Bayerische Motoren Werke AG introduced the original E21 3-series saloon in 1975. It was a two-door only, although the factory did authorise Stuttgart coachbuilder Baur to make a cabrio.
Four generations of the car followed. The 1982 E30 ushered in four-door and estate bodies, 16-valve and diesel engines, and a BMW Motorsport performance version. A compact hatchback came as part of the 1990 E36 generation, as did BMW’s first four-pot turbodiesel 3-series, the 318tds.
There are now probably even reclusive Tibetan tribesmen who need no introduction to the BMW 3-series. To Britain’s car cognoscenti, this compact German saloon is nothing short of a legend. So any kind of prologue to this test seems so superfluous it’s almost ridiculous.
Over more than 35 years, 12 million 3-series have been sold worldwide. For BMW, the car has become business bedrock, brand talisman and spiritual standard bearer. For the competition, it is the benchmark compact exec, whose accomplishments they all hope to emulate. For everyone else, it remains the defining aspirational four-door – one of the clearest symbols of improving socio-economic status anywhere, driveable or otherwise.
The 3-series’ popularity couldn’t be more richly deserved. For more than a decade, it has justified phenomenal sales with outstanding performance and efficiency, distinguished sporting handling and competitive pricing, all backed by the enduring brand power of the blue and white propeller.
And for BMW, that’s quite a difficult position from which to improve. So which way now?