40 Years of BMW 3 Series

3-Series | July 23rd, 2015 by 12
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Over the past 40 years, the 3 Series has dominated the segment it may or may not have created. There have been six generations and all have been the best in class

The BMW 3 Series may not have been the absolute first sports sedan ever created, but it was damn close and it was still the best. Over the past 40 years, the 3 Series has dominated the segment it may or may not have created. There have been six generations and all have been the best in class, except for maybe the latest F30 generation. But, in fairness, it’s tough to stay at the top for so long.

Anyways, Top Gear has assembled a 3 Series from each and every generation to test 40 years of the BMW 3 Series. So Paul Horrell gathered a 1975 E21 BMW 316, 1982 E30 320is, 1991 E36 323i, 1998 E46 328Ci, 2005 E90 320i and the brand new BMW 340i. That’s quite the family gathering and one that should make for one helluva day of driving. So let’s look at what Horrell determined from his trip back through time with all 40 years of the BMW 3 Series.


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The main thing to take away from his thoughts on the E21 is simplicity. The E21 is all about driving, and nothing else. The seating position is near perfect, the steering is unassisted, there’s no tachometer so you have to listen to the engine to know when to shift and there’s no A/C. It’s the pure distilled essence of driving pleasure. It may not be the best driving car in the bunch, but it’s as pure as a driving experience gets and there’s something extraordinarily rewarding about that.



The E30 marked a huge leap forward for the 3 Series. It gained more creature comforts, like better seats and air conditioning, but it also gained more technology, like power steering and a clever electronic Check Control System. However, despite gaining complications and luxuries, the E30 never lost any of the driving purity. In fact, it actually improved in steering feel, accuracy and chassis dynamics. So not only was it more comfortable and livable, it was the superior driving car as well. The E30 3 Series will live on in automotive history as a turning point for sports sedans.



This one surprised me, I must admit. Horrell gives his utmost praise for the E36, a 3 Series that is often forgotten in the lore of the E30 and E46. The E36 was a massive leap forward from the E30, in terms of technology and luxuries. A more advanced Check Control System followed, it gained more supportive and comfortable seats, it grew in size quite a bit and received a bigger engine, in the 328i. However, it still kept its simplistic tactility in tact and was as enjoyable to drive as ever. In fact, Horrell describes it as “magical”. He calls the suspension masterful and the steering lovely. All in all, it almost seems as if the E36 is his favorite of the bunch, something that warms my heart, as many of you would know.



The E46 was more an evolution rather than a revolution, of the E36. It was similarly sized, inside and out, and had a similar interior. However, the exterior styling was more attractive than the E36’s and seemed smoother and better put together. It felt more grown up. It was also wonderful to drive, with near perfect steering and chassis dynamics. However, Horrell remarks on how he felt that the E36 had superior ride, probably due to the larger brakes and bigger wheels of the E46. However, despite it’s slightly harsher ride than the E36, it is still far superior to drive than even most modern sports cars. An excellent machine overall.



This is the generation where the 3 Series starts to lose its luster a bit, according to Horrell. The E90 was a great driving car, especially compared to some of the numb sports cars we have today, but it lacked a bit of the engagement of the previous generations. The problem with the E90 is that it was very much like the awkward teenage years of a child. It was too young for us to realize that cars need to be numb to save Johnny Polar Bear, but it was too old for the people used to E46s to like it much. It fell into sort of this middle ground of evolution that many enthusiasts weren’t ready for. Horrell likes the E90, but admits it wasn’t as good as any of its predecessors.





Horrell describes the new LCI F30 340i as “blisteringly quick” but then also admits that that speed makes it a tad more boring than its predecessors on the same bit of road, simply because it’s so much easier for it. The F30 3 Series is a good car, it’s fast, handles well and is more comfortable and spacious than any of the 3ers that came before it. But it just doesn’t excite like it used to. An unfortunate sign of the times, I’m afraid. It isn’t the 3 Series’ fault, nor is it BMW’s. It’s just the way things are now. It’s still a great car, but it doesn’t make your heart jump. Says Horrell.

BMW 3 Series Family

12 responses to “40 Years of BMW 3 Series”

  1. jason bourne says:

    You can see the (sad) progression from compact driving machine to bloated luxury machine.

    • Kaisuke971 says:

      You do realize that only 2 of the 6 are small ? I’m not sure you’re pointing the right intruders… The E36 looks like the first “real” 3 series to me, in the sense we know it in 2015. E21 and E30 are more 2 series-ish…

  2. Kaisuke971 says:

    If there is one i want to drive, it’s the E36 actually. Think this will be my first car… Maybe i’ll buy a 318is or a 328i, i’ll see.

  3. Giom says:

    I don’t get people living in the past. Stagnation is a bad thing. Stagnant car companies are all long gone – or owned by somebody else.

    • Mike Vella says:

      I agree. The 3 series has “grown” into what it is now with its customer base.
      People want sporty and fun to drive, but they also want the comforts and the tech.
      I’m not going to daily drive a stick shift in Southern CA – I haven’t had a manual tranny car since 2000. I expect to be able to talk on the phone through my car and have nice ride get good mileage.
      The 3 series has evolved from mostly sporty to a compact luxury sports sedan.
      What I don’t get is the whole thing about the cars being so bigger and all that. Compared to the E9x? Odd given the specs.

  4. Box860 says:

    Most all cars have grown larger and heavier. BMW is following the market and government regulations. ABS and traction control are now mandated by the USDOT. Rear cameras will be mandatory in a few years. So some of the bloat is beyond the car manufacturers’ control. I’m hard pressed to think of a mainstream car whose latest iteration is not larger and more feature-laden than the same model was 10 years ago. The new 3 Series is too large for my taste. It’s roughly the size of a 5 Series from a decade ago. But I give BMW credit for recognizing this and introducing the 1 and 2 Series. I own a 1 and love it. Driving it always puts a smile on my face.

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