Always admired, regularly copied, but almost never bettered, BMW’s 3-series is a car that defines the term ‘compact sport saloon’. And there’s a good reason for it. BMW practically invented the class back in the 1980s, and it hasn’t looked back since. But what is it that makes these cars so special, what part of the gene pool was introduced when, and just how did the 3-series evolve into what it is today? Well, frankly, there is only one proper way to find out – get all the generations of the 3-series together, drive them back to back and form your own impressions. And that’s just what we did.
Of course, there are some basic fundamental characteristics that all 3-series share. First up, they are all rear-wheel drive. That, of course, stems from the driver-centric approach to engineering the car which, as BMW’s legendary boss Eberhard von Kuenheim put it “is quite simply the key issue”. All of them use variations of the kidney grille and double-barrel headlights, all were built using the best technology available at the time, and every single one of them has a steering wheel that talks to you. But are these cars really as good as ‘Propellerheads’ make them out to be?
With its bold straight lines, sunken-in quad headlamps and muscular skinning, the E30 looks just as stunning even today, 30 years down the road. The C pillar does look a bit thin, the glasshouse may be a touch too upright, and it should have come with better wheels, but apart from that, this car is seriously droolworthy. But get behind the wheel for even a few minutes and you will forget the looks. It’s not that the functional interiors are out of this world, or that the cabin is particularly alluring. What gets you instantly is just how driver-focussed this car really is. This 325i’s straight six is truly one of the landmark BMW motors. It starts with a boom, throttle responses are both elastic and muscular, and the tall gear leaver and light, precise gate allow you to flick-shift your way up and down the gearbox.
There’s plenty of punch even at low engine speeds, the light and compact body allows the 3 to take off like a scalded cat, and the howling motor just loves to spin and spin. The best bit, however, is the simply delicious handling, derived from the light, compact rear-wheel-drive chassis. It always seems beautifully poised in corners, however hard you are going. The weight of the car seems in the right place in a corner, and the steering is so communicative, well weighted and connected, it just makes you grin. Grip levels aren’t as high as on some modern cars, but that only adds to the real-wheel-drive fun. The car you see here belongs to editor Hormazd, who says he just can’t drive it slowly. Of course he can’t, this car’s a party animal!
Steering wheel, instrument panel and gearlever get prominence in the E30.
Bigger, slightly more angular and a lot more grown up, the E36 was just as sensational as the E30 was when it was launched. There was more space on the inside, the car came packed with plenty of newfangled electronic gizmos and, all things considered, this car just felt a size bigger; and BMW customers loved that. Even today, it feels quite spacious and comfortable, and is surprisingly nice to drive as well, especially when you consider that this particular car is a 316i, with just 1600cc and 101bhp. A large number of these 316s were imported into India. The steering is nice and direct, the well placed controls function beautifully and there isn’t really much to criticise. It’s just that the driver-focussed character of the E30 is missing; this car just doesn’t have that X factor all other 3-series seem to possess, and it doesn’t beg to be driven hard. Its demeanour is nice and relaxed, and that makes it stand out as something a bit different from the rest of the bunch.
The looks haven’t aged gracefully either. The wedge shape may have been ice cool in the ’90s, as were the lamps behind the single piece of glass, it’s just that they don’t have the same sort of appeal these days.
A more grown-up cabin and more space are what this 3 is remembered for.
In contrast, the E46 looks much more attractive. BMW no longer wanted the 3 to be bigger, at least visually, and so the compact, tight-fitting Levi’s 501 look made a return. The snug bonnet is set well inside the bulging front fenders, a confident crease flies back from the front wheel arch and, with a spoiler built into the boot, you just know this car means business. BMW chose to use a disproportionately wide track, there were now anti-roll bars on both axles, weight distribution was 50:50 and up to 40 digital control systems were employed.
The insidesof the car are just as sporty. This car’s dash pioneered that clean, smoothened over look for BMW and the steering wheel is the focal point of the design. The build of the car is typically BMW, light but tough. Firing up the 325i’s straight six and setting off into traffic instantly reveals something else; this car feels as modern as something launched this year. The motor is butter smooth, the ride is noiseless and reasonably comfortable, and the car steers with a slack-free directness that can only come with an insane level of dedication to driving dynamics. And take a few corners and you just know this car wants to dance; it seems to possess the agility of a gymnast. The E46 was also one of the first BMWs we road tested at Autocar India. Officially imported by BMW dealer Navnit Motors, I remember being blown away by the otherworldly driving manners of this 3. And that feeling of amazement is still here today. The steering responds directly, as does the straight six, and the chassis feels so good, it’s like you’ve been injected with a big shot of confidence. Decades down the road engineers might put thought-controlled cars on the road. Until then, however, this is the next best thing.
E46 325i straight six is good enough to be in a modern 3-series.
Say 3-series and this is the car most of us think of. It’s the 3 BMW officially came to India with, and this mint 325i seems to have everything we remember the car for. This is certainly the most muscular looking 3 of them all, the E90’s lines owing much to Yankee designer Chris Bangle. The flow of convex and concave shapes dominates the flanks and bonnet, the ‘long bonnet, short overhang’ theme has been stretched to the extreme and, though this was Bangle’s least controversial car, it still didn’t sit well with everyone. I reacquaint myself with the high-quality cabin, the low-slung seats and BMW’s turbine under the hood. And it’s a jet engine alright. It has the same muted whine, the same initial reluctance to respond to a request for power and the same glassy smoothness even when wound to 7000rpm.
Yes, the slow-to-respond bottom end can get a bit infuriating, but once it gets into its stride the manner in which this motor pulls to the redline is just uncanny. Rumour had it BMW mixed some Bavarian honey in with the engine oil. The motor that BMW rode all the way to the bank, however, was the 20d diesel. It may not have been smooth, but it just loved to rev. And it continued to pull hard all the way up to 5200rpm; what a star. The early E90s were also out-and-out drivers’ cars. The steering was just as good as their predecessors, grip from the front end was unshakeable, and the stiff rear meant this car darted from one apex to the next like a go kart. Similarities with go karts didn’t end there, however, as the E90 felt like it had no suspension. Ride quality was so hard you needed a cast iron bottom to take on our roads. BMW then, in an effort to improve things, softened it too much, before eventually getting it right. However, the ultimate E90 wasn’t the 325i, but the larger and more powerful 330i. But remember, if you want one, BMW introduced electric steering during the last year or so of production, which makes getting the perfect E90 something of a challenge.
E90s straight six had a silky smooth top end, but bottom end was weak.
The new F30 takes the ethos of the 3-series even further, but at the same time manages to appeal to a wider audience as well. For a start, there’s more space on the inside. Also, the ride is comfortable, if slightly noisy, and feature-wise there’s everything here you’d expect on a 5-series. iDrive is standard, the driver can choose between Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes at the touch of a button, and phone connectivity has been taken to the next level. But despite being larger, the F30 manages to be lighter.
F30 interior looks and feels like a 5-series; similarly equipped too.
The two models launched in India, the 328i and the 320d, both get eight-speed gearboxes, but the best bit is that BMW hasn’t lost that driver focus. The steering may be electric, but it is among the best around, and the car’s agility and willingness to turn are second to none. This is a fun, fun car just like its predecessors. The slightly coarser-sounding, four-cylinder 328i replaces the 330i, and that means and bye-bye to two cylinders and hello to a twin-scroll turbo. But amazingly performance is even stronger and the car is just as much fun. And who says we won’t get the turbo six-pot 335i – now that would be something else, wouldn’t it?
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