However, it did herald major developments. This was the era in which diesel power went from being a novelty niche performer to a major player and the E46 introduced the 320d, a car capable of close to both 130mph and 50mpg, a combination never seen in a road car before, and the 330d, a diesel car that would hit 62mph in less than 8.0sec and reach more than 140mph, numbers unimaginable for any diesel car just a few years earlier.
This was also the generation in which BMW sought to re-establish the credentials of the M3. Out went the slow-selling saloon version and in came a 3.2-litre motor that hit 8000rpm and developed a stunning 343bhp without a turbo in sight.
There was BMW’s first production SMG paddle-shift transmission (better in theory than practice) and, perhaps most significant of all, the M3 CSL, which dropped 110kg in weight, added a carbonfibre roof, featured stiffer suspension and gained a 16bhp power hike.
Just 1400 were built, although those who missed the boat could get a far more affordable CS that lacked the CSL’s wacky materials and hot engine but retained its steering, brakes and suspension.
By 2005, an entirely new 3 Series was required, but on the basis of not fixing what was clearly not broken, the all-new E90 sought to expand further on the theme of the E36 and E46 without fundamentally changing the formula. The number of bodystyles didn’t change (although the convertible gained a retractable hard-top), but the powertrains offered an ever greater choice of performance and economy options, or blends between the two.
It was the E90 M3 that eschewed the straight six motors of the two previous models for a howling 4.0-litre V8, and it was the E90 that introduced BMW’s most powerful six-cylinder diesel up to that point: the 286bhp 335d, offering as much power from a 3.0-litre diesel as BMW had offered from a 4.4-litre petrol V8 10 years earlier.
And so to the current car, the F30, which in many ways is the most revolutionary 3 Series since the E36. Emissions and economy are now the most important considerations, which is why even a 328i has just four cylinders, sixes being saved for the 335i, 330d, 335d and, of course, the first turbocharged M3, a radical step in its own right.
You can now buy a hybrid 3 Series, a four-wheel-drive 3 Series and a new body shape in the form of the large hatchback 3 Series GT. What you can no longer do, in name at least, is buy a coupé or convertible 3 Series, these now rebadged 4 Series.
The past 40 years have taken the 3 Series on an incredible journey and, en route, provided the bedrock for the success that BMW enjoys today. But although the cars have changed beyond all recognition, the design brief has not.
Then, as now, if you buy a 3 Series, you expect a car that will not only do all the things you require of any everyday compact family car, but also to a standard at least as good as anything else that amount of money will buy. And it will still put a smile on your face, its key USP these past four decades.
While BMW continues to deliver on that promise, it is hard to see the 3 Series doing anything else than continue to be the most coveted car of its kind in the world.
Driving the E30 M3 and F30 320d
Their internal codes may be separated by just one letter, but there’s 30 years between them. In concept, the gulf is perhaps greater still. But that’s precisely what proves the point of those who say the 3 Series was then and is now the greatest car of its kind.