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Buying a Used BMW 3 Series: Everything You Need to Know

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author photo by Basem Wasef December 2014

Why Buy a Used BMW 3 Series?

New-car buyers are drawn to the 3 Series for a number of reasons, including its legendary driving dynamics, advanced engineering, and brand prestige. The model that started off as an economy-oriented, entry-level coupe has since swelled in size and price (surrounded by more models than ever on either side, including the 2 Series and 1 Series), while evolving into a more high-end purchase with a correspondingly swollen price tag. It's no wonder many would-be buyers have found attractively priced alternatives from the likes of Audi, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac.

Enter the used market -- an increasingly attractive option for budget-minded buyers who don't want to pay the full premium for BMW's best-selling model. Which era is best for you? For brand aficionados, it's all about model generations, which boil down to an alphanumeric one-letter, two-digit number code.

E21 (1978-1981)

Also known as the 320i, this 4-cylinder-powered model was introduced to the U.S. market at a time when the BMW brand didn't quite evoke the same level of desirability as it does now. As such, the E21 was a more budget-focused alternative that had recognizable roots in the cult classic 1968-1976 BMW 2002 models.

E30 (1982-1991)

The E30 enjoyed a number of refinements over its predecessor, most noticeably its rounded bodywork (which enhanced aerodynamics) and a number of spin-offs, including the more affordable 4-cylinder 318i, the 6-cylinder 325i, the 325iC convertible, the all-wheel-drive 325ix and a hot-rodded M3 model.

E36 (1992-1998)

BMW's E36 era saw a new visual direction with a sharpening of bodywork and a new headlight housing that placed the signature quad headlamps behind a clear enclosure. This era also saw the introduction of VANOS variable valve timing, which gave the 2.5-liter (and later, the 2.8-liter) engine more flexible power output.

E46 (1999-2005)

Though at first blush it's not dramatically visually different from its predecessor, the E46's more complex technology and increasingly ambitious scope led to one of the more critically acclaimed M3s in history, which featured a screaming 333-horsepower engine and a race-inspired SMG gearbox.

E90 (2006-2011)

Longer, wider, bigger and heavier than its predecessor, the E90 reflected a growing sophistication that signaled a subtle change in the car's essential nature. The addition of turbochargers enabled an impressive 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, delivering M3-like levels of performance in the 335i model.

F30 (2012-Present)

With an eye toward weight savings and fuel efficiency, the F30-era cars became even larger than their predecessors while managing to shed weight. Controversially, the F30 also introduced an electric steering setup that did away with some of the 3 Series' legendary steering feel in favor of more efficiency, while greater levels of refinement drew a more big-car feel from the lineup. 2013's introduction of the 4 Series brought an end to the 3 Series nomenclature convention, which saw the entire BMW brand adopt a new naming approach in which coupes start with even numbers while sedans start with odd numbers.

Which 3 Series Is Right for Me?

The BMW 3 Series has evolved quite a bit in its 3 decades on the market, reflecting a noticeable shift in philosophy from the early days when an economy-focused stopgap enabled buyers easier access into the BMW nameplate. For die-hard fans, the E30 offers a no-nonsense sensibility focused on utility and functionality, while the M3 variant from that era has captured the imagination of collectors with its hard-edged performance.

The E36 was viewed as a bit of departure in terms of styling and wasn't exactly the most loved of the M3 iterations, but it paved the way for what many consider to be the high-water mark for naturally aspirated M cars: the E46 M3. The E90 introduced the benefits of torquey turbocharged engines, while clean diesel variants introduced new approaches to the age-old question of how to deliver both performance and fuel efficiency.

Car shoppers seeking a more sophisticated (but not necessarily sportier) personality might find solace in the F30, whose 4-cylinder 328i model manages to match the late, great E36 M3's acceleration from 0 to 60 miles per hour. Opt for the bigger 6-cylinder engine, and you'll get a grown-up, substantial-feeling car that has expanded the 3 Series repertoire significantly from its smaller, more affordably priced roots.

Would-be buyers of used 3 Series BMWs should note that while depreciation curves may have brought the values of some cars ludicrously low, that doesn't mean old-timer Bimmers aren't without maintenance needs and running costs. Because parts and service on these German cars often tend to be significantly pricier than their Japanese and American counterparts, the BMW prestige doesn't exactly come for free. Association with one of the greatest, most critically acclaimed model names in history will likely deliver a memorable ownership experience that allows some of the 3 Series' best traits to shine.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Used BMW 3 Series: Everything You Need to Know - Autotrader