Without question, one of the world’s most popular cars of any type, the BMW 3 Series holds the singular distinction of being the model nearly everyone thinks of when they hear the acronym BMW—even though it is the company’s entry-level offering. Predictably, the 3 Series is also BMW’s best selling model, routinely accounting for some 30 percent of the brand’s total car sales.
The first 3 Series BMW (referred to inside the company as the BMW E21), was marketed as the 320i in the U.S. Introduced in Europe in 1975, as a replacement for the BMW 2002, the car was brought to the North American market in 1977. Achieving near instant popularity, one automotive magazine referred to the 320i as the “Rabbit of the rich”, drawing upon a reference to Volkswagen’s readily affordable and intensely popular VW Rabbit entry-level car of the time.
Indeed, in those days it seemed everywhere you looked, despite is rather steep price tag, (comparatively speaking) the BMW 320i’s angular visage could be found transporting well-heeled individuals to exclusive destinations.
The 320i benefited in no small measure from a significant moment in automotive history.
The Arab oil embargo had occurred just before the car was introduced, and people were forced to wait in long lines to purchase gasoline in the U.S. for the first time in history. Shortly after the introduction of the model came another fuel crisis, this one prompting the rationing of fuel for the first time since World War II.
Rationing measures allowed consumers to only purchase fuel every other day, depending upon the last number of their license plate. Thus the phrase odd/even took on new significance. Only cars with odd numbered plates could purchase fuel one day, while even numbered plates had to wait until the next day, and vice-versa.
With the psychological scarring of this trauma fresh in the minds of well-off car buyers, the idea of a premium automobile with a relatively economical four-cylinder engine was highly appealing. The BMW 320i was just such a vehicle, plus it was handsome and fun to drive.
Sales went off the charts and the BMW 3 Series became well established in this market. To date, there have been six generations of BMW 3 Series cars offered in the U.S. This article picks up with the fourth generation of the model; carrying BMW’s internal designation of E46.
BMW 3 Series: 1998 – 2005
The E46 3 Series sedan debuted in Europe in 1998, with the wagon and coupe versions following in 1999. The cars were introduced to North America one year later—1999 for the sedan, 2000 for the coupe and wagon.
The E46 debuted with two engine choices, a 2.5-liter inline six powered the 323i and a 2.8-liter inline six powered the 328i. The 2.5 made 170 horsepower and 181 ft-lbs of torque. The 2.8 made 193 horsepower and 206 ft-lbs of torque. Five-speed manual transmissions were standard with both engines, five-speed automatics were optional.
In typical German fashion, the car’s level of standard equipment depended upon the displacement of its engine. If you bought the big engine, you got more standard features. Which is not to say the base 323i was a stripped-down model by any means. Keyless entry, full power accessories, traction control, ABS, fifteen-inch alloy wheels, and automatic climate control were all included in the base price.
For a bit more coin, you could add things like fog lights, leather upholstery, a Harmon/Kardon audio system with a CD player, navigation, a sport suspension system, cruise control, heated front seats, a five-speed automatic transmission, and a sunroof.
If you went 328i, you got all of the standard features of the 323i, plus sixteen-inch wheels, a power operated passenger seat, audio controls on the steering wheel, fog lights, and cruise control as standard equipment.
Highlights of the options list included all of the items available for the 323i, plus Xenon headlights, a six-disc CD changer, rear parking sensors, and smart windshield wipers.
Standard safety gear included traction control, ABS, stability control, dual front airbags, and side airbags.
BMW 3 Series: 2000
The E46 Wagon, Coupe and Convertible debuted in North America, employing the same engines and transmissions as the sedans. The Coupes and convertibles were designated 323 Ci and 328 Ci. Also, as on the sedans, five-speed manual transmissions were the standard offering, while BMW’s then-new five-speed Steptronic semi-manual transmission was the optional gearbox.
Meanwhile, 325 convertibles featured manually operated tops as standard kit, power operation being an extra-cost situation. However, 328 convertibles got a power top as standard equipment. Glass rear windows were also standard equipment and pop-up roll bars protected occupants in the event of a rollover.
Ventilated front and rear disc brakes complimented the Coupe and Convertible’s sport tuned suspension packages. Sixteen-inch alloy wheels were their primary fitment, with seventeens being elective.
The climate control system was revised on all E46 models to recirculate automatically when foul air was detected. The optional navigation system was integrated into the audio system, rather than the prior standalone system previously featured on the sedan. While it wasn’t as detailed as the previous nav system, it was less expensive.
The E46 wagon, the BMW 323 iT (for Touring) featured much the same content as the sedans. However, it was only available with the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline six. A roof rack and a rear window wiper were standard fare.
BMW 3 Series: 2001
All-wheel drive powertrains for the sedans and the wagon were introduced, the designating nomenclature was changed to reflect engine displacement increases and Dynamic Brake Control was introduced.
The all-wheel drive system was adapted from the BMW X5 and was rear-biased (38:62) to maintain the front-engine, rear-drive feel preferred by BMW’s engineers. Designated 330 Xi and 325Xi, it was offered with both sedans and the 325 wagon. The all-wheel drive models rode 0.7-inch higher than the rear-drive models.
The 323 designation was dropped for 2001, in favor of 325, making the model nomenclature finally match the 2.5-liter displacement of its engine. Similarly, the 328 prefix was redesignated 330, in keeping with the adoption of a more powerful 3.0-liter inline six.
Thus, for 2001, the 325 E46 ran a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter inline six, which produced 175 ft.-lbs. of torque. The 330 E46 ran a 225-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline six, which was capable of generating 214 ft.-lbs. of torque.
Dynamic Brake Control actually multiplied the driver’s braking effort in panic braking situations. When the throttle was lifted quickly and the brake pedal was applied forcefully, a computer in the car told the braking system to apply full braking pressure.
BMW 3 Series: 2002
A mild facelift updated the exterior appearance of E46 sedans and wagons for 2002; a new automatic climate control system necessitated a rework of the interior’s center stack. The configuration of the automated transmission’s manual mode was reversed, so to downshift you moved the shift lever forward and to upshift you moved the lever backwards (an awkward convention maintained by BMW to this very day). The headlamp system employed Xenon bulbs for both high- and low-beam operation. And finally, an in-dash CD player could be had on a 3 Series BMW.
BMW 3 Series: 2003
A Sport package was offered for the 3.0-liter all-wheel drive sedan, endowing it with run-flat tires and a specific alloy wheel set. The navigation system was revised to run on a DVD-based platform and a moonroof was added to the Touring model’s standard equipment list. Automatic headlights and smart windshield wipers were offered as options for the 325 models.
BMW 3 Series: 2004
Handsfree telephony (though not Bluetooth) debuted in the 3 Series, along with a six-speed sequential manual gearbox. While it was essentially universally panned for its inability to shift smoothly, it did effect shifts faster than a human being could—while still offering all the advantages of a manual transmission. For telephones, the cars came pre-wired for a proprietary cell phone. Satellite radio debuted, and automatic headlights and smart wipers were made standard equipment across the board. The coupes and convertibles got the exterior updates the sedans and wagon got the year before.
BMW 3 Series: 2005
To ease the gripes about the SMG, BMW’s product planners decided it was to be offered only with the big engine and the Sport package in 2005. The logic was anybody going that route would accept its quirks in exchange for the increased performance potential. As a power top was specified for all convertibles—regardless of engine displacement—the manual top was left back in 2004. New standard features for E46 convertibles included an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and a universal garage door opener.
An all-new sedan was introduced in Europe under the internal model designation E90.
BMW 3 Series: 2006 – 2011
BMW brought the E90 sedans and E91 wagon to the U.S. for the first time, marking the beginning of the fifth generation of the 3 Series BMW model lineup in North America. The new models featured revised engines, transmissions, and suspension systems, as well as introducing a new age of personal technology to BMW’s best selling model.
At once larger, heavier and faster than the model it replaced, the E90 3 Series was initially offered in two model designations; 325i and 330i, as was its predecessor. However for 2006, both models ran 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engines. The engine in the 325 was rated at 215 horsepower and 185 ft-lbs. of torque, while the 330’s powerplant was rated at 255 horsepower and 220 ft.-lbs. of torque. The additional output of the 330 was achieved through a three-stage induction system, a different exhaust system and software tweaks for the engine control computer. As before, only the “small” engine was offered with the Touring model (the wagon).
Six-speed manual transmissions were standard equipment, while six-speed automatics were optional. All-wheel drive was offered at launch, as was an optional active steering system, which was capable of counter steering the car automatically if the stability control system was activated because a slide was detected.
Standard equipment for 325s included automatic climate control, one-touch power windows, a power moonroof, automatic headlights, heated mirrors, a CD player and keyless entry. The 330s got all of the above, plus upgraded wheels, a sport suspension system and a Logic 7 premium surround-sound audio system.
Among the options for the E90 3 Series was a DVD-based navigation system with iDrive (marking its first appearance in a 3 Series car). Bluetooth handsfree telephony, adaptive xenon headlights, parking sensors, active cruise control, leather seating, and the active steering system we mentioned earlier were also available. The E90’s Performance package bought a tighter suspension setup, stickier performance tires, and sport seats.
New safety features included a brake wiping system, which applied the brake pads lightly to the rotors in wet weather at prescribed intervals to keep them drier if the need for an emergency stop arose. The system also pre-positioned the pads closer to the rotors when the driver lifted off the throttle to improve brake response.
BMW 3 Series: 2007
E90-based Coupes debuted in North America for 2007, along with a twin-turbocharged version of the 3.0-liter inline six. This, of course, brought about a nomenclature change. The model previously known as the 325i was also redesignated (as 328i) but continued to run the 3.0-liter inline six, albeit with an output increase to 230 horsepower and 200 ft.-lbs of torque.
Fitting the pair of turbos to the 3.0-liter six gave BMW license to proclaim models endowed with that engine would be referred to as 335. Sporting an all-new aluminum block, the twin-turbo six’s output potential was quoted at 300 horsepower and 300 ft.-lbs. of torque. Incorporating direct injection and a 10.2:1 compression ratio, we say “quoted” because the engine felt considerably more powerful than its 300 horsepower rating indicated it should.
For the first time in the history of the model, the sedans and coupe didn’t share their design, thus necessitating a separate internal model designation for the coupes (E92). The two-door cars were slightly longer and narrower and employed a 2+2-seating configuration, rather than a bench seat in the rear. The convertible debuted with a retractable hardtop rather than the cloth folding tops used previously and got its own model designation as well (E93). While the metal top was more durable and made the 3 Series convertible quieter, it consumed a significant portion of the trunk’s space when it was retracted.
BMW 3 Series: 2008
All-wheel drive was fitted to a 3 Series coupe for the first time. Sport package models with automatic transmissions got paddle shifters mounted on their steering wheels. To make the models a bit more egalitarian, and perhaps realizing fuel economy mattered—even to the rich—key options were bundled into Premium and Sport packages, which could be ordered with either engine choice.
The Premium Package contained leather upholstery for the seats, a complete complement of auto-dimming mirrors, Bluetooth hands-free telephony, BMW Assist telematics, and it also added power seats to 328 models. The Sport package came with a firmer suspension system, larger wheels, performance tires, and sport seats.
A’ la carte items included an iDrive-based navigation system capable of providing real-time traffic condition notifications, active steering, adaptive cruise control, keyless entry and start, heated front seats, and satellite radio. To personalize their cars, buyers could choose to replace the standard walnut interior trim with their choice of light poplar wood or aluminum trim—at no additional cost.
BMW 3 Series: 2009
Leading a series of revisions for the E90-based models, the sedans and the wagon got styling updates for 2009—in addition to a wider rear track to improve handling. BMW’s product planners decided to try diesel out on Americans with the twin-turbocharged 335d and the xDrive moniker was attached to all-wheel drive models.
To appease the techno-challenged among its buyers, the 3 Series was fitted with a simplified version of the iDrive system, which came paired with the optional nav system. Speaking of which, for 2009, the navigation system no longer relied upon DVDs, but rather ran on a hard-drive based system.
The 335d’s 3.0-liter blown inline six-cylinder diesel engine produced 265 horsepower and 425 ft.-lbs. of torque, making it the highest torque-rated BMW 3 Series ever offered in North America up to that point. The 335d was also the first 3 Series model offered in North America to feature an automatic transmission as standard equipment.
BMW 3 Series: 2010
By 2010, the completely rounded out model lineup consisted of sedans (E90), a wagon (E91), coupes (E92) and hardtop-convertibles (E93). The rear-wheel-drive 328i configuration provided the foundation for the entire lineup, with all-wheel drive available for the coupe, sedan and wagon (AKA the Touring). All models used the suffix “xDrive” when fitted with all-wheel drive. The rear-drive 335i was the upgrade for all models except the wagon, which was offered only as a 328. The sedan and coupe could also be had with the 335 engine and xDrive. Finishing off the E90 range was the twin-turbocharged diesel-powered 335d.
The standard 328i equipment list contained sixteen-inch wheels, automatic climate control, a 10-speaker CD-based stereo audio system with HD radio and an auxiliary input jack for portable audio devices, heated side mirrors, and leatherette upholstery. To all of the above, standard kit for the 335i added seventeen-inch wheels, xenon headlights, and power-actuated front seats with driver memory. The 335d carried all of the above, plus Xenon headlamps and a sunroof—effectively making it the top of the line E90 sedan.
Coupes came with a sport-tuned suspension system (as did the Sport package equipped sedans), while convertible versions featured a power-retractable hardtop.
To up the content quotient, BMW’s product planners offered three pre-packaged bundles. The lux-oriented Premium package added leather upholstery (chemically treated to be heat-reflective on convertibles), auto-dimming mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, and BMW Assist telematics, in addition to a sunroof and power seats with driver memory (for 328s).
To increase the E90’s athleticism, the Sport package specified a firmer suspension system for the convertibles, sedans and wagons (the coupes already came with sport suspension systems standard). This incorporated larger wheels, and a set of sport seats and a sport steering wheel, along with "Shadowline" exterior trim. For those residing in colder regions, the Climate package heated the front seats and steering wheel, and fitted retractable headlight washers along with fold-down rear seats (except on the convertibles).
Many of those items could be had as stand-alone options, along with Xenon headlights and a sunroof for the 328i. Other standalone options included automatic high beams, a hard-drive-based navigation system with the iDrive controller, keyless ignition/entry (AKA Comfort Access), active cruise control, front and rear parking assist, an active steering system for the 335i, paddle shifters for the optional automatic transmission, rear window shades, satellite radio, an iPod adapter, and a Harman-Kardon Logic 7 surround-sound audio system.
BMW 3 Series: 2011
BMW’s engineers rethought the turbocharging scheme for the 3.0-liter inline six for 2011, going to a single twin scroll turbo, rather than a pair of single scroll blowers. This increased the engine’s fuel-efficiency, while maintaining its power output. That engine was installed in the sedans and the wagon, while the coupe and convertible stayed with the twin turbocharged powerplant.
BMW 3 Series: Current Model (2012)
An all-new sedan debuted for 2012, marking the beginning of a new generational cycle (BMW F30) for BMW’s most popular model line. As before, the coupe and convertible are carryovers from the previous year. Their revised versions are slated to be introduced as 2013 models. The biggest news with this generation is the first application of a four-cylinder engine to a 3 Series sedan in North America since the 1990’s. Applying the TwinPower turbo technology to a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder resulted in an output of 240 horsepower and 260 ft.-lbs. of torque.
BMW 3 Series: Summary
If any car line can be said to be legendary, BMW’s 3 Series certainly deserves the adjective. Iconic is a descriptor fitting just as well. When it comes to the combination of comfort and performance in an entry-level luxury automobile, while many have tried, none have succeeded at capturing lightning in a bottle the way BMW has with the 3 Series.
And while many cars with a pedigree as exotic as this Bavarian’s can be hopelessly fickle and difficult to maintain, BMW’s reputation for robustness is icing on an already cream-filled cake. That said, when something does go wrong, fixing a BMW isn’t exactly Toyota-cheap either. Parts and service can be pricey — after all, these are premium German automobiles we’re discussing here.
Before you fall in love, you might want to shop a few independent BMW mechanics and get an idea of what various services will cost to perform, including clutch replacements and the like. While you’re at it, you’ll want to get some insurance quotes as well. These are performance cars we’re discussing here. You’ll want to avoid buying the car only to be startled learn the premium is higher than the one you were paying for your Camry.
It’s also imperative to run a vehicle history report on the VIN of any 3 Series you’re seriously considering, to ensure its title is clean and there are no skeletons hiding in its trunk. There have been recalls announced for the car as well, so you’ll want to run an Internet search for BMW 3 Series recalls to make sure any prescribed updates for the particular car of your choice have been performed.
And last, but definitely not least, you’ll want to make the acquaintance of, and ingratiate yourself to, a trusted professional BMW mechanic before having a very thorough pre-purchase inspection performed on any car you’re seriously considering purchasing.
After all, it’s no fun owning the ultimate driving machine if it’s broke and you are too.