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Used BMW 3-series Review and Buying Tips: An Extensive Guide

Updated on March 29, 2015
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BMW 3-series model

  • The BMW 3-series model has six generations dating from 1975 to 2012 onwards.
  • The BMW 3-series E21 is the company’s entry-level offering.
  • The BMW 3-series model is so popular to the extent that it is accounting for 30% of the BMW's total car sales making it the best selling model.

BMW 3-series

The BMW 3-series model has six generations dating from 1975 to 2012 onwards. The BMW 3-series model is the successor of the BMW 2002 and it is the most famous and popular model among the wide range of models that the BMW company has launched. It's well-known for its comfort, practicality and refinement that has evolved over the years.

One of the most issues with BMW cars is that they depreciate a lot. For instance, a 3 year old used BMW 3-series is priced nearly the double price of a 6 year old one. Therefore, buyers who want to make considerable savings, would prefer to buy a 6 to 9 year old BMW 3-series. The important thing here is that they must make sure that they get a used car in excellent or good condition.

A Brief History about the First BMW 3-series (E21)

The first BMW 3-series has the company's internal designation of E21 and was marketed as 320i in the car market. Primarily, it was launched in the European market in 1975 while it was introduced to the North American market in 1977.

After it achieved instant popularity, it became well established in the car market. Consequently, An auto magazine referred to the BMW 3-series 320i as a "Rabbit of the rich" drawing upon a reference to the Volkswagen’s popular and affordable VW Rabbit entry-level car of the time. Therefore, the BMW 320i was transporting rich people to exclusive destinations.

At the time of the Arab oil embargo that prompted the rationing of fuel for the first time since World War II, the BMW 3-series 320i was seen as a premium automobile with a relatively economical four-cylinder engine.

BMW 3 series Attributes

  • BMW 3 Series is one of the best compact executive cars to drive and it offers a spacious, premium cabin. Due to the popularity that the BMW 3 series has, there are plenty of used cars available for sale on the used car market.
  • The BMW 3-series has a continual refinement that is considered one of the car's strong points.
  • The suspension noise is low.
  • There is a sports suspension that is relatively firm as an option.
  • This model has received a considerable adjustment, especially in the steering wheel, front seats and the rear seats as well. However, anyone that is over 6 feet tall might feel a little bit cramped.
  • An assortment of engines is available. For example, for the petrol-powered cars there are a 127bhp 318i and a 168bhp 320i in addition to 325i, 330i and 335i versions. For diesel-powered cars there are 316d, 318d, 320d, 325d, 330d and 335d versions. A 161bhp 320d Efficient Dynamics version was launched in 2009 and has an average economy of 68.9mpg.
  • All versions get an air-conditioning, electric windows and a CD player.
  • The ES specification gets front fog lights and alloy wheels while the SE trim gets reversing sensors, a multi-function steering wheel and traction control. In 2009, BMW launched the SE Business Edition trim which added leather upholstery, bluetooth and sat-nav. Also, M Sport editions have a bodykit and firmer sports suspension.

BMW 3-series Saloon (1975 to present day)

As noticed, the BMW 3-series has a history of nearly 40 years. Over that period, the BMW 3-series model has been offered in bewildering choice of versions and variants. It has been produced in six different generations and five different body styles.

The BMW 3 Series is a compact executive car and it has become so popular due to its impressive combination of performance, practicality, safety, fuel economy and comfort. The BMW 3 Series has won numerous awards throughout its history.

It began life as a three-door saloon (what BMW would call a coupé today), before taking on its most recognizable four-door saloon profile. Since then we’ve seen convertibles, hatchbacks, estates, coupés, coupé-cabriolets, odd fastback GT versions and even a 4×4. And there have been petrol, diesel and hybrid engines in many configurations.

Before buying a used BMW 3-series or any other used car, It's strongly recommended that you take a trustworthy or certified mechanic or technician along to inspect it thoroughly and put in on a lift to identify all the defects that could be lurking in the shadow of any used car.

BMW 3-Series E21

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The 1st Generation (E21) from 1975 to 1983

The E21 is a Codename and it's referred to the internal designation for the first BMW 3-series inside the BMW company. The 3-series was the successor to the 2002, and it represents a giant leap in the engineering, technology and driving experience. Thus, it has become so popular to the extent that the BMW had sold one million car of that model after 6 years of production.

The earliest versions are nearly 40 years old and are considered classic cars and it comfortably qualifies for a classic car insurance policy. In another year’s time, the first cars registered in the UK will even become exempt from road tax. Searching for a BMW 3-series E21 is like scouring bazaars looking for a precious relic in the antiquities.

What to look out for:

  • As mentioned, the BMW 3 -series is considered a classic car so you can expect anything that could go wrong with this car. Major engine and transmission failure, collapsing suspension components and rust will all be lurking inside antique cars. Therefore, it's strongly recommended to take a BMW-specialized mechanic or technician along to check the car thoroughly for you before buying.
  • The four-cylinder versions are tedious, and that was the time before diesel-powered BMWs. There was a convertible version built under license by Baur, a German Bodyshop and some people interested in that version.

Recommended Version:

The one that's recommended to buy is the straight-six 323i.

BMW 3-Series E30

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The 2nd Generation (E30) from 1983 to 1992

The Codename for this version is E30 and that was the version that established BMW as the leading premium German car company. In this era, the M3 was introduced to allow BMW to participate in the World Touring Car Championship.

Although that car is small and may not be durable, it's light and fun to drive. Also, this car has a simple traction control system that can be beneficial when driving on rainy roads.

There were 3 and 5 door versions, but the interior is not spacious. In 1985, BMW introduced its first six-cylinder diesel motor to the 3-series. But in 1986, the 325i Sport was the desirable model and it used a belting 2.5-liter engine, had deep-sided sports seats and remains a good buy today, given how steeply prices of the M3 have risen (some of these are selling for £100,000).

The 318is was introduced in 1990 and it was featured mainly because of its poised handling. The four-cylinder, 16-valve model was essentially the BMW’s answer to the Golf GTI and used the sports suspension, and the wheels and tires of the 325i to good effect. Also, at this era the first BMW convertible car was featured and that was in 1985.

What to look out for:

  • This second generation of the BMW 3-series has some common issues such as rust, oil leaks, failing odometer, worn suspension bushes, worn clutches, worn rubber air pipes and deteriorated wheel bearings.
  • You should also check the car's service records to make sure that the timing belt of the six-cylinder engine has been changed recently, because the worn timing belt can damage the engine.
  • The water pump should also be, or has recently been, replaced.
  • As the odometer can fail, you must check its readout and verify its accumulated mileage through receipts and servicing records.

Recommended Version:

The BMW 325i Sport.

BMW 3-Series E36

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The 3rd Generation (E36) from 1991 to 2000

This generation of the BMW 3-series coincided with the emerge of the internet. It was the time when cars were becoming similarly advanced and technologies such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control allowed for the tame wayward handling that in turn helped the drivers to arrive safely to their destination. The car of this generation has received a remarkable modification that can be clearly seen in the headlamps and the design inside the car.

  1. The headlamps that are made up of two lamps for each side were covered in protective plastic cases. At that time, it was an innovation, but now it's considered the norm.
  2. The inside design was a stride towards the luxury and comfort and that can be obviously seen in the dashboard position. However the space in the rear seat was still limited and it continued limited in space until the E90 version in 2005 when the 3-series has become comfortable for all the family. Therefore, the cars of this generation is not suitable for the big family who look for a spacious car.

There is another modification in the rear suspension. That modification has come from the rare BMW Z1, a roadster from 1989 that has become a collector’s item today. The modification comprises a multi-link rear suspension arrangement which made it a more secure handling vehicle.

What to look out for:

  • It's much better to choose the six-cylinder petrol-powered engines such as the entry-level version 320i that was underpowered compared with the 323i, 325i and 328i versions. For the high performance seeker, the 328i is the pick. On the other hand, if you prefer the four-cylinder petrol-powered engine version, the 318i is the recommended pick.
  • In general, the six-cylinder versions have bigger capacity, which makes them much better to drive than the four-cylinder and diesel models of the same era. From 1994, the engines have been modified as they started to use timing chains instead of timing belts. However, you should check the engine regularly as the tentioner could fail. Also, the six-cylinder engines can suffer from bore wear.
  • If you are looking for the diesel-powered versions, you can find the underpowered 1.6-liter engine 318td, the 325td and the most sought-after version the 2.5-liter engine 325tds which boasts 143bhp and could return 38mpg making it more powerful than the aforesaid versions.
  • You must check the service records to make sure that the car has properly maintained and the engine's oil has been changed regularly. Also, you must make sure that the digital odometer hasn’t failed and the readout is valid. Check the front and rear suspension as well as the clutches for the worn parts. It's worth mentioning, that car was recalled for possible faulty lower steering shafts. And again, rust could be lurking.

Recommended Version:

BMW 328i Sport.

BMW 3-Series E46

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The Most Common Model

According to the used car market, the rear-wheel drive 4-door sedan with an in-line 6 and an automatic transmission is the most common.

The 4th Generation (E46) from 1999 to 2005

The 4th Generation is known internally as E46 and it's considered more robust than its predecessor. Also, cars of this generation are relatively modern and stylish, and it represents the turning point towards the excessive comfort and luxury for the 3-series.

The versions that have been produced during this time were sedan, wagon, coupe and convertible models with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

From late 2001 all 3-series models received a facelift, and many of the engines were revised at the same time, including the 330d, which increased in power to 204bhp.

What to look out for:

  • This 3-series generation came with a split-folding rear seats as an option, so when you buy, make sure that they are fitted as the car is more versatile with them.
  • If you prefer a relatively low running costs over the more expensive sporty performance cars, then it's recommended to choose either diesel or petrol-powered models.
  • Many cars are equipped with an automatic transmission, but if you are interested in the manual transmission, they are available too.
  • If you prefer the petrol-powered versions, you can choose either 318i of post-September 2001 or the 231bhp 330i that felt like a cut-price version of the M3 sports model.
  • If you're concerned about reliability, keep in mind that Consumer Reports rates the 1999-2005 3-Series at or below average In terms of reliability.
  • About safety, in NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) crash tests, the 2002-2005 BMW 3 Series received four stars for the driver and five stars for the front passenger. However, the NHTSA has issued a safety concern because during the side-impact crash test, the interior door panel has struck the pelvis of the dummy driver. For this reason, the NHTSA rated the driver's protection at only 3 stars in the side-impact crash tests.
  • This model has some common issues concerning the engine. The engine has some minor issues that need to be inspected by a BMW-specialized technician or mechanic. Also, the cooling system needs a particular attention to avoid the overheating of the engine which may incur you very expensive repairs.
  • In the popular 330d and 320d diesel models, the turbochargers could fail or suffer from worn bearings. Also, the inlet manifold of the 320d has been repeatedly defective.
  • The thermostat of the petrol and diesel engines may fail, which means the climate control system will not operate, while the resistors for the heater fan could pack in, leaving the fan running at full speed.
  • Fuel injectors and fuel pumps of the diesel models could fail.
  • The front wings are known to suffer from rust.
  • This model has some electrical issues.

Recommended Version:

The 184bhp six-cylinder 330d because It has lots of torque and an impressive performance.

BMW 3-Series E90

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The Most Common Model

According to the used car market, the gasoline-powered rear-wheel drive 4-door sedan with an automatic transmission is the most commonly available configuration.

The 5th Generation (E90) from 2005 to 2011

The 5th Generation of the 3-series is referred to as E90 by the BMW company and arrived in January 2005, with the Touring (E91) following in September. This model has been considerably improved for the better. Besides, the inside of this 3-Series is classy and luxurious, with comfortable seats and high-quality materials. Thereby, this model has pushed up BMW as a brand to a higher level.

Compared to the previous generation, the cars of the 5th generation are more spacious. Therefore, E90 versions are more suitable for a big family. Furthermore, adults can sit comfortably without having to press their knees up the back of the front seats. The trunk also has expanded from 300 liters to 460, so anyone can readily put their shopping bags, suitcases or luggage.

Primarily, there were 320i, 325i and 330i petrol-powered versions. Plus 320d or 330d diesel-powered versions. The 318i and 318d arrived soon after. By September 2006, there were also 335i, 325d and 335d versions in the year that featured more power, lower emissions or even entirely new engines. In September 2008, a facelift has brought EfficientDynamics tech as standard, slightly revised design details and an improved iDrive interface.

During this generation, the BMW 3-series was available as a sedan (E90), wagon (E91), coupe (E92) and a convertible (E93); in a rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive configuration. The most common engine is the naturally-aspirated inline-6.

In a nutshell, this model is longer, wider, stable and more practical than the former E46 model. Nevertheless, sporty versions and the used versions that still equipped with the Run-Flat tires, are distinctly firm.

What to look out for:

  • It's recommended to choose the diesel-engine-powered versions as they have received a big improvement, namely the 2-liter diesel engine versions in particular the 320d EfficientDynamics. This 320d EfficientDynamics version is reported to accelerate from 0-62mph in eight seconds and can return as much as 69mpg on the combined cycle. For this reason, the 320d EfficientDynamics version is the pick as either a new or used car.
  • If you prefer petrol-powered-engine versions, the 335i is known as a powerful car which uses a twin-turbo 3-liter engine kicking out just over 300bhp. The engineering that went into this car was remarkable with a little delay from the turbo when accelerating and a mid-range acceleration that could outrun the V-8 powered BMW M3. However, this version has been judged by the amount of complaints to be more troublesome so It is not recommended.
  • For reliability, Consumer Reports rates the 2006-2011 3 Series at or above average.
  • According to the NHTSA crash tests, this 3 Series generation received 4 stars in frontal crash tests and 5 stars in side crash tests through 2006-2010.
  • There are common problems with this generation, such as electrical, minor engine, fuel injection system problems. As with the previous generation, the turbocharger can be faulty and the components of the front and rear suspension can fail or wear down. Also the BMW has issued recalls relating to power steering system, airbags and brake servo. On the other hand, there are some other problems that have been reported by owners such as problems with the exterior door handle that stick in the open position, a defective exhaust particulate filters.
  • It's highly recommended to be prepared to spend extra on maintenance and repairs.
  • There are rivals of this model such as Infiniti G35/G37. The rivals of the 3-series touring are Audi’s A4 Avant, Honda Accord, VW Passat and the rear-wheel-drive Mercedes C-Class.

The 3-Series Touring

If you choose the 3-series touring cars, keep in mind that Estate is great to drive and spacious, but you need to choose carefully. Also, Estate adds superb practicality and efficiency to the 3-series touring that can give you an excellent driving experience.

This 3-series touring has ‘condition-based servicing’ which means that the car flags when attention to a faulty part is needed. Keep in mind that the brake fluid should be renewed periodically. Also, all the engines of these cars are chain-driven therefore, no longer is a cambelt needed.

All E91s equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, but there is the automatic gearbox as an option. As you can expect, the big engines are more powerful and provide more performance. But, the smaller ones are more thrifty and give sufficient power for the daily driving. ES, an equipped SE or M Sport versions are recommended. Finally, keep in mind that This generation of the 3-Series Touring has been recalled three times.

Recommended Version:

320d EfficientDynamics.

BMW 3-series F30

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The 6th Generation (F30) from 2012 onwards

The 6th generation of the BMW 3-series is by far the latest generation. Besides, that latest generation is practically and aesthetically one of the most recommended cars to buy. Compared to the previous generation, the cabin is wider and the infotainment system is more advanced in the car of this generation.

Unless the car of this generation has subjected to an accident or has suffered major repairs, only two year old car is considerably like a brand new one. However, the two year old cars of this model may cost you just over the half price of the brand new one. Therefore, it's a tempting used car from a financial point of view.

What to look out for:

  • 320d EfficientDynamics version is one of the recommended cars to choose as you can buy a two year old one with just over half price of the brand new one. Also, 320d EfficientDynamics is smooth when driving and it can return 68.9mpg on the combined cycle. One of the most nagging problems is that it's a little rattly when started from the cold position.
  • The automatic versions have an eight-speed gearbox, while the rear-wheel-drive versions generate maximum traction thanks to the equipped electronic driver aids.
  • Petrol-powered version is recommended for drivers who don't travel for long distances.
  • This latest generation comes with a four-wheel-drive as an option which gives an added traction on the slippery surfaces.
  • The cars of the 6th generation are still very young, so the common problems are not yet vastly reported. However, some problems have been reported for example the VOSA (Vehicle & Operator Services Agency) in the UK has reported that some versions may suffer from a faulty clutch, which should have been addressed by the manufacturer. Also, some versions could suffer from faulty electrics, while others could suffer from faulty power steering systems.

Recommended Version:

BMW 328i which uses a turbocharged four-cylinder engine kicking out 242bhp and can accelerate from 0-62mph in 5.9Sec while it can return a frugal 44.1mpg.

What to Look Out For When Buying a Used BMW 3 series?

  • According to some reports, there have been issues with the interior trim. The interior trim is becoming loose with usage so it's recommended to check for a rattle when test driving the used 3 series.
  • Primarily, the BMW 3 series is equipped with a Run-flat tires that are very helpful when the car's tires have any puncture. But because these Run-flat tires are expensive, some owners replace them with an ordinary tires. Therefore, it would be better to buy a used BMW 3 series that is still equipped with the Run-flat tires. Otherwise, if you didn't find them, you can ask for a reduced price for the car.
  • Like other BMW models, the 3 series will need a regular and frequent maintenance even a little bit more than scheduled by the manufacturer. BMW cars have a lot of complicated specifics and not every dealership or car repair shop are able to handle the repairs or maintenance efficiently. Therefore, servicing at a BMW-specialized repair shop would be a lot better from a practical viewpoint.

In The End

As you can see, the 3-series model has got 6 generations and several versions. Knowing the attributes and the common problems of each car can help you choose the right model or version. Furthermore, do a thorough research on the specific model's version that you want to buy.

Muhammed F Omran wrote this article about used BMW 3-series review and buying tips.

For the latest, strategic, to the point and actionable car buying tips, visit http://muhammedfomran.hubpages.com/ so you can easily find all the sections and pages of this website.

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      Sandra Hugh 2 years ago

      Wonderful information you had shared. Really 3 series BMW Accessories are awesome and performance is very nice http://is.gd/O3w45q