Which Generation Of BMW 3 Series Is The Best?

CountersteerYour true stories of good and bad things that happen in cars.

We got a new BMW 3 Series today. It’s not every day that happens! (More like every seven to 10 years, generally.) The G20 model has a lot of improvements over the outgoing car, but things are not looking good for the manual transmission—and that’s a huge loss for us all. Let’s talk about what it has to live up to to stay the luxury sport sedan (and coupe, and wagon) benchmark.


With this car we’re now on our seventh generation of 3 Series. Which one has been the best to date? Let’s discuss.

The first 3, the E21, came to us in 1975 as a replacement for the legendary 2002. It was a compact coupe only and, mired in the same Malaise Era bullshit as everyone else, isn’t as well-regarded as later generations. I’m still a fan, and I dig the way they look. But I honestly don’t think anybody’s gonna pick this guy.


After that we had the E30, a vastly more successful follow-up to the E21. This sedan and coupe brought everything we loved about the 2002 with modern (for its time, obviously) electronics, safety, gadgets and performance. It also spawned the first M3, said to be the most successful touring car of all time.

I owned one. It was a great car. I’d buy another but they’ve gotten too damn expensive now for what they are.


Next: the 3 Series of the ’90s, the E36, something I consider a vastly underrated car. In terms of size, weight, packaging and options, it’s arguably the granddaddy of all modern sport sedans and their coupe equivalents. They’re still cheap on the used market, too.


Then there’s the E46 of the late ’90s into the 2000s, and folks, this is the one to beat in my book. It gets my vote for best 3 Series ever. I say that as an ex-E30 owner, too. It probably looks the best, and that design holds up today. It was famous for its mix of power, comfort and handling. It’s almost certainly destined to be a future collector’s item.


Some even say it’s the last truly good BMW. I think that’s a hair too far, but you don’t get a reputation like that without being awesome.


Carrying us into the future are the E90-series models. And while they had a great mix of naturally aspirated and powerful turbo inline six motors, this is where most critics think the 3 started to lose the plot a bit—bigger, heavier, more insulated. It’s a good car for sure, but it just doesn’t feel as special. The looks are whatever. They’re still too common on the roads to be notable.


Then we have the 3 Series you can buy new right now, the F30! BMW split the coupe into the separate 4 Series line, but feel free to lump that in here if it’s your choice. There’s also the 3 Series Gran Turismo and 4 Series Gran Coupe. Fun times all around, I guess.

Anyway, I’ve driven a bunch of these and I generally like them. They’re very hard not to like. I don’t think BMW has quite nailed turbocharged engines yet in terms of character and uniqueness compared to the old NA engines, but the performance you get is hard to deny—even if the driving experience is a bit on the boring side. It may end up being the last 3 offered with a manual in America.


Finally, the G20, the car that dropped at the Paris Motor Show just today. I haven’t driven it yet. Nobody has. But there’s a lot of improvements I like here—less weight, more power, improved tech across the board, and I also dig the new face. It is also bigger than the car it replaces, which is to be expected. But, man, a 3 Series without a manual option? That makes me want to spend the rest of the day drinking alone in a dark room.


So which 3 has been the best 3? Note that I’m not asking which M3 was best—we’ve had that debate before, although it can definitely figure into your answer.

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About the author

Patrick George

Editor-in-Chief at Jalopnik. 2002 Toyota 4Runner.