The 3 Series has been the standard-bearer for BMW – and, it seems, for much of the industry – for decades, but not all versions were created equal.
The BMW 3 Series has long been the standard-bearer for the German automaker. For decades, this automobile represented the best of what the brand stood for: comfortable luxury; attractive but not over-the-top styling; and above-average handling compared to similarly-priced sedans, coupes and convertibles.
Not all versions of the 3 Series were created equal, however.
The drive for increased market share would eventually overcome the actual drive, relegating some generations of this venerable automobile to also-ran status. With that in mind, we’ve put together this list ranking the 3 Series from best to least in terms of impact, driving experience, design and importance.
- 1982-1994 E30
It’s hard to overstate the importance the E30 generation had in establishing BMW’s reputation in North America as a major player in the luxury scene. It arrived at exactly the right economic moment, what with conspicuous consumption defining the mid-to-late ’80s, and sold at the perfect price point for attracting the attention of the stereotypical status-seeking yuppie.
More than that, however, the E30 excelled at proving its mission statement. It proved that smaller cars could be just as comfortable as their larger luxury-land-barge competition, all without sacrificing a fun-to-drive character.
It also demonstrated that sedans and coupes could carve up a road course with just as much focus as a traditional sports car, especially when the homologated M3 model made its first appearance in BMW showrooms. This dual personality would set the template for the 3 Series for the next three decades, and would go a long way towards making the boxy car a modern classic.
- 1998-2006 E46
In many ways, the E46 generation was the last version of the 3 Series to embody the E30’s even mixture of sporty driving and premium accoutrements. While future models would lean hard into the luxury, the E46 presented exceptional balance between the two elements that had to that point defined the 3 Series in comparison to rivals from Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
Available as a coupe, wagon, sedan and convertible in North America, the E46 would also represent the last time the M3 model would feature a high-revving, naturally-aspirated inline-six-cylinder engine.
Rated at 333 horsepower, it would mark the transition between the M3 as a sport sedan and a muscle car, with the move into V8 and turbocharged models taking place shortly thereafter. It would also introduce BMW’s less-than-spectacular automated manual gearbox, one that foreshadowed better self-shifting performance efforts from BMW in the future.
- 1991-2000 E36
The E36 is the generation of 3 Series that brought the BMW firmly into the mainstream. With styling that was somewhat blander but definitely more modern than the E30 that preceded it, it also featured significant upgrades in terms of features, passenger room, and drivetrains that would give the car a competitive edge in the entry-level luxury segment.
The E36 was light years ahead of domestic premium brands at the time, and managed to distance itself from the nascent Japanese upscale automobiles from Acura and Infiniti that were making a play for the same customer.
- 2019-Present G20
The current BMW 3 Series is a mostly successful attempt from the automaker to get back in touch with the spirited driving feel that was largely absent from the generation that came immediately before it. While there’s no doubt that the G20 hews to the same plush standards that have crept into every entry-level European contender, while also being significantly larger and heavier than past models, it’s an interesting interpretation of the original BMW formula as experienced from behind the wheel.
It also happens to be the mightiest non-M version of the 3 Series ever released, with its turbocharged six-cylinder engine producing a whopping 382 underrated horsepower.
- 2005-2013 E90 through E93
This era of 3 Series marked a period of transition for BMW’s best-selling model. The car grew significantly in size and weight, each body style was denoted by its own model number, and turbocharged engines became commonplace throughout the line-up. The M3 would also gain a high-revving V8 for the first and last time in its history.
Not only was the E90 3 Series the beginning of the end for the car’s traditional emphasis on sporty driving (its heft and suspension tuning was slightly in favour of cruising over canyon-carving, although it was still a competent sport sedan/coupe) but its styling was somewhat controversial as it embodied the ‘flare’ elements common to the Chris Bangle period. Long-term reliability also began to plunge in this generation due to the significantly more complicated engine and transmission designs that would roll out during its reign.
- 1975-1983 E21
The E21 generation is notable for birthing the 3 Series to the world, and helping BMW move past the 02 cars that had served as their calling card on this side of the Atlantic. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with these models, per se, but they lack the panache of the E30 that followed, and don’t feature the same classic styling as the 2002 that preceded them. As a result, they’re more like a respected elder than an object of affection to enthusiasts, languishing largely unloved – through no fault of their own – in the brand’s history books.
- 2012-2018 F30-31, F34
Things went completely off the rails for the BMW 3 Series with the introduction of the F30 sedan in 2012. Primarily, it would be a period of upheaval in terms of branding, as the coupe and convertible models would be shunted off to their own 4 Series line, and the BMW 2 Series would appear as the true entry-level option for the brand, pushing the four-door 3 Series further upwards in terms of size, weight and price.
Worst of all? This was the blandest edition of the car ever built, with styling that pointedly refused to stand out and a dull driving experience that couldn’t redeem it, either. Let’s also not forget – or rather, let’s try to forget – abominations like the hunchbacked 3 Series GT that would occasionally try to force their way into showrooms. Even the M3, the quickest version of the performance model to date, counted on a competent but ultimately uninspiring personality.