The BMW 3-series E21 of 1975 paved the way for future generations. Here's a short history
14 October 2011

The BMW 3-series E21 of 1975 paved the way for future generations. Here's a short history:

BMW 3-series E21

Production: 1975 – 1983. How many built? 1.36m

The all-new BMW 3-series burst onto the scene in 1975 as a bigger, more luxurious successor to the much-loved 2002. Styling inspiration came from the shark-nosed 6-series and the E21 introduced a centre-console angled towards the driver, later to become a BMW design hallmark. At launch Autocar was impressed by the 320; we described it as “zesty and smooth”.

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BMW 3-series E30

Production: 1982 – 1994. How many built? 2.32m

The iconic E30 set the tone for successive generations of BMW’s sports saloon. It emerged victorious in our 1986 group test when pitched against the Mercedes 190E, Alfa Romeo 75, VW Golf GTI and Ford Escort RS Turbo. ‘The perfect car for yuppies,’ we said back then. The E30 also paved the way for the first M3, which first went into production in 1986. The second-gen 3-series proved a huge success, easily breaking through the 2m sales barrier.

BMW 3-series E36

Production: 1990 – 2000. How many built? 2.67m

The introduction of the Z-axle multilink rear suspension marked a significant dynamic step forward for the E36, which also scored for its sharp styling and smooth 1.8-litre four, then the best-selling engine. When the Ford Mondeo burst on the scene in 1993, we put the E36 on a par with the ‘frighteningly able’ Mondeo — no mean achievement. Sales set a new record for a 3-Series, helped by the halo effect of the M3, which initially struggled to live up its predecessor’s appeal. Power from the new six went up about 40bhp to 282bhp.

BMW 3-series E46

Production: 1998 – 2006. How many built? 3.27m

Launched to a lukewarm reception, the E46 nevertheless set a sales record as its balanced handling, refined cabin and flexible diesel struck a chord with buyers. Although it couldn’t overcome the Audi A4 in our group test, the fourth-gen 3-Series remains the best-selling ever, with 3.3m sold in its relatively short eight-year life span. The M3 stuck with a six-cylinder 3.0-litre with an extra 41bhp boosting output up to 333bhp.

BMW 3-series E90

Production: 2005 – 2013. How many built? 1.9m (up to August '11)

The 2005 3-series model was longer, wider and taller than the model it replaced, offering improved interior space to address a criticism of the E46. However, the styling wasn’t universally-liked, despite featuring the mildest-version of the Bangle theme, which controversially ditched the driver-focused centre console. Outstanding chassis dynamics, however, have kept the E90 at the top of the class, despite stiff competition. Ironically, sales of the most competitive 3-Series ever haven’t matched its predecessor. A fractured market with growing sales of compact SUVs and an in-house competitor in the shape of the new 1-Series haven’t helped.

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