E21, E30 E36... BMW’s popular 3 Series through the years

For decades the BMW 3 Series has been a definitive German compact sedan platform. It blends luxury, agility and driver engagement.

The 3 Series has always been a car which will comfortably transport a family, but in essence, it has always remained true to an engineering philosophy which serves the driver’s needs first, then passengers.

READ: The new SA-bound BMW 3 Series is the epitome of sports luxury and innovation

BMW is currently busy launching its latest 3 Series, the seventh-generation, in Portugal and as a reference narrative, here’s a history lesson about how this model range became so regarded. 

The new generation: Headed for SA in 2019

BMW 3 through the years:

E21 (1975-1983)

The original 3 Series replaced BMW’s greatly admired 2002. It also launched at a very trying time for most manufacturers, in a market tapering-off from the peak of the 1970s energy crisis.

BMW E21

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Fortunately, BMW has correctly strategized that in future, not all customers would desire an enormous American-style sedan. Munich’s product planners could foresee that customer preferences would evolve to accepting smaller and cleverer designs and the E21 was exactly that. 


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E30 (1983-1992)

A seminal car to most BMW enthusiasts and for good reason. The ‘box-shape’ 3 Series was a true driver’s car and greatly increased expectations of what a luxury family car should offer in terms of cornering dynamics, switchback agility and high-speed cruising stability. 

BMW E30

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The E30 was also a very poignant car for South African BMW fans. Sadly, we never received the M3 version of this series, but BMW South Africa did a stellar job by providing two locally engineered and executed alternatives: 333i and 325is.

These now legendary E30s were of course made possible by the fact that these ‘Gusheshe’ second-generation cars were built in Rosslyn – a facility which would continue assembling the next four generations of 3 Series too. 

E36 (1992-1997)

For many the E36 was a tipping point is 3 Series history, where some of the playfulness of E30 was abandoned in an effort to more acutely counter Mercedes-Benz and an ascending rivalry from Audi.

BMW E46

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This series introduced several firsts for South Africa 3 Series customers, including our first encounter with the wonderous M3 nameplate. 

The E36 also offered an immense selection of legendary engines over its lifecycle, broadening the availability of BMW’s vanguard variable camshaft technology (VANOS) to a greater price reach of South African buyers. It was also the range which debuted turbodiesel technology on a local 3 Series, with the very rare 325tds. 

E46 (1997-2004)

By the late 1990s BMW’s local production of 3 Series had been robustly established and as a model range, E46 would spearhead export ambitions for plant Rosslyn. 

Although the E36 introduced South Africans to the idea of a turbodiesel BMW, it was the locally-built E46 320d which made the notion of a 50ppm 3 Series popular.

BMW E46

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As with most things related to 3 Series, the E46 range was defined by a selection of incredible engines, such as the 3-litre inline six, which powered those original 330i BMWs. 

Purists consider the E46 M3 one of BMWs finest ever sportscars. It was especially the lightweight M3 CSL, which required a very committed owner to appreciate the car’s purity of purpose, that defined the E46 era.

An unloved technology introduced to South Africans by this highly collectable M3 was BMW’s SMG automated manual transmission, which although excellent when driving at 10/10ths, could be an annoyance in slower traffic, or when attempting three-point parking manoeuvre. 

E90 (2004-2011)

As with any automotive evolution, the E90 was larger than any 3 Series which had gone before and introduced impressive new technologies BMW’s pivotal compact executive family car.

Although BMW is celebrated for its history of outstanding naturally-aspirated engines, E90 was a vision of the future, with this range of 3 Series offering the first turbopetrols under the 335i badge.

BMW F30

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For BMW owners in Gauteng and the Highveld, these turbocharged 335is became default sleeper M3s, suffering virtually no altitude induced power losses and offering performance that was very close to that of the naturally-aspirated 4-litre V8 E92 M3.

The E90 BMWs also debuted run-flat tyre technology in 3 Series, which initially proved bothersome due to the associated ride quality harshness and lack of tyre replacement availability. 

F30 (2012-2018)

The car which would end an amazing chapter in South African automotive assembly, F30 was the last 3 Series to be built locally. In total, production of South African built 3 Series units would peak at 1 191 604 vehicles with F30.

As a model range, the F30 continued BMW’s powertrain re-engineering efforts with a proliferation of turbocharging. In fact, F30 became the first 3 Series range to not feature a single naturally-aspirated engine and introduced three-cylinder power too.

BMW F30

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Controversially, even the M3 was finally turbocharged in F30 guise. Even more controversial was the separation of F30 M-cars into separate nameplates: M3 and M4. 

One of the most underappreciated aspects of the F30 was its Gran Turismo derivative. For those who desired the driving dynamics which made 3 Series desirable, but required more luggage space and ease of loadability, the Gran Turismo offered 40-litres more space and pseudo-hatchback convenience. A 3 Series Touring compromise for South African who yearned for German luxury station wagon of sorts.