Six Times. Three Looking back at the history of the 3 Series and driving all six generations of the iconic sports saloon. Join us as we slip behind the wheel of six generations of 3 Series to celebrate the model’s 40th birthday Words: Kyle Fortune and Bob Harper. Photography: BMW.
So quite how do you sum up the 3 Series? Its importance to BMW cannot be overstated – it’s sold over 14 million examples over the last 40 years – and it really is the benchmark for both the segment in which it sits and for the company itself. It is the car on which BMW is judged.
We’re celebrating 40 years of the 3 Series here, but you could argue the point and say that it’s more or less 50 years of the 3 Series as the ’02 machines that first saw the light of day in 1966 set the template for the ensuing six generations of 3 Series. Effectively a three-box saloon with short overhangs and a large glasshouse it was functional yet stylish at the same time, and its road manners set the standards by which all others were judged.
First unveiled at the 1975 International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt, the 3 Series has since developed into both the brand’s most successful model range and an international bestseller. And that makes the 3 Series a highly effective global ambassador for BMW’s core attributes.
Its history is testament to the advances achieved by the German carmaker in the areas of sporting ability, efficiency, safety, comfort and connectivity, as well as to the development of BMW design. Again and again, the introduction of trailblazing technological innovations in the 3 Series has also broken new ground in the mid-size class in general. Moreover, for four decades now the 3 Series has led the way with new vehicle concepts that have expanded the brand’s model line-up and injected fresh ideas into the segment as a whole. So join with us as our esteemed contributor Kyle Fortune takes a spin in each generation of the 40- year-old birthday boy…
A new 340i Saloon on quiet German and Austrian roads; what could be better? Arriving at the hotel and seeing a line-up of BMW 3 Series greatest hits, keys in them, and a chance to drive them all, that’s what. More than ever we’re thankful for the 340i’s pace, as its ground-covering abilities mean we’re first to the hotel, giving us the opportunity to pick and choose which classic 3 Series to take out first. Might as well start at the beginning, then; E21 it is.
Need to Know: E21
KEY POINTS: Bigger (longer by 12.5cm and 2cm wider) and with a longer wheelbase than the ’02 the E21 used four-cylinder engines with either carburettors or injection. Six-cylinder units were introduced as a class first in 1977. Steering was changed from ’02’s worm and roller to rack and pinion but basic suspension layout was retained. By 1981 1 million E21s had been sold, exceeding BMW’s expectations and by the time it bowed out the E21 had outsold the ‘02 by half a million units.
ENGINES USED: Four-cylinder and six-cylinder petrol.
BOTTOM OF THE LADDER: 315: 1573cc fourcylinder, 75hp. 0-62mph 14.0 seconds, 99mph top speed.
TOP DOG: 323i: 2315cc straight-six, 143hp. 0-62mph in 9.5 seconds, 119mph top speed.
BODYSTYLES: Two-door saloon, two-door Baur Cabriolet
NUMBER MADE: 1,364,039
I love how the E21 looks, the slim pillars, the rakish nose, the perfect proportions, it’s a pretty car, and hailing from BMW’s Classic department means this one’s among the very best examples in the world. I don’t care what’s under the bonnet, or badged on the back; of course the E21 will feel slow compared to the new 340i I’ve just stepped out of, but that’s not really the point. It’s a 316, which means just 90hp and 91lb ft of torque, which by today’s standards is supermini power.
It’s not shifting much weight, though, the E21 (without me in it I hasten to add), tipping the scales at a wish-they-were-still-as-light-as-this 1020kg. The official numbers say it’ll not break into three figures, running out at 99mph, though the 1.6-litre fourcylinder engine, with its single overhead cam and two valves per cylinder, drives with far more enthusiasm than the numbers convey.
With its peak power arriving at 6000rpm it’s an engine that likes to rev, maximum torque arriving some 2000rpm earlier, but still you’ll be busy with the slick-shifting four-speed manual gearbox to make decent progress. It seems a bit rude doing so; after all, this immaculate E21 is showing barely 5124km on its odometer. That’s likely to rise significantly in the coming weeks where all manner of journalists will be driving it.
Mindful of the need to get back to drive the rest of the cars, the route is brief, but testing, taking a spur off the main 181 road running through Achenkirch and up the L221 that winds around the valley floor and around the foot of the mountains. As roads go it’s got everything, tight hairpins, fast, sighted, sweeping bends and the sort of surfaces European roads are famed for. The E21 is in its element here and without the pace of modern traffic interfering the E21 exhibits everything right about the 3 Series formula. The balance is exceptional, the impossibly skinny tyres, on their high sidewalls giving modest grip levels by modern standards, but enough to enjoy the E21 at its best.
There’s a communication that’s leagues away from what you (don’t) experience in modern cars today, the slim-rimmed wheel, with its large circumference delivering the sort of feel that us road testers always bang on about. The gearshift is crisp, still as tight as it probably was when leaving the factory, the pedal spacing such that downshifts are easily aided by a quick roll off the brake for a blip of the throttle. The brakes themselves feel up to the task in hand, remaining decent even when enthusiasm sees the speed rise on the run back down the L221. Where a modern 3 Series will shock you with its performance, and impress with its handling second, the E21 reverses that; sure, the more powerful, sixcylinder models would have added potency, but the key to the E21’s make up is how it drives, and, like how it looks I rather love it.
Need to know: E30
KEY POINTS: Although of a similar length to the E21 the E30 was 3.5cm wider and had a slightly longer wheelbase too. It also had a wider track (by 35mm) and drag was reduced by 15 per cent. The E30 was the first Three to be available as both a Touring and a full Convertible and could be had with both two- or four-doors as a Saloon. First 3 Series to feature diesel power and the first 3 Series to feature four-wheel drive – the 325iX. Carburettors finally ditched in 1987.
ENGINES USED: Four-cylinder and six-cylinderpetrol, straight-six diesel.
BOTTOM OF THE LADDER: 324d: 2443cc straightsixdiesel, 84hp. 0-62mph 15.5 seconds, 103mphtop speed.
TOP DOG: 325i: 2494cc straight-six, 171hp.0-62mph 7.7 seconds, 138mph top speed
BODYSTYLES: Two-and four-door Saloon, BaurCabriolet, Convertible, Touring.
NUMBER MADE: 2,339,251
“Ah, the Italian M3,” says the man from BMW’s Classic department, “you want that next?” Silly question really; ever since a friend owned an example years ago I’ve wanted to drive an E30 320iS, as, perhaps understandably, he wasn’t so keen to hand over his keys. I’ve got them now, and I’ll admit that any professionalism I might usually (sometimes) exhibit has been put aside for something more akin to gibbering schoolboy, as the E30 3 Series is one of those cars that, inexplicably, has thus far passed me by. Until today. I’ve had colleagues say you should never meet your heroes when talking about the E30, but they’re talking rubbish. It helps that, like the E21, this E30 320iS is box-fresh, having had just 6577km roll under its alloy wheels.
God, it’s pretty; I love the looks of an E30 M3 with its motorsport-derived blistered-wheelarches and upright back window, but, likewise, the relatively unadorned E30 is an absolute design icon. So obviously related to the E21, not least here as it’s a three-door, the E30 is a beautifully proportioned car. That translates to the interior, which takes all the best bits of the E21, the clear instrumentation, driverorientated centre console, excellent pedal and steering wheel positioning and adds to it with higher quality, more premium-feeling materials and better seats. They hold you in all the right places, with the deeper bolstering required due to this 320iS model’s more sporting nature. There are flashes of modernity, or at least what would have passed as so when the E30 was new in the ’80s, with buttons for a trip computer, an RDS stereo cassette with digital display.
All it’s missing is the Filofax on the passenger seat, a shoulder-padded double-breasted suit jacket on the back seat and a case of champagne in the boot. If you drove this car back in the day you should have been proud of yourself, as it’s a special thing. Particularly this one, which, being a 320iS, is the Italian and Portuguese model that came with a 2.0- litre S14 powerplant with 190hp. Dubbed the ‘Italian M3’, because it was created to circumvent the Italian tax laws for cars over 2.0 litres, its reduced capacity meant it was unable to quite reach the 2.3-litre M3’s output, but it’s close enough. With its BMW M Power inscription on the cam covers under the bonnet and its less extrovert looks, this E30 would have been a real sleeper back in the late ’80s, with its 0- 62mph time quoted at 7.9 seconds and its maximum speed adding 40mph over the 316 E21 I’ve just jumped out of.
There’s performance then, but it’s the E30’s size and balance that remain its most striking elements. There’s more conviction to the turn in on the more challenging sections of the L221, the entry speed greater, the momentum more easily carried and the exit speed up as a result. Faster then, everywhere, but there’s still a delicacy to the way it drives, the steering full of texture and beautifully weighted, the ride tauter, with greater control and precision but still riding with real finesse. That S14 engine is an absolute jewel, too; it likes to rev yet is responsive without the rev counter’s needle having to be tickling the red paint, while the dog-legged five-speed manual is a delight to slot through its gate, it doing so with real precision and excellent weighting. Hell, I loved the E21, but with the E30 320iS it’s borderline lust.
Need to know: E36
KEY POINTS: Considerably bigger than the E30 (11cm longer, 5cm wider and with a 13cm longer wheelbase) the 3 Series had grown up. Initial build quality most un-BMW, especially interior fixtures. New six-cylinder diesel from the E39 made the E36 one of the world’s first performance diesels. Completely new rear suspension, the Z-axle, inspired by the Z1. First 3 Series to feature traction control.
ENGINES USED: four- and six-cylinder petrol; fourandsix-cylinder diesel.
BOTTOM OF THE LADDER: 318tds: 1665cc four-cylinderdiesel, 90hp. 0-62mph 13.5 seconds,114mph top speed.
TOP DOG: 328i: 2793cc six-cylinder, 193hp. 0-62mph 6.9 seconds, 147mph top speed.
BODYSTYLES: Four-door Saloon, two-doorCoupé, Convertible, Touring, three-door Compact.
NUMBER MADE: 2,745,773
If you’re anything like me cars mark points in time. I’d love to say that the E36 was a car my dad had, but it was a couple of brothers at university who were my introduction to the E36. Oh to have wealthy parents, where the older brother got a 320i Coupé, the younger one a 316i Saloon. Lucky blighters. I had a pushbike. Still, this 323i betters both, even if it’s in what can only be described as an ‘interesting’ colour combination. Externally the metallic light blue paintwork isn’t too unconventional, though the interior trim is on the weirder end of the scale, with a bluishgreen leather and cloth combination mixed with the black plastics of the dashboard and door trims.
If the E30 before it nodded at modernity the E36 embraces it more comprehensively, though not all for the better. Gone is the lightly spoked steering wheel of the E30, replaced by a large airbag-equipped steering wheel, the passenger side of the dash also featuring the tell-tale fracture lines for its airbag. The driver is again the focus for the central dash, while the instruments remain beautifully simple, in much the same manner as its forebears – only with some orange digital information under the speedometer. The odometer here is reading little over 2500km, so it’s unlikely there’s a lower mileage 323i anywhere in the world.
The interior colour might jar a touch, but turning the key to start the 323i’s 2.5-litre in-line ‘six has you forgiving whoever ticked the spec boxes on this car, as the engine is so right. Power of 170hp is produced at 5500rpm and 181lb ft of torque at 3500rpm, making it less powerful than the E30 320iS I just reluctantly handed the keys back for, but delivering more torque. That’s immediately apparent pulling away, the ‘six being more muscular at lower revs, adding to the impression of maturity and increasing its premium feel markedly. It’s a less demanding engine, requiring less input with the five-speed transmission, so it’s possible to skip ratios and use that torque without interrupting progress too much. But there’s still plenty of joy to be had wringing the 323i’s engine out to its red line, where the sixcylinder is as gloriously smooth as you’d expect, and delivering performance that feels genuinely modern.
Not in the somewhat remote fashion that’s become more normal though, as the 323i still feels like an analogue car, there being real incentive to drive it hard, the reward genuinely captivating, the handling so sweet and the balance, as ever, hugely composed. Sweet as that engine is, and it’s very, very sweet indeed, the E36’s chassis is its most outstanding feature. More than any car here it bridges the gap between the modern expectation for grip, traction, balance and safety and old-school fun. It doesn’t rob you of interaction, feel and, crucially, absolute control. It drives with real finesse, and the sort of rich detailed information that makes every drive an absolute joy. I’ll take it, please, even in this colour combo.
Sweet as that engine is, the E36’s chassis is its most outstanding feature.
Need to know: E46
KEY POINTS: Unsurprisingly bigger (but not by much – 4.6cm longer, 1.6cm wider and 29mm taller) than the E46 but importantly there was more rear leg room than in the E36. Technology was becoming increasingly important – this was the first Three to feature a full navigation screen and with its engines we saw the introduction of Valvetronic and direct injection for the first time. 320d and 330d became very viable alternatives to the petrol models. E46 built in greater numbers than any other 3 Series.
ENGINES USED: four- and six-cylinder petrol; four and six-cylinder diesel.
BOTTOM OF THE LADDER: 316i: 1796cc four-cylinder petrol, 115hp. 0-62mph 10.9 seconds, 128mph top speed.
TOP DOG: 330i: 2979cc straight-six, 231hp. 0-62mph 6.5 seconds, 155mph top speed.
BODYSTYLES: Four-door Saloon, two-door Coupé, Convertible, Touring, three-door Compact.
NUMBER MADE: 3,266,885
E46 328Ci Coupé
Cohesive, that’s the best word for the E46, from the exterior styling – particularly in two-door coupé guise as driven here – to the interior, which is so beautifully laid out it’s unsurpassed today. Sure, the BMW Monitor screen in the middle of the dashboard containing navigation, a TV tuner, radio, trip computer and suchlike is hilariously outdated, but I remember it felt like the cutting edge modernity when I first experienced it. The E46 is ‘my’ BMW 3 Series, in familiarity at least, as it was the 3 Series available to me when I started writing about cars for a living, many an E46 borrowed for test-drives throughout its lifecycle. The M’s a favourite of mine, and I came close to buying one a few years back, but after the E36 this car felt slightly disappointing.
Although it’s based on the heavily revised platform of its predecessor the E46 feels very much like a turning point. It’s unquestionably heavier feeling on the road, obviously more modern, with heightened levels of grip, significantly improved refinement and far more comfort. It feels more like a luxury car with a sporting bent, than a sporting car with a nod to luxury. That’s obvious just in the cabin, which feels impeccably built, the material quality in another league compared to the cars it followed.
Taking it up the L221 that greater maturity manifests itself with more speed, yet it carries it with such composure that there’s less incentive to enjoy its abilities. The steering, so delicate on the E36, is a touch more remote, if no less accurate ultimately, the front end still entirely predictable and responsive, but there’s just less detail at the wheel. Blame the chubby rim, perhaps, the E46 ushering in a period where steering wheels became increasingly and needlessly chunky in a bid to imbue a sporting look. Airbag technology came a long way in the intervening years though, so the E46’s hub is far more compact making the wheel more visually appealing.
The manual gearbox retains five speeds here, which is amusingly old-school, particularly when you consider the current 3 Series offers eight ratios via its automatic transmission. The old gearbox shifts with the sure, nicely sprung weight and accuracy that’s something of a signature for BMW manuals, though the E46 feels more and more like a car that would suit an automatic. It’s not remote by modern standards, but it does feel like it has leaped ahead two generations over the E36. The engine, a 2.8-litre, double overhead cam, six-cylinder unit develops 193hp at 5500rpm and 206lb ft at 3500rpm. Flat out that means 150mph, and 62mph in seven seconds, but there’s just less incentive to go in search of those numbers, as the engine is nowhere near as responsive and charismatic as that in the E36 323i. Blame the VANOS (most will), but it’s not just the engine that feels like a different 3 Series, it’s the entire car’s character. An accomplished driver’s car, certainly, but it’s not as immediately accessible. The E46 is not without appeal, but for a purist drive the cars it replaced are more entertaining for more of the time.
Need to know: E90
KEY POINTS: Launched 30 years after the E21 the E90 was bigger – 49mm longer, 78mm wider and 10mm taller than the E46. After the evolutionary design of the E46 the E90 had much sharper creases and was definitely a Bangle-era design. Turbocharging was very much coming to the fore and the 35i and 35d engines both featured twinturbos which made them big performers. 320d becomes the best selling model in the UK.
ENGINES USED: four- and six-cylinder petrol; four and six-cylinder diesel.
BOTTOM OF THE LADDER: 316d: 1995cc four-cylinder diesel, 116hp. 0-62mph 10.9 seconds, 126mph top speed.
TOP DOG: 335i: 2979cc twin-turbo straight-six, 306hp. 0-62mph 5.6 seconds, 155mph top speed
BODYSTYLES: Four-door Saloon, two-door Coupé, Convertible, Touring.
NUMBER MADE: 3,102,345
If it’s entertainment you’re after then the E90 might not be the most obvious choice in the historic line-up, but this isn’t an ordinary E90. Like the original E30 M3, this 320si is the result of homologation, the necessity for a manufacturer to build a number of production cars to race it. In the case of the 320si that was to allow BMW to compete in the FIA World Touring Car Championship.
It gained a modified, largely hand-built (at BMW’s F1 plant) 2.0-litre engine, with a shortened stroke and increased bore. Lift the bonnet and that special engine is obvious thanks to the carbon head covering, BMW ditched Valvetronic, for 175hp at 7000rpm and a 7300rpm redline. Top speed is 140mph, and 62mph arrives at 8.1 seconds.
Visually the 320si benefits from some subtle enhancements, with modified front and rear bumpers, sills and some interior trim. The most obvious change to its specification is the wheels, these being gorgeous 18-inch alloys with 225/40 R18 front and 255/35 R18 at the rear, riding on standard M Sport suspension.
Pushing the engine start button underlines the 320si’s homologation pedigree, with its more obvious idle. Blipping the accelerator reveals its fast-revving nature. It sounds excellent, though it’s easy to understand why the E90 in this specification might be a bit specialised in its nature to suit everyone. Me, I’d have one in a heartbeat, the engine unquestionably defining it, the free-breathing, fast-acting 2.0-litre thriving on revs to produce its best. Only offered as a manual, the six-speed unit allows you to revel in the engine’s character, the shift quick, the 320si proving an entertaining drive up that challenging, now very familiar Austrian road. In removing some of the E90’s otherwise impressive civility the 320si has an oldschool feel to it, so it has more in common with its 320iS E30 relation than you might think.
The E90’s inherent chassis balance is obvious, as it is in all the cars, but with the engine goading you to push it ever harder it’s more likely you’ll enjoy it more often. There’s a lot of grip, where the E21, E30 and E36 would have been nibbling away at the edges of grip and traction the E90 320si carries its pace with impunity, and the steering is sharp, though not giving the same detail through its rim as the older cars. If anything it feels over-tyred, the E90’s grip such that you’re unlikely to ever breach its limits on the road. It would be hugely entertaining on the track, though, which is kind of the point.
As an everyday proposition the 320si might not be everyone’s choice, understandably so, it’s a fairly specialised prospect, the majority of E90s being sold with BMW’s excellent 2.0-litre turbodiesel under its bonnet. Given the tax advantages for most buyers that’s hardly surprising, and indicative of the market that the 3 Series finds itself in. That the 320si exists at all, and reveals the Three remains a true drivers’ car, even if its limits are way higher than its predecessors is something that should be celebrated indeed.
In removing some of the E90’s otherwise impressive civility the 320si has an old-school feel to it.
Need to know: F30
KEY POINTS: The 3 Series had grown again! 50mm longer than the E90 and with a longer wheelbase it once again offered more rear legroom and a larger boot – the 3 Series was now larger than the first generation 5 Series. All engines were now turbocharged and the automatic gearbox had gained two additional ratios. For the first time a Hybrid was available and again, for the first time, the four-wheel drive xDrive models were offered in the UK. LCI model brought three-cylinder power to the 3 Series for the first time.
ENGINES USED: three- , four- and six-cylinder petrol; four- and six-cylinder diesel
BOTTOM OF THE LADDER: 318i: 1499cc three cylinder petrol, 136hp. 0-62mph 8.9 seconds, 130mph top speed.
TOP DOG: 340i: 2998cc six-cylinder petrol, 326hp. 0-62mph 5.2 seconds, 155mph top speed
BODYSTYLES: Four-door Saloon, Touring, GT.
NUMBER MADE: Still counting…
And so to the latest, and I’m sure our BMW hosts would say greatest, incarnation of the 3 Series, the first of the F generation Threes, the F30, sampled here in 340i guise. Initial thoughts are that even though we’ve only moved on one generation from the E90 this feels like a considerably more grown up vehicle.
BMW’s keen on the term ‘premium’ at the moment and with the F30 you can really feel that coming through in spades. The interior quality feels right up there with the best the competition has to offer, not something you could always say about the E90, and the overall ambiance inside the cabin is more akin to a 5 Series than it is to a Three.
As we’re ostensibly here to sample this car alone it’s the one we drove furthest, but that’s not necessarily to say it’s the one we enjoyed most. In BMW 340i F30/2 guise it should come as no surprise that it’s the fastest car here thanks to its TwinPower turbo’d Baukasten 3.0-litre ‘six that develops 326hp between 5500 and 65000rpm along with 332lb ft of torque from 1380rpm. I know we’ve come along way since the original E21 Three and that 40 years is a long time but it’s significantly more thrust than the 143hp and 140lb ft that would have been found in the range-topping E21 323i!
Perhaps one indication as to how the 3 Series has changed over time is in the choice of transmission in our test car – the eight-speed auto – and, yes, while the six-speed manual is the standard transmission for the car BMW expects very few to opt for it. Indeed, if you buy a 340i Touring it can only be had as an auto. Effectively the 3 Series has grown up – it’s in its 40s now and has a family to support and bills to pay… we know how it feels!
That’s not to say it doesn’t still know how to party when the mood takes it and on these sumptuous Austrian roads it’ll really lift up its skirts and dance with the best of the youngsters. There have been changes to the Three’s suspension for this face-lifted version and it still retains a delightful rear-drive balance and composure, yet retains a pretty supple ride, especially on these well-paved roads.
Given how it’s grown compared to the earlier cars it still feels remarkably wieldy and agile even on some of the tighter roads but we weren’t overly enamoured with the Variable Sport Steering fitted to our test car and subsequent drives in face-lifted F30s without it demonstrate it’s definitely an option to be avoided as it feels overly artificial in both weight and response.
Yes, the world’s moved on significantly since the 3 Series was born and while the latest car’s bigger and more sophisticated than it has ever been and has more electronic gadgets and gizmos than you can shake a stick at, it still retains enough sporting DNA for you to know you could only be driving a 3 Series.
|In-line four M10, 12-valve
|In-line four, 24-valve
|In-line four, 24-valve
|Straight-six, 24-valve, turbo
|Not on sale in UK
|BMW E21 D-CLUB
|BMW E30 DRIVE-MY
|BMW E46 3-series Club
|F3x 3-Series Club
The underlying character of the 3 Series endures from generation to generation, complemented by the addition of new technological advances. Its design has likewise been shaped by a characteristic BMW sense of continuity and evolution. Indeed, throughout the model range’s history, its striking front end with twin circular headlights and familiar BMW kidney grille, the dynamic lines of the car’s flanks and the powerful rear end have always been quick to catch the eye. As for the interior, the unmistakable driver focused cockpit design already established itself as a key element in the first model generation.
Over the years the car’s changed significantly, but so has the market, the world we live in and its target audience. It’s now faster, more economical, roomier and has safety features that an E21 could only dream about. Some will mourn the loss of steering feel, the light weight and soul of the original but one thing has remained constant – the 3 Series is still the world’s finest sports saloon and long may that tradition continue. Another 40 years would do for starters…