Model Evolution: BMW 3-Series

By Brandon Turkus

April 21, 2011


E21 3-Series: The successor to the legendary 2002, the original 3-Series came to market with a range of four-cylinder engines. In 1977, BMW’s signature inline-six appeared, with the 323i being the top-spec model, and the closest the E21 came to an M3. It featured a fuel-injected 2.3 liter that made 143 horsepower, and four-wheel disc brakes. BMW sold a total of 1.3 million E21s worldwide with production ending in 1982.


E30 3-Series: The new E30 platform debuted in 1982. It featured a number of firsts for the 3-Series, including a wagon (Touring), all-wheel drive in the 325ix, and a dedicated economy model called the 325e. The E30 was also the first 3-Series platform to offer the high-performance M3. The sedan and coupe were discontinued in 1990, while the Cabriolet and Touring stayed in production until 1993 and 1994, respectively.


E36 3-Series: Continuing the evolution of the 3-Series, the E36 was larger and more powerful than its predecessors. Joining the traditional sedan, coupe, Touring, and Cabriolet was a Compact, known here in the States as the 318ti. The E36 also acted as the donor platform for the Z3, which was redesignated as the E36/7 platform. The E36 also marked the point where six-cylinders began to supplant the four-cylinder engines, with six separate sixes available worldwide, including the first six-cylinder M3.


E46 3-Series: The E46 was a dominant force when it debuted in 1998 in Europe, and 1999 in North America. Even more so than the E36, the E46 was most often found with a six-cylinder under the hood. Of special note to enthusiasts was the ZHP Performance Package. This highly sought after trim featured a number of items that upped performance, including a modified 3.0 liter with performance cams, a higher redline, a stiffer suspension, and a shorter final-drive ratio. Think of the ZHP as the progenitor of today’s 335is.


E90 3-Series: The current E90 is actually three distinct platforms, the sedan (E90), Sport Wagon (E91), coupe (E92), and hardtop cabriolet (E93). The four-cylinder engines were completely replaced with a range of inline-sixes. The E90 also marked the first appearance of a V-8 in the hi-po M3. Turbocharging took center stage as well, with the 335i and 335is using single and biturbocharged six-cylinders. To date, over 2 million E90s have been produced worldwide.

E21 E30 E36 E46 E90


While we have no shortage of information on new cars here at Winding Road, we’ve found that knowing a thing or two about the history of some of the great cars on sale today helps us to understand them even more. So with that mission in mind, we introduce this new series, that will chronicle the past of some of our favorite models. We invite you to chime in, with your opinion on what makes these cars so great
With a 2011 328i sedan sitting in our parking lot, BMW’s iconic sport sedan seemed like the ideal model to cover in today’s Model Evolution. In production since 1975, it has been one of the most successful models in BMW’s history.