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The Seven Generations of the BMW 3 Series

8 min reading time
For six generations, the BMW 3 Series has encapsulated the spirit of its times. The year 2019 marks the start of a new, seventh chapter in the illustrious history of the BMW 3 Series. Come with us on this journey through time, space, and design – from 1975 to the present.
For many customers, the BMW 3 Series is the ultimate BMW and the face of the brand.
Adrian van Hooydonk (Senior Vice President BMW Group Design)

1st generation

  • Built: 1975-1983
  • Power: 55-105 kW / 75-143 hp
  • Variants: Sedan (2-door), Convertible (Baur Topcabriolet)

It’s the year 1975: “Jaws” was selling out movie theaters and breaking box office records worldwide. Youngsters wore flares and platform shoes, and the mini-skirt was still the height of fashion.

At Munich’s Olympic Stadium, the first BMW 3 Series – the two-door sedan is the successor to the legendary BMW 02 Series – was unveiled to the world. The design was the brainchild of Paul Bracq, BMW Director of Design from 1970 to 1974. The BMW 3 Series sedan was unmatched in terms of its dynamic and sporting performance, thereby laying the foundations for a story of success that has continued to this day.

An Eye-Catching Tail End

The first generation of the BMW 3 Series was famous for its distinctive profile with its raised tail section and the crease line along the body. Seen from behind, the rear section wasn’t to everyone’s taste, especially the part between the tail lights. Only a few months after the start of production, the designers added a black plastic trim to the rear.

The first models in the BMW 3 Series range were a sedan – and the legendary Baur Topcabriolet (1977-1982). Stuttgart-based Baur GmbH was in charge of the transformation of 4,595 BMW 3 Series into convertibles, which featured a rollover bar and fixed roof frame.

A Standard Feature was Born

The first-generation BMW 3 Series included one innovation that was to become a standard feature in all BMW models: a dashboard angled toward the driver.

Other design details – such as the short overhang at the front, the double-kidney grille, the crease line along the body, the twin headlamps found on several models, and the Hofmeister kink at the C-pillar – have lived on as stylistic features in subsequent generations.    

2nd generation

  • Built: 1982-1994
  • Power: 66-175 kW / 90-238 hp
  • Variants: Sedan (2 and 4-door), Convertible, Baur Topcabriolet, Touring, M3 (as Coupé and Convertible)

1982: Answering machines, microwaves, and VCRs became standard appliances in every household. The first video games reached the mainstream, with Pac-Man leading the way, while rock songs like “Eye of the Tiger” topped the charts.

In Morocco, the second generation of the BMW 3 Series was unveiled. The key innovation: Seven different variants, with sedan-oriented styling dominant in all versions. In 1982, the new 3 Series was launched as a two-door sedan, with the four-door sedan available from September 1983 onwards.

All of the second-generation models produced had series-standard twin headlights – a design feature that was to be included in every BMW 3 Series from then on.

From the Road to the Racetrack

The BMW 3 Series convertible and the first BMW M3 models followed just two years later. The high-performance coupé, boasting performance of up to 238 hp, allowed BMW to take part in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM). As a “homologated” model, the BMW M3 was approved by motorsport authorities to compete in races.

The Touring “Hobby” Project

Having started life as a prototype built by BMW employee Max Reisböck, the first Touring was added to the series in 1987. Reisböck wanted to take his family on vacation but found that the trunk of the BMW 3 Series sedan with its notchback design lacked the space required. As a trained bodywork engineer, Reisböck cut the C-column and shifted it to the rear, thereby creating the first-ever station wagon offered by BMW. 

3rd generation

  • Built: 1990-2000
  • Power: 73-236 kW / 99-321 hp
  • Variants: Sedan, Coupé, Convertible, Baur Topcabriolet, Touring, Compact, M3 (as Sedan, Coupé, and Convertible)

Wide-leg jeans and flannel shirts were all the rage. Boy bands were in their heyday, thanks to the success of groups like the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block. Families could suddenly use a modem to go “online.” Welcome to the nineties!

The third generation of the BMW 3 Series represented one of the most significant design advances in its history to date. The formal language was much more coupé-oriented, with a strongly sloping A-line and C-line. The angle of the roof now had a clear downward incline. And the third-generation vehicles were also notable for the twin headlamps installed beneath a shared glass cover.

Eight Variants of the 3 Series

The third-generation of the BMW 3 Series comprised the widest range of body styles to date, including the Sedan, Coupé, Convertible, Touring, Compact, and M3 – the latter as a Sedan, Coupé, or Convertible.

Compact Hatchback

The BMW 3 Series Compact represented something brand new in the range. This new variant was launched in March 1994 as a more compact three-door hatchback option. While the front of the vehicle was no different from the other models, the rear end had a unique design and was 22.5 cm shorter than the Coupé. The BMW 3 Series Compact was well received, moving from a standing start to become the model with the third-highest sales, behind the Sedan and the Coupé.

4th generation

  • Built: 1997-2006
  • Power: 77-265 kW / 105-360 hp
  • Variants: Sedan, Coupé, Convertible, Touring, Compact, M3 (as Coupé and Convertible)

It was in 1997 that the blockbuster movie “Titanic” broke cinema records. Suddenly, piercings and tattoos had become commonplace, while text messaging became an everyday mode of communication. The comet Hale-Bopp shifted the world’s focus up into the night sky.

The year 1997 also saw the launch of the fourth generation of the BMW 3 Series. Just as before, the Sedan was the first model to be released, followed by the Coupé, Convertible, Touring, Compact, and M3. For the first time, significant styling differences were evident within the range, with the Coupé, Convertible, and Compact models each having their own language of form.

The Greenhouse as a Driver of Sales

Particularly with its profile, the fourth-generation BMW 3 Series reinterpreted elements of BMW sedan design. The three-box design was retained (with its clear delineation between the hood, passenger compartment, and trunk). However, the whole greenhouse – in other words, the windshield, the rear and side windows, the pillars separating them, and the car’s roof – was redesigned.

Seen from the side, the profile of the roof was given a more pronounced curve. This created more headroom for the passengers in back.

The new design changes were a success: With 3,266,885 units sold, the fourth generation of the BMW 3 Series is the top-selling BMW model of all time.

5th generation

  • Built: 2005-2013
  • Power: 90-331 kW / 122-450 hp
  • Variants: Sedan, Coupé, Convertible, Touring, M3 (as Sedan, Coupé, and Convertible)

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was the highest-grossing movie of 2005. The charts were dominated by 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, and Gwen Stefani. YouTube’s story of success begins.

At the Geneva Motor Show in March 2005, BMW unveiled the fifth generation of the 3 Series– which just one year later was awarded the title of “World Car of the Year.”

The design of the fifth generation was also quick to evolve, as for the first time the variants followed their own paths. The Coupé and Convertible models, for example, now moved in quite different design directions. 

A Fusion like no Other

The BMW M3 Sedan grew out of a fusion between the two designs. The design involved an unprecedented combination of a front section based on the Coupé’s front end and a tail section derived from the Sedan.

The fifth-generation M3 was put through its paces both on the racetrack and at the BMW M GmbH factory – even in a pickup version! The M3 pickup was not the first of its kind, however, as a second-generation BMW M3 pickup truck was used for moving supplies around the factory site for some 26 years.

6th generation

  • Built: 2011 onwards
  • Power: 85-338 kW / 116-460 hp
  • Variants: Sedan, Touring, Gran Turismo, M3

“Game of Thrones” began its march of triumph on screens around the world, singer Adele won six Grammy Awards and director Michel Hazanavicius created a beautiful homage to the silent movie era with his film “The Artist”.

Meanwhile, the BMW 3 Series went electric! For the first time, the range of engines included hybrid options (the ActiveHybrid 3, followed by the 330e iPerformance). All of the engines were also turbocharged.

The design was an evolution of its predecessor, being more strongly aligned with that of the larger BMW 5 Series. One striking detail was that the headlamps now connecting to the kidney grille.

At the same time, the sixth generation had also evolved in terms of its size, with the launch of a longer Gran Turismo version. The new variant added a coupé roof profile to the sedan and featured a longer wheelbase. The benefit, especially for passengers in the rear, was greater leg and headroom.

Increased Personalization

Individual styling was given greater emphasis. In line with the spirit of the times, customers were free to customize the equipment spec, choosing from a wider range of materials, colors, and fabrics. There were now three other trim levels available beside the familiar M sports package: the Modern line, Sports line, and Luxury line.

Two of the 3 Series Models Renamed as 4 Series

Spinning off the coupé and convertible models to create a new series was something that had already been a topic of discussion 20 years ago, at the time of the third-generation BMW 3 Series. With the sixth generation it became reality. While the Sedan, Touring, and Gran Turismo remained under the BMW 3 Series label, the Convertible, Coupé, and the new Gran Coupé formed their own family: the BMW 4 Series.

7th generation

  • Built: 2018 onwards

Google’s AI Asisstant can now make real phone calls and schedule appointments, “Avengers: Infinity War” comes to the big screen, and construction of the Jeddah Tower – soon to be the world’s tallest building – is well underway. 

What, then, does the future hold for the BMW 3 Series? This newest generation is ushering in a new design language for BMW. A striking feature is a kidney grille that is wider than its predecessor and visually integrated in the design.

At the same time, the seventh generation will uphold the design tradition of the earlier BMW 3 Series models. As recognizable elements like the short overhangs, twin headlamps, and crease line clearly show – this is definitely a 3 Series!

DON’T BE DRIVEN BY TECHNOLOGY. DRIVE IT.

The BMW 3 Series Sedan.

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