Today, one out of every four new BMWs sold globally is a 3 Series. The model’s success story started 40 years ago when BMW introduced the very first 3, called E21 internally, as a replacement for the popular 02.
Presented at the 1975 edition of the Frankfurt Motor Show, the first 3 Series looked like a more boxy evolution of the 2002 that it was tasked with replacing and it was only available as a two-door sedan. Base models featured a pair of round headlights, while the top-spec variants launched a little later in the production run stood out immediately thanks to a four-light setup. The E21 was introduced with carbureted four-cylinder engines but it quickly became the first car in its class to offer a straight-six mill.
The E21 was replaced by the E30 in 1982. The second-gen 3 again featured an evolutionary design that nonetheless made it markedly more aerodynamic and more modern-looking than the E21. Already sought-after by collectors and enthusiasts, the E30 is remembered as the first four-door 3 Series, BMW’s first-ever all-wheel drive car, the first 3 Series station wagon and the first diesel-powered 3 Series. Additionally, the E30 spawned the original M3 that was powered by a race-derived four-cylinder engine rated at 200 horsepower.
The third-gen 3 (known as the E36) that was introduced in 1990 was significantly bigger than the E30, and it broke all visual ties with its predecessors thanks to a sleek silhouette and a more rakish C-pillar. A sign of the changing times, every variant of the E36 made at least 100 horsepower and European buyers looking for an oil-burning 3 had several options to choose from. The E36 also became the very first 3 Series coupe — before it, the two-door models were simply two-door sedans.
Called E46, the fourth-gen 3 Series was bigger than the E36 but its design was largely evolutionary. The one exception to the rule was that it gained L-shaped tail lamps, a styling cue that continues to characterize the 3 – and numerous other members of the BMW lineup – today. The Munich-based automaker put a big emphasis on technology, and the E46 could be ordered with a long list of high-tech features gleaned from the bigger 7 including a multi-function steering wheel, rear side airbags, rain-sensing windshield wipers and navigation. Mechanically, the E46 carried on with four- and six-cylinder engines, and the M3 benefited from a straight-six that churned out nearly 350 horsepower.
Launched in 2005 at the Geneva Motor Show, the fifth-gen 3 featured a striking look that fell in line with the controversial design language that influenced all of BMW’s models at the time. Known as the E90, it was bigger than the E46 in all directions but it was not any heavier thanks to the use of lightweight materials. The fifth-gen 3 got the world’s first regular-production twin-turbocharged straight-six engine, and the E90-based M3 turned the dial up to 11 with a brutal 420-horsepower V8.
Finally, the current 3 Series (called F30 in BMW-speak) hit the market in 2012. For the first time ever, the 3 is available as a family-friendly hatchback called Gran Turismo and the coupe and convertible models have been spun-off into their own lineup called 4 Series.
The F30 3 will enter the 2016 model year with subtle modifications inside and out and a brand new 3.0-liter straight-six engine. Euro-spec models will gain a 1.5-liter three-cylinder – the smallest engine ever to power a 3 since the original E21 – and BMW has confirmed that a gasoline-electric plug-in hybrid model called 330e will be launched in select markets next year.
All told, BMW has sold 14 million examples of the 3 Series over the past 40 years. A true world car, the hot-selling compact has been built (either from scratch or from complete knock-down kits) in a long list of countries including Germany, the United States, China, Mexico, Egypt, South Africa, Russia and India.