When you think of a sports sedan, chances are, you think of one car: the BMW 3-series. There’s a reason for that. Today, we express our appreciation for BMW’s game-changing sedan.
1. The 3-series is the benchmark
For any group of things, there’s usually one standout that’s so good that it comes to represent the entire category. For copiers, it’s Xerox. For tissues, it’s Kleenex. For the sports sedan, it’s undoubtedly the BMW 3-series.
When the first 3-series came on the scene in 1975, automobiles were forever changed. The model was conceived as a follow-up to the universally acclaimed 2002, a car that literally created the sports sedan category. The 3-series took the relatively simple formula of a fun-to-drive rear-wheel drive sedan and made it more powerful and modern, with luxury appointments to complete the package. The E21 was a smash hit, and with automotive journalists and consumers alike singing its praises, an automotive icon was born.
2. It’s a driver’s car
The thing that really set the 3-series apart was that it was just so fun to drive. BMW called it the Ultimate Driving Machine, and after a moment behind the wheel of the 3-series, you absolutely believed them. The handling, the power, and the design; it all just fits together so perfectly. The same has been true of every generation of 3-series since.
If you ever get the chance, try driving a 3-series and then one of its competitors. The BMW just feels more alive, more driver-focused, and more exciting. The steering has more feel than that of its rivals, it moves through the turns like a living, breathing dance partner. The engine is smooth, powerful, and just begs to be revved. If you need any indication of who this car caters to, the entire dash is canted toward the driver.
Nearly every car company has studied the 3-series’ driving dynamics. There’s even an adage that says every enthusiast should own a 3-series at least once in life. It’s just that good.
3. Like acid-wash jeans, hot in the 80s, still hot today
Although the 3-series is a child of the 70s, it really hit its stride in the 1980s with the second-generation E30. It was the first time the car would feature an inline-six—a smooth, powerful engine that would soon become synonymous with the 3-series. People called them Beamers, and man, were they cool. (Note: purists pronounce them Bimmers.)
The E30 had a fantastic design that still looks great today, wonderful driving dynamics (people still track these cars in a racing series called SpecE30), and a certain sophisticated cachet that made the 3-series the go-to car for the Reagan-era young professional. Nothing signaled success in the 80s quite like a BMW. Julia Roberts even drove one in Pretty Woman for crying out loud. The BMW 3-series became as synonymous with preppy cool as a pair of Wayfarers and a sweater over the shoulders.
4. It gave us the M3
Despite the fact that the 3-series was becoming synonymous with the well-to-do in the 80s, BMW was also carving its place into the hearts of the auto enthusiasts. The E30 BMW M3 was born in 1986 and quickly garnered more critical acclaim than a Radiohead album.
To this day, the original BMW M3 carries such high regard among owners that a man recently parked one in his living room during a hurricane to keep it safe from harm. BMW has made an M3 of each subsequent generation to keep enthusiasts mesmerized.
5. Still fine after all these years
In the 1990s, the model continued as the well-loved E36, which dominated the decade much as the E30 had dominated the 80s. It was more advanced, more powerful (with a new DOHC inline-six), and featured a more sophisticated rear suspension that further increased its handling capabilities. The E36 is a driver’s hallmark even today as they can still be found racing on tracks across the country.
The E46 generation came next in 1998. It was slightly more powerful and more luxurious version of the E36 with a sleeker design. The fifth-generation E9X followed in 2005 and BMW added the powerful turbocharged inline-six for the first time, as well as more technology and luxury. The 6th generation F30 saw the two-door version renamed to the 4-series, much to the chagrin to many BMW fans, but the car still had enough of that original driver’s car DNA to lead its class.
Amazing despite evolution
As the 3-series has continued to grow and become more powerful over the years, BMW has emphasized luxury, comfort, and technology more and more. Some traditionalists find this trend concerning and pine for the old days when the car focused on the raw driving experience. That said, while its rivals seem like leather sofas with racing stripes, the 3-series still comes across as an athlete in a leather jumpsuit.
What’s more is that the 3-series is capable of nearly anything, equally equipped for long-distance trips as it is hugging canyon roads as you grin behind the wheel like a lunatic. More than 40 years later, the BMW 3-series is still the benchmark of the sports sedan. That’s why it’s a car we love.