The BMW 3 series is one of the most instantly recognizable cars in the world. Over the course of its existence, the vehicle has gone through several design and performance changes that has rewarded the company with numerous awards. From its humble beginnings in 1975 to the latest models rolling off the assembly line today, the generations of the 3 series are filled with fascinating developments.
Generation 1: 1975-1983
In 1975, the first iteration of the BMW 3 series was revealed to the world at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. A successor to the 02 series, this new model was the creation of then BMW Director of Design Paul Bracq.
The 3 series was a major accomplishment for BMW in terms of both sporting and dynamic performance, but it was it’s distinctive tail end that initially caught the public’s eye – for better and for worse. Some customers loved it and others, not so much. In order to increase the vehicle’s aesthetic appeal, designers began to implement a plastic trim that was widely met with praise.
This first generation of the 3 series models also introduced the angled dashboard that would become a standard feature in all future BMWs. The brand’s iconic double-kidney grille and short overhang features also saw their first appearance during this time.
Generation 2: 1982-1984
The second generation’s 3 series greatly expanded its offerings to customers. Whereas the generation 1 only came as a 2-door sedan or Baur Topcabriolet convertible, the second generation also offered 4-door sedan, touring, and M3 variants. Each vehicle release during the second generation also came equipped with a twin headlights feature that would be included in every 3 series model moving forward.
It was during this time that the 3 series broke into the world of high-performance racing. The M3 coupé was able to put out a staggering 238 hp that allowed it to take part in the German Touring Car Championship.
Generation 3: 1990-2000
Generation 3 of the 3 series signified a drastic change in design for BMW. While it still sported the twin headlights made famous in the second generation, the 3 series now also included an inclined roof and sloping A- and C-lines. This made the generation 3’s overall design more similar to that of a coupé.
Despite a more standard overall design, the third generation came in more variants than ever. This time around, BMW offered the car in coupé, convertible, sedan, compact, and touring models. They also brought back the M3 which was now offered as convertible, sedan, or coupé.
BMW didn’t stop there, though. In march of 1994, the company began offering the 3 series as a compact hatchback. The new design was noticeably shorter than all other models but still managed to become the third best selling of the generation, only behind the sedan and coupé.
Generation 4: 1997-2006
The fourth generation of the 3 series made its debut in 1997 and while it still came in the same models, for the first time each variant offered its own styling.
One of the most significant design choices came with the fourth generation’s sedan. It maintained its 3-box design that clearly outlined the hood, trunk, and passenger compartment, but the windows and their separating pillars were given an overhaul. The car’s profile was given a more curved aesthetic that in turn provided more overhead space in the back seat.
Customers were enthusiastic about the design differences and the fourth generation remains the best selling of all the 3 series.
Generation 5: 2005-2013
At the Geneva Motor Show in 2005, the fifth generation of the 3 series was revealed to the world. It was clear that BMW had created something special this time as just a year later it was awarded the title of “World Car of the Year.”
This generation’s sedan took a fusion approach to its design by combining it with elements from the coupé. The rear of the car was still very much inspired by past sedan’s but the vehicle’s front took clear inspiration from the 3 series coupé’s that had come before it.
As beloved as the sedan’s new design was, the most drastic change in the fifth generation came with the vehicle’s M3 model. This time the M3 variant was also made available in the form of a pickup truck.
Generation 6: 2011-Present
The current era of the 3 series made a shocking jump in technology – it went electric. The engines offered in generation 6 are not only hybrid but also come turbocharged.
In addition to the new electric models, generation 6 also saw a jump in size with the introduction of its Gran Turismo version. This model was not only longer overall, but also sported a bigger wheelbase. The result was greatly expanded space inside for passenger’s legs and heads.
Customers also saw an unprecedented level of customization in this generation’s 3 series. Colors, materials, specs, and fabric all came with a much more abundant variety of choice. BMW even introduced 3 new trims that customers could choose from – modern, sports, and luxury.
Follow the 3: BMW 3 Series Through the Years in Images