Any BMW driver would describe his car using words like quality, prestige and high technology wrapped into a distinctive package that is responsive, involving and fun to drive. These attributes can easily apply to all contemporary BMWs, but one model stands out as the symbol of the company’s DNA that runs trough all its models: the 3 Series.
Its success is remarkable; the 3 Series accounts for nearly 40% of company’s sales and has established a class of its own, the compact executive segment, in which it remains the market leader and the benchmark, as all of its competitors are judged on how close do they come to the 3 Series.
The social significance of the 3 Series and its status in the pop culture is also interesting, as the car quickly became the symbol of affluent youth, backed up by the yuppie movement in the 80s.
Furthermore, the 3 Series has even outsold significantly cheaper models, such as the Ford Mondeo in the UK and holds the record for winning almost every comparison test (which was also a subject of a German advertising campaign for the car).
The iconic scene featuring the E30 3 Series from the 1986 movie Pretty In Pink, where Andie (played by Molly Ringwald) talks about her crush, a wealthy young man, saying:
“He’s a richie (…) he drives a BMW!”
The sixth generation is expected to be presented in Paris 2011, and as several car magazines claim “it will be a complete reinvention of the original”.
For example, the very respected and influential british magazine Autocar says that the new 3 Series will debut new three-cylinder engines (as mentioned in our article that deals with the partnership between BMW and Mercedes-Benz) and improved aerodynamics, as the new car will be designed in BMW’s new $275 million AEROLAB Aerodynamic Test Centre in Munich.
Apart from aerodynamics, BMW is making further investments into strong but lightweight materials, as the company presented the new $70 million press hardening facility at its Dingolfing plant and has announced that it will invest several hundred million euros in the plant during 2009 – 2010.
However, this is not the first time that BMW incorporated new materials into their car production, as all recent BMWs have advanced light-alloy suspension parts (to achieve the ideal 50:50 weight distribution) and magnesium-alloy engine heads in six-cylinder engines, making them the lightest in the world.
BMW’s newly found focus on sustainability and the environment has worried some enthusiast as there is a fear that the company will abandon its traditional focus on driving pleasure, and the resignation from the Formula 1 has only deepened those thoughts. However, even before these actions, BMWs focus on making their cars as efficient as possible was always present. For example, the research conducted by Clean Green Cars shows that BMW does better than its main competitors in the premium segment by significantly more than half a litre of fuel consumption with an average level of 160 g CO2/km. The vehicles of the next best competitor have a CO2 emissions level of 16 grams more than the models of the brand BMW, with the next competitor after this at a level which is as much as 28 g higher than the brand BMW – equal to a whole litre of diesel. Between 2006 and 2008, the brand BMW achieved a reduction in fuel consumption of 16%, more than doubling the reduction attained by the next best premium segment competitor. At the same, BMW vehicles are still well ahead of their competitors in terms of average engine output.
While this can be used as a good marketing tool, the truth is that BMW is reducing fuel consumption in its entire range, rather than selling one special “economy” car that is particularly economical. To emphasize this, there is no single BMW model that is labeled as an economy version (such as Mercedes’ BlueEfficiency models or Audi’s “e” versions) and yet those “normal” BMW cars are usually better than their competitors economy versions.
Let’s take, for example, the Audi A6 2.0 TDI (140 bhp) that should be the “green executive’s choice”, but when compared to the BMW 520d (177 bhp) british Autocar said that “As much as we admire the TDI’s green credentials, it isn’t moving the game on. Indeed, the BMW 520d manages to combine more power with lower economy and emissions figures” (…) The A6 will be slightly cheaper for a fleet to run over three years and 60,000 miles, but the 520d is easily the better car to drive – it feels much more like a sports saloon than the slightly stodgy Audi.
Not to mention several tests conducted by the German Auto Bild and Auto Motor und Sport magazines, where the BMW has beaten their rivals with consumption and CO2 levels (as in handling and dynamics field) and the research made by Auto Zeitung, where with 8,2 liters at 100 KM, BMWs model range was the most frugal, compared to 9,1 liters in Audi’s case or 8,7 liters for Mercedes-Benz. Again, BMWs engines were the most powerful in the test.
So how does this relate to the new 3 Series? Well, the new “reinvented” 3 Series will not be reinvented at all. It’s difficult to believe, but the first generation E21 3 Series released in 1975 was BMWs economy car, the answer for the 1973 Oil Crisis, making it the solution for buyers wanting prestige and economy.
Much emphasis was put on passive safety, as all edges and control elements within the interior were rounded off and padded. The cockpit design of the E21 marked the introduction of a new design concept, with the center console angled towards the driver, a feature that has become part of BMW’s interior design philosophy for many years. The E21 also saw a suspension redesign, with a rack and pinion steering, McPherson strut suspension at the front, and semi-trailing arm type independent suspension at the rear, to improve active safety and roadholding (as shown on the video above). The power assisted brakes were discs on the front wheels, while the rear wheels had drum brakes.
Five engines were available, three four-cylinders (from 1.6 to 2.0 liters) and two straight-sixes, 2.0 and 2.3 versions, which was the first time ever that BMW fitted a six-cylinder into a compact car.
A study conducted by BMW in 1980 showed that with a share of 31 percent, the 320i was the best-selling 3 Series, followed by the 316 accounting for 27 percent, the 318 with a share of 24 percent, and the 323i with a share in sales of 18 percent. The purchasing motives were the car’s performance in 77 percent of all cases, its handling for 65 percent of the customers, and the special looks of a sporting saloon in 64 per cent of the reasons quoted for buying the car. Most E21 owners were satisfied with their purchase, as almost two-thirds of those surveyed stated that their next car would be another BMW.
Another inquiry showed that drivers of the E21 Series were particularly active motorists by European standards, with more than 60 per cent of those surveyed covering more than 17 000 km (10 500 miles) per year.
After 1.36 million units were sold, production stopped in 1982 and the popular E30 was introduced.
After looking back to the past, it is now obvious that the new 3 Series doesn’t have to reinvent itself, because trough generations the car successfully captured the spirit of the original while being modified for modern requirements. The new generation hasn’t even been presented yet, and still it has managed to produce a slight controversy, but after we know all this, there is no need to be worried. In the end, we can see the new generation as an incarnation of the E21; light but safe, economical but powerful and highly entertaining to drive, meaning that it will remain the car to beat in this sector. And with BMW’s traditional advanced engine engineering, backed up by the new aerodynamic and lightweight innovations and that little something that makes the driver feel connected to the road, this car may be the best 3 Series yet.