Ah yes, the BMW 3 Series. Before the now ubiquitous 1 Series came about, the 3 was the car that offered a glimmer of executive hope to those who wanted to be seen as successful, but without having to drop a fortune to do so.
The 3 Series was an entry point into the desirable world of BMW, and even though the company’s range has grown over the years, the 3 Series is still a wonderful mix of aspirational and exclusive.
We’re six generations in now though, so how do you tell them all apart? How will you know your E21s from you E90s? Worry not, Haynes has got your back in this handy spotter’s guide!
The first generation E21
Built from 1975 to 1983
The first 3 Series was a follow-on from the already popular ’02 models. The branding, however, was more in line with the rest of the BMW range. The E21 (the BMW designated code) 3 Series was only offered in two-door saloon guise, and for the first few years of its life, it was only available with a four-cylinder engine.
However, demand for a bit more pace led BMW to offer it with fuel injection in late 1975, while six-cylinder models appeared in 1977. Though body styles were limited, the E21 was also available as a convertible, built by German company, Bauer.
It’s very easy to spot an E21 3 Series. For starters, it was only available as a two-door saloon. To differentiate between the the 316 (1.6-litre), 318 (1.8-litre) and 320 (2.0-litre) models, BMW gave the 320 dual headlights, while the 316 and 318 featured single headlights.
3 Series fact: The shape of all BMW rear-side windows incorporates what is known as the Hofmeister Kink, so named after its designer, Wilhelm Hofmeister.
The second generation E30
Built from 1982 to 1994
The E30 3 Series was the embodiment of BMW listening to what its customers wanted. Unlike the previous E21 version, the E30 was available as a two-door, a four-door, an estate (or Touring, in BMW language) and convertible.
BMW knew that customers who were perhaps priced out of the bigger 5 Series would have had to pass on the E21, due to its lack of practicality. The E30 sorted all that out. It also satisfied the speed freaks, too – the E30 was the first 3 Series to be offered in M3 guise.
To spot an E30, look for twin round headlights with indicators underneath them, built into the bumpers. Also, look for a fuller, squarer body than the E21, as well as a flatter face.
3 Series fact: The E30 M3 was only offered in left-hand drive configuration.
The third generation E36
Built from 1990 to 2000
The E36 was a step up again. It was bigger than the E30, and for the first time in the 3 Series’ life, it was offered as a convertible from the factory from day one, rather than as a third-party conversion. Offered with a vast range for petrol and diesel engines, as well as an array of body styles, the E36 was a massive success for BMW.
To spot an E36, look for twin headlights encased in a rectangular housing, a return to the indicators being on the same line as the headlights, wider ‘kidney’ grilles and for the most part, full depth body-colour bumpers.
3 Series fact: The E36 M3 was offered as a coupe, a convertible and as a four-door saloon. Talk about a fast family hauler!
The fourth generation E46
Built from 1998 to 2006
So rather than do anything revolutionary for the fourth generation of the 3 Series, BMW played it safe and simply modernised it. This meant new tech such as satellite navigation on some models, all-wheel drive for others and also the introduction of BMW’s ‘Valvetronic’ variable valve timing engines.
To spot an E46, you’re looking for a saloon, a convertible, estate or two-door saloon/coupe. It looks very much like an E36, but with softer, more curved edges. The stepped rear lights are a dead giveaway though.
3 Series Fact: The E46 was available in M3 CSL trim, which was lightweight thanks to a carbon roof and packed 355bhp from a naturally-aspirated straight-six engine.
The fifth generation E90
Built from 2004 to 2013
This is where the E numbers get confusing. Beforehand, it was one E number for all body-styles, but in the case of the fifth-generation 3 Series, it was a little different. You had the E90, which was a four-door saloon, the E91 was an estate, the E92 was a two-door and the E93 was a convertible.
In 2006, the E9X (as some people refer to it) became the first 3 Series to be fitted with a turbocharger, care of the 335i. The M3 version, available in all body-styles bar estate, moved from straight-six power to that of a V8.
To spot an E9X, look for sharp lines, especially over the headlights. Also, the trademark ‘kidney’ grilles sit deeper in the bonnet than on any other model. Finally, the rear light clusters are more rounded, like a sideways pear almost.
3 Series fact: German TV drama, Alarm Fur Cobra 11 regularly features E90 BMWs performing all kinds of incredible stunts.
The sixth generation F30
Built from 2011 to present
E numbers have gone out of the window for the current 3 Series. BMW must have run out of them, because we’re now on F numbers. The F30 is a four-door saloon, the F31 is an estate while the F34 is ‘grand touring’ model, which basically means five-door hatchback.
This generation came about when the 4 Series arrived, which serves as the coupe model in this size class. Though confusingly, you can get a five-door 4 Series, too. BMW has clearly gone mad with the models.
To spot one, you’re looking for headlights with a thinner inner section (by the grilles), and also wider ‘kidney’ grilles. The lower part of the front bumper has one large opening for ventilation, too, rather than three separate holes. The rear lights have gone back to a ‘stepped’ design. The biggest giveaway would be if the car is hybrid – this is the first 3 to offer it.
3 Series fact: The M3 for this generation is the F80 – the first time an M model has been given its own model designation.