New car buyers are drawn to the BMW 3 Series for several reasons, including its legendary driving dynamics, advanced engineering, and brand prestige. The model that started 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 4 Series) while evolving into a more high-end purchase with a correspondingly swollen price tag.
Why Buy a Used BMW 3 Series?
Enter the used market — an increasingly attractive option for buyers on a budget who don’t want to pay the full premium for BMW‘s beloved sports sedan.
Which era is best for you? For brand aficionados, it’s all about model generations, which boil down to a simple one-letter, two-digit code.
Also known as the 320i, this 4-cylinder model was introduced to the United States market at a time when the BMW brand didn’t quite evoke the same level of desirability as it does now. Instead, the E21 was a more budget-friendly alternative with recognizable roots in the cult classic 1968-1976 BMW 2002 models.
The E30 enjoyed many refinements over its predecessor, the E21. Most noticeably, the refinements include its rounded bodywork (which enhanced aerodynamics) and some spin-offs, including the more affordable 4-cylinder 318i, the 6-cylinder 325i, the 325iC convertible, the all-wheel-drive 325ix, and a high-performance M3 model.
BMW’s E36 era saw the rising German car company head in a new visual direction. The car was redesigned with sharpened bodywork and a new headlight display that placed the signature quad headlamps behind a clear enclosure. This era also introduced VANOS variable valve timing, which gave the 2.5-liter (and later, the 2.8-liter) engine more flexible power output.
At first glance, it’s not dramatically different from its predecessor. But 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.
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 performance levels in the 335i model.
With an eye toward weight savings and fuel efficiency, the F30-era cars became even larger than their predecessors while still 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. At the same time, 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.
Making its debut at the 2018 Paris Auto Show, the newest addition to the 3 Series made quite the impression, despite exterior changes being more subtle than in previous generations. The G20 features a longer, lower, and wider stance and a lighter and more rigid frame. Due to the increased use of aluminum components, the G20 achieves the coveted 50-50 weight distribution sought by many enthusiasts. The G20 came out for the 2019 model year and got some updates shortly after. The 2020 model introduced the sporty M340i model and added more standard safety tech to the base trim. Also, the Sports Wagon and Gran Turismo body styles were discontinued for 2020.
Which BMW 3 Series is Right for Me?
The BMW 3 Series has evolved quite a bit in its three 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. At the same time, 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 a departure in styling and wasn’t exactly the most loved of the M3 iterations. But the E36 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.
Maintenance Costs Can Be Pricy
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.
Still, 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.
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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published. Basem Wasef contributed to this report.