Evolution of the BMW 3 series in 7 generations – still the ultimate sedan?
Arif · Oct 25, 2020 09:59 AM
Hailing from Munich is the famous German automaker, BMW. The brand has been around since 1916 and its badge proudly displays the colours of the Bavarian flag. If there is one BMW model that well-represents the brand, it has to be the BMW 3 series. The model is compact, accessible, and has an iconic status.
Gracing our roads today is the 7th generation of the 3 series, the G20. Like many other long-running car models, the 3-series has evolved over the years, grown larger, and has adapted much more sophisticated technologies. In appreciation of the Bavarian sedan, here is a trip down memory lane to its humble origins.
The predecessor – "Neue Klasse" & the 02 series
The BMW 3 series was not BMW’s first compact saloon. Prior to the 3 series was the 02 series and prior to the 02 series was the “New Class”, or “Neue Klasse”. "02" just meant 2 doors. The Neue Klasse cemented BMW’s association with sports sedans and introduced the hereditary Hoffmeister kink.
The Neue Klasse included the1500, 1800, 1600, and 2000. The 02 series included the 1602,1802, 2002, and 1502. The most famous car from the 02 series would be the BMW 2002, BMW’s first turbocharged production car.
1st gen – E21 (1975)
The E21 was the first 3-series BMW. Upon launch, the 3 series only had 2 doors and 4 cylinders (M10). BMW’s 6-cylinder engine, the M20, found its way into the E21 two years after its launch. The design of the E21 is very much influenced by its predecessor, sporting single round headlamps and an obvious chrome kidney grill contrasting against a black radiator cover.
The range-topping E21 was the 323i that had a maximum power output of 143 PS. The E21 was an agile and compact sports saloon that did not disappoint its predecessors.
2nd gen – E30 (1982)
The BMW E30 is perhaps the most iconic of the 3-series.
The first 3-series with twin headlights
The first 3-series to have 4 doors
The first 3-series to have an “M” version
The first 3-series to race in DTM
The first 3-series to have a “touring” version
The M3 version of the E30 ran the S14 4-cylinder engine capable of up to 200 PS, a massive jump from the E21 323i. A 6-cylinder diesel variant of the E30 was also available.
3rd gen – E36 (1990)
Running straight into the 90s, BMW introduced the third generation of the 3-series, the E36. The twin headlights were now encapsulated with glass headlight covers and the chrome kidney grille was no longer stuck on a black radiator cover. The E36 had become larger than the E30.
The M3 version of the E36 was available in a sedan, coupe, or convertible body style. By this generation, M3 had surpassed 300 PS, being able to produce 321 PS from the S50 engine. The E36 was also the first generation to have a hatchback version. (not the best-looking car out there)
4th gen - E46 (1997)
Evolving from the E36, the E46 was a curvier sedan. Even the headlights were curvy to emphasise that shift in design. Done in moderation, the curvy elements gave the 3 series a fresh look. In fact, one could say that the E46’s design has aged well over the years. There was a funky-looking hatchback version of the E46, but let’s not talk about that.
Maximum power output of the M3 CSL E46 is 360 PS coming from BMW’s S54 I6 engine. In this generation, BMW’s Valvetronic technology had been introduced. A sequential manual gearbox called the SMG-II was also introduced in this generation’s M3.
5th gen – E90/E91/E92/E93 (2005)
The BMW E90 was one of the cars conceived during the Bangle era. The cars had a more organic look and the surfaces were a little more complex. In this generation, the variants of the 3-series also went in their own directions in term of design.
The E90 was a sedan, the E91 was a wagon, the E92 a coupe, and the E93 a convertible. The E90 and E91 had taller-looking headlights while the E92 and E93 had a more aggressive front end. M3 version were available for all body types except the wagon (E91).
This generation’s M3 was the only one to receive a V8 NA engine (S65). In its most athletic form (M3), the 3-series was capable of generating up to 450 PS.
6th gen – F30/F31/F34 (2011)
By the sixth generation, the kidney and the headlights have finally grown to reach each other. This generation also spawned the 4 series, which were basically redesigned and rebadged coupe and convertible versions of the 3 series.
Versions of the sixth generation are denoted as such: sedan (F30); wagon (F31); Gran Turismo (F34); long-wheelbase sedan (F35). Hybrid versions of the 3 series were introduced, designated as the 330e iPerformance and Active Hybrid 3.
The most powerful of the 6th-generation was the F80 M3 CS. The naturally-aspirated V8 from the previous generation had been swapped out for a twin-turbo inline-6 engine. Maximum power was rated at 460 PS.
7th gen – G20 (2018)
Following on from the design of the F30, the G20 continues to have the headlights and kidney grill touching each other. However, the kidney grill has become larger and the twin headlights have become polygonal.
The seventh-gen 3-series is available in a sedan version (G30) and a wagon/touring version (G21).
Besides the outlandish M3, only the diesel versions (4 and 6 cylinder) of the seventh generation come with a 6-speed manual transmission.
The latest M3 sports a massive kidney grill that has been detached from the headlights, clearly distinguishing it from lower-performance versions of the 3-series. A maximum power of 510 PS is generated from the twin-turbo inline-6 3.0-litre engine (S58).
Seven generations on and still pushing the boundaries of sports saloons, the BMW 3 series remains relevant and iconic among enthusiasts. Which generation is your favourite? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
Previously an engineer in an automotive manufacturing company and a highway concessionaire. A part-time research student on biofuels and diesel engines. Obsessed with vehicle electrification and the future of transportation.