We stand on the cusp of one much-loved icon entering its sixth generation. The BMW 3 Series will be differentiated by a new factory code (if there’s anything car geeks love, it’s referring to a favorite car by its internal number): F30.
When the E21 first came along, superseding another rear-drive premium compact, the New Class, it was 1975. The year Ali beat Frazier at the aptly named Thrilla in Manila, The Captain and Tennille were high in the charts with “Love Will Keep Us Together” and no one had a computer or cell phone. How fast the world changes. But some things remain... if not constant, then dependable. Like the BMW 3 Series, a perennial best-seller for the company, finding more than 12 million buyers since its debut.
In its most basic form, the car is quite a simple setup: two doors (four from generation two onwards), a trunk, compact dimensions and rear-wheel drive. And the E21 set the template of MacPherson struts at the front with independent trailing arms and spring struts at the rear, plus a driver-centric instrument layout. What BMW did was to make things much better than they really needed to be, turning mere transportation into a transport of delight. Right from the start, the 3 had an edge, a sharpness of response, a precision to its movements. The range started with the humble 316, but it also spawned its own icon among icons, the 323i.
It had just 143 hp, but at the time, the 323i conferred instant respect on those who owned one. Whenever a 3 Series packed an example of BMW’s equally iconic straight-six engines, it was always a big hit. And always just a bit too expensive and upmarket for most of us to afford, which only made us want it more, scouring the classifieds from time to time. BMW claims that four out of five 323i owners bought the same model again.
Six years in production and more than a million E21 vehicles came off the line. Then 1983 saw the second wave, the E30, which spawned a factory convertible version and the alphanumeric moniker that still excites today: M3. This sub-sect deserves an article of its own, but here’s a quick technical rundown: It was freakin’ awesome.
Seriously, that fixed rear wing, the flared fenders, dropped suspension and, for the European version, 197 hp (growing to 235 in later cars) in the days before cars became too lardy and traction control was still a gleam in a safety engineer’s eye... it was rad, or whatever passed as an unqualified positive in the mullett era. This may seem odd, but the E30 M3 only had a four-cylinder engine. It was a homologation model to compete in Touring Car races. Those same rules brought us the equally excellent Cosworth-powered Mercedes-Benz 190E with the “dog-leg first” gearbox. Life then wasn’t all unrelenting gloom from synth-pop bands.
As industrial-strength hair gel gave way to ’90s grunge, the 3 Series saw perhaps its most finely realized incarnation in the E36. It still had all the dynamics (the Z-axle, named not for its shape but for the fact that it was developed for the Z1, now took up residence at the back); lower-powered versions offered accessible performance while the more muscular models could be downright daunting. Yet there was a purity of line to the styling. And an E36 M3 in Estoril Blue not only competed with a Porsche 911 in desirability terms, but also made Stuttgart’s finest look somewhat over-priced for the power and handling it offered.
The 1998 E46 was far from a disappointment, however. This was the generation where, in Europe at least, diesel became sexy. In 2000, while still a fresh face in Formula One, Jenson Button was with the Williams team, powered by BMW engines at the time. On the way down to Monaco, he was caught speeding by French traffic cops doing 144 mph in his 335d coupe (torquey beast, 300 lb-ft). BMW also produced the amazing limited-edition M3 CSL that gripped, zipped and sounded spine-tingling.
Generation five, the E90, arrived in 2005 with a retractable hard-top convertible and a return to turbocharging for its gasoline engines (the previous turbo was a New Class-era model). The multi-award-winning 3 Series has grown bigger and heavier over the years, as safety regulations and the demand for ever more technology have had their effect, but the car has always represented BMW’s core philosophy of appealing to the driver first and the passengers (a close) second. The F30 has big shoes to fill, but it’s going to be fun lacing them up and pressing them to the floor.