series: 2018 - Present

At this point, calling a 3 Series a compact executive car requires the tongue to be set firmly in cheek. It may be bigger than ever, but the new generation weighs less due to the extensive use of lightweight materials. While the F30 left many owners and journalists underwhelmed, the G20 is currently being hailed as a return to form with its driving dynamics matching the satisfaction in design, build quality, and materials used.

The modernization of the interior is technological as well as aesthetic, and the turbocharged 4-cylinder engines are a close match to previous inline-6 engines for smoothness and power. Purists may be disappointed in the loss of a manual transmission option, but the automatic is fast and almost seamless and the M340i model comes with a turbocharged straight-6 that is a candidate for becoming a future classic.

G80 BMW M3

Like the F80, there’s one chassis code for the latest M3 to go with the single body style. And, as of the time of writing, we’re still waiting for it to get its public unveiling in September 2019. What we do know so far though is right here.

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