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Four decades of success is not easy to sustain, but the 3 Series had a headstart by being the pioneer in its segment, arriving in the scene well before its rivals were even conceptualized. Such is the success of BMW in establishing the premium compact segment that competitors inevitably find themselves having to benchmark their offerings against the 3 Series.

Perching my bum on the driver’s seat, I slotted the keys into the ignition and fired the venerable four-cylinder motor up front to life. Clutch in, first gear, off I went hitting the road together with nine other cars flocking to the same destination in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

THE BENCHMARK OF DRIVING PLEASURE.

It was 6am. Daylight had yet to break, but the good morning messages were flooding in from the WhatsApp group. I stumbled lethargically out of the main door of my house, loosely gripping my GoPro in hand.

"We managed to get eight awesome readers to bring their cars out on the wee hours of a Sunday morning."

Our mission of the morning was to celebrate BMW’s latest 3 Series by lining it up in an epic photoshoot with its ancestors. Remarkably, we managed to get eight awesome readers to bring their cars out on the wee hours of a Sunday morning, and we managed to get at least one car of each generation.

The night before, Chris Wee had entrusted me the keys to his E30 318i whilst he in turn carried the bigger burden of handling the super rare F80 M3 30 Jahre Edition that belonged to his cousin. Meanwhile, Beng, still jetlagged from her trip to Melbourne, was handed the keys to the all-new G20 330i.

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In addition to the cars we brought ourselves, the day’s roll call also included an E21 323i, an E36 318i Cabriolet, two E36 328i sedans, an E46 M3, two E90 sedans, and an F30 330e. One E92 owner had to bail out for a family emergency. This healthy turnout was testament to both the awesomeness of our readers as well as the 3 Series enduring appeal.

 

Each of the cars that joined us that morning had a story to tell. The E21 belonged to a renowned classic car dealer. Not in absolute mint condition as the cars he peddles for a trade, but still a strong-running specimen, and road-worthy E21s aren’t exactly available in abundance these days.

"The 3 Series is the embodiment of BMW’s core values as a brand."

Parking the E21 next to the G20 highlights how far indeed the 3 Series has come over the last four decades. During the E21’s day, four doors represented a luxury; contrast to the present when every maker is rushing to brand their cars as coupes, the E21 was sold as a two-door sedan, and it was seen as a legitimately practical family vehicle.

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2nd Generation, E30

(1982 – 1990)

 

A huge favourite among enthusiasts, the E30 didn’t just improve upon the E21; it also significantly widened the appeal of the 3 Series model line. Joining the familiar two-door coupe are the four-door sedan, touring, and cabriolet models. A mix of four- and six-cylinder powertrains were offered, and innovations introduced include anti-lock brakes, catalytic converter, condition-based service reminders, and brake pad wear warning lights. Of course, this model generation also marked the start of the BMW M3.

 

Fun Fact: BMW didn’t initially design the E30 touring. A resourceful engineer Max Reisbock built one for his own use, and inspired the company to develop one.

 

2,339,251 units

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1st Generation, E21

(1975 – 1982)­

 

The first 3 Series had the unenviable task of replacing the hugely successful 02 series that set BMW on its path of making sporty and dynamic vehicles. Available exclusively as a two-door model, the E21 was also noteworthy for being the first vehicle in its class to offer six-cylinder performance.

 

Fun Fact: The E21 was the first ever BMW to exceed 1 million units in total production.

 

1,364,039 units

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3rd Generation, E36

(1990 – 1998)

 

The E36 marked a major departure from established BMW styling language. The new smoothened front end merges the twin circular headlights behind a single glass cover as BMW made early efforts to optimize pedestrian protection. For the first time, BMW developed the four-door model as the 3 Series’ default variant with the coupe and cabriolet models following next.

 

Fun Fact: The 1 Series actually traces its origins here. BMW offered an entry-level three-door hatchback called the 3 Series Compact.

 

2,745,780 units

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4th Generation, E46

(1998 – 2005)

 

Old school 3 Series sportiness modernized for the 21st century, the E46 boasted a sportier, more striking design than its immediate predecessor. It also packed a significant upgrade in technology, introducing multifunction steering wheel, rear side airbags, rain-sensing wipers, and GPS navigation. This generation is well-noted for its legendary M3 that packed a sweet-revving 3.2-litre inline-6; the regular versions pack decent poke too, the most potent being the 330i generating 231hp from its 3.0-litre powerplant.

 

Fun Fact: There is a super rare version of the E46 M3 called the M3 GTR built by BMW for motorsports homologation. Unlike the regular M3, this one had a 382hp 4.0-litre V8 that was never used in any other vehicle.

 

3,266,885 units

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5th Generation, E90

(2005 – 2012)

 

Perhaps the most controversial design of the lineage, but a hugely successful one, nonetheless, garnering the ‘World Car of the Year’ award on the year of its launch. It was the first 3 Series with iDrive and a range of engines that included various EfficientDynamics innovations. This generation also introduced the 335i that marked the start of BMW’s journey into turbocharging with the award-winning 3.0-litre twin turbo.

 

Fun Fact: With this generation, BMW began the practice of assigning unique model codes to different body styles. E90 denoted the sedan, E91 wagon, E92 coupe, and E93 cabriolet.

 

3,102,345 units

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6th Generation, F30

(2012 – 2019)

 

The first 3 Series to come exclusively with turbocharged engines, and the last to offer a mechanical handbrake. The F30 is the most successful 3 Series of all time. It managed to match the E90’s total sales despite having to exclude over 680,000 coupes and convertibles now sold as the 4 Series. It is also the first time we see a 3 Series with a three-cylinder engine as well as a plug-in hybrid.

 

Fun Fact: BMW also introduced the curious 3 Series Gran Turismo with this model generation. It was a vehicle of considerable merit, but BMW has sadly chosen not to renew it for the future.

 

3,108,967 units

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Till today, the E21’s design remains distinctive; its pointed shark-nose identifies it as a contemporary of the E12 5 Series, E24 6 Series, and E23 7 Series. We also immediately see that by joining the two halves of the G20’s kidney grille, BMW was actually paying tribute to the original.

 

Either side of the kidneys, quad headlights on our gold-coloured example identify it as a six-cylinder model; in this case, a 323i which, in its heyday, was good for a top speed of 200 km/h and 8.7-second century sprint. From the way it kept up with the convoy on MEX highway, it is evident that the 2.3-litre inline-6 managed to keep most of its 141 horses from leaving the bonnet.

Also holding up well to the passage of time was our Mr. Wee’s E30 to which I was entrusted for the day. The four-door 318i is the most common variant of the E30 in our market and also perhaps the most important. Now, the 3 Series has truly become an all-purpose vehicle fit for both family and business occasions, whilst letting you have a bit of driving fun along the way.

 

Chris’ example here is a low-miler single owner unit that has seen some wear & tear over the years, but painstakingly restored to the condition you see on these pages. And despite being three-decades old, it’s not exactly ancient – this car has conditioned-based service reminder and brake pad wear sensors.

Compared to the rest that turned up, Chris’ E30 also happened to bring the least power to table. Its 1.8-litre M40 four-cylinder mill was factory rated at 111hp and 162Nm; not headturning figures by today’s standards, but they hit the road effectively thanks to direct mechanical linkage via a good old-fashioned manual transmission. It lacks the creaminess of BMW’s renowned six-cylinder engines, but the twin-cam unit is an effervescent motor, a delight to work together with its five cogs and three pedals. I had plenty of fun doing throttle blips, heel-toes, and just downshifting for the heck of it. There is an eagerness in the four-cylinder engine that gives the entry-level E30 its own charm.

A product of the 1990s, the E36 came smack in what many purists regard as BMW’s heyday where dynamics was concerned, and it was the best represented generation of all present. The bright red cabriolet was the main eye-grabber of the lot; a humble 318i under the hood, but its elegant profile ageing extremely gracefully, and overall condition lovingly kept pristine by its lucky single owner.

The E36 also marked the first time that BMW developed the 3 Series initially as a four-door sedan, whilst the two-door model that came later was officially called a coupe for the first time. So, don’t be surprised that the latest 3 Series is nothing like the last, because both the E30 and E36 were major departures from their respective predecessors.

"The E46 is best remembered for its version of the M3, the last one with a naturally-aspirated inline-6 engine."

Of all generations of the 3 Series, only the E46 can perhaps be regarded as one that followed an evolutionary progression from its predecessor. The E46 is best remembered for its version of the M3, the last one with a naturally-aspirated inline-6 engine, and it was a good one too. A legendary one that redlines at a heady 8,000rpm, and there won’t be another one like it anymore.

And we were fortunate that the only representative of the E46 that morning was an M3, a meticulously cared unit belonging to a famed BMW Driver Training instructor. In appearance, the E46 M3 had a widened stance over the regular models, but compared to present day iterations, the treatment here is relatively subtle. Put it this way, a convincing M3 conversion for, say, an E46 320Ci would cost a lot less money an effort than it would with an F30 320i.

 

But whichever variant of the E46 you have, this is often regarded as the best-handling 3 Series ever, and its traits would prove influential in the G20’s development, a fact BMW tries to remind us with a little kink on the headlights.

If the E46 marked the start of the modernization of the 3 Series, the process went full force in the E90. Wearing Chris Bangle’s flame surfacing treatment on the outside, the E90 is best remembered for its introduction of integrated in-car infotainment, an area which the Bavarians continue to set the standard for its peers.

 

The two E90 examples that turned up were of the later facelifted batches, the most radical mid-cycle overhaul of any 3 Series generation. There was a base 320i SE and a fully-kitted 320d M Sport – together, they represented two different extremes of what the E90 had to offer.

Compared to the E46 that came before, the E90 was bigger, heavier, and packed with ever more technologies; but the driver focus and the desire on BMW’s part to deliver a car that thrilled on the roads remained strongly ingrained. Casual drivers find the E90’s unfeasibly heavy steering and uncompromisingly firm ride demanding to live with, but enthusiasts appreciate its dynamism and rawness. This was the last BMW 3 Series to offer hydraulic steering and naturally-aspirated inline-sixes.

Succeeding the E90 was none other than the F30, the first ever BMW model to launch with an all-turbocharged line-up of engines that ranged from a 1.5-litre three-cylinder all the way to the six-cylinder 320hp M340i. For much of its run, however, the four-cylinder 320i was the most popular model, until tax breaks saw the plug-in hybrid 330e arrive to become the main-selling variant.

On the road, the F30 couldn’t be a greater polar opposite of the E90 it succeeded. Broadly, it started off and remained, right to the end of its life cycle, the best handling compact exec, but there is much heightened emphasis on comfort this time. It is softer than 3 Series models of years past, a fact many enthusiasts lament, but we appreciate the F30’s overall blend of traits – it is a pleasantly comfortable daily driver that can be easily and confidently driven fast in almost any condition.

"The F30 is a pleasantly comfortable daily driver that can be easily and confidently driven fast in almost any condition."

With over four decades of history and nearly 18 million cars on the road, the 3 Series is the embodiment of BMW’s core values as a brand. And whilst the presentation may have varied over the years, the formula even drastically revamped a few times along the way, the essence of what makes a 3 Series has continued to remain true.

Despite their varied designs over the years, each of the seven generations of the 3 Series consistently espouse similar themes of dynamic sportiness and practical functionality.

 

The sheetmetal has grown, the number of doors doubled, but the core DNA that the 3 Series is an all-purpose vehicle that faithfully serves your daily grind, enthusiastically feeds your driving thrills, and glosses it off with the allure of a premium badge. It is this consistency to its nature that helped build the 3 Series’ cult following.

 

Put it this way, many cars outsell the 3 Series, but how many other cars can inspire nearly a dozen grown men to sacrifice their Sunday morning sleep to meet up with a bunch of strangers?

"Over four decades of history and nearly 18 million cars on the road, the essence of what makes a 3 Series has continued to remain true."

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WORDS KON • PICTURES TJ

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The 3 Series has come far over the years, and whilst the formula has evolved over the years, the essence has remained much the same. BMW’s most important seller has plied its trade for four decades selling on a persuasive blend of sportiness, day-to-day usability plus the not inconsequential allure of a premium badge.

 

Seeing how the 3 Series start off as a two-door only affair, subsequently growing a pair of rear doors, to spawning alternative body styles such as wagons and even the curious Gran Turismo, and finally not having a two-door model carrying the name shows that BMW is not afraid to mix up the execution if it serves to deliver the original spirit.

HOW DOES THE G20 MEASURE UP?

The all-new G20 3 Series comes off the back of a hugely successful predecessor, and consequently has big shoes to fill. It starts off with a strong impression on a sharp suit; BMW styled the G20 to look positively menacing whether or not it is fitted with M Sport body kits.

 

Inside, BMW addressed criticism of the F30’s dull cabin aesthetics and, like it did outside, subject the interior to a major rethink, the most substantial revamp ever seen on a 3 Series.

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First impressions upon driving off, the chassis communicates unmistakable firmness, but the crucial point here is that there is communication – so despite packing the car with digital technology, BMW kept a firm eye in maintaining the 3 Series as a driver’s car.

 

Those coming from an F30 will initially find the G20’s firm ride anywhere between jarring and uncompromising. Whilst its primary ride is respectable, the suspension’s priority in keeping the car glued to the tarmac also means that gentle undulations are more keenly felt than before.

 

It is when one takes the G20 further away from the urban traffic and plough on toward hills that the talents and philosophy of this chassis can be properly understood. After overcoming some initial uncertainty that encourages lesser drivers to back off, the G20 then indulges you to play with its astonishingly high lateral limits, giving you the confidence to push increasingly harder into each successive bend.

The power unit complements the chassis’ talents. This being the highest tune of the 2.0-litre B48 petrol turbo, the 330i pulls hard, fast, and without any hesitation, ably enabled by the decade-old but still freakishly good ZF 8HP 8-speed auto. Even in its Comfort setting, the 330i has enough pace to blow away most traffic and will give even dedicated sports cars serious run for their money on highways.

 

The G20 is the most aggressively-styled 3 Series we’ve ever seen, and it backs those looks up with some serious driving credentials. It is brutal, hard-hitting, and delivers BMW’s promise of driving pleasure without apology or compromise.

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BMW created the original premium sports sedan with the 3 Series in 1975. In the four decades and seven generations that followed, the formula continues to be relentlessly perfected.