BMW’s 3 Series range was launched in 1975 as a replacement for the “Neue Klasse,” or “New Class” cars that had served BMW from the introduction of the 1500 in 1962 to the end of 2002 model production in 1976.
Since then, BMW has produced six generations of 3 Series models, beginning with the E21 variants produced from 1975 to 1983. While the E21 3 Series model was larger than the 2002 it replaced, it was quite a bit smaller than modern 3 Series cars, and initially BMW built the E21 only as a two-door sedan or topless cabriolet.
The second generation of 3 Series cars, the E30 variant, was introduced in 1983. In addition to modernizing BMW’s style with the now-familiar vertical kidney grille, the E30 generation also saw the introduction of four-door sedan and wagon variants, as well as the very first M3, launched in America in 1989.
BMW produced its third generation of 3 Series cars, the E36, from 1990 to 1999, and the same model configurations carried over. Through this generation, all BMW 3 Series cars were built only in front-engine, rear drive configuration.
For the E46 variants, which started production in 1998, BMW introduced its xDrive all-wheel-drive system as an available option. Thanks to rave reviews of E46 models, BMW’s sales of the 3 Series models grew to 561,249 units in 2002, and Wikipedia points out that the E46 3 Series made Car and Driver’s “10 Best Cars” list every year of its production.
The E90 followed the E46, entering production in 2005. As close to controversial as BMW was willing to get with the 3 Series’ styling, the car boasted lines inspired by (but, thankfully, not copied from) Chris Bangle’s redesign of the BMW 5 Series. All previous drive layouts and configurations carried forward from the E46.
The sixth generation of the BMW 3 Series, today’s F30, hit the market in 2012 and promises to be every bit as good as the cars that preceded it. A wider range of engines (including a fuel-efficient, turbocharged four-cylinder) is available, and the 3 Series continues to blend performance, handling and fuel economy like few other cars on the planet.
While BMW’s recap is brief, it manages to hit on every generation. If you’ve ever owned a 3 Series model, we say it’s worth three and a half minutes of your time.