Used BMW 3-Series review

17 Oct, 2007 6:00am Richard Aucock

It’s 25 years since the first 3-Series hit showrooms. Here we look at a legend that’s a super used buy, too!

E30 generation
Few models can claim to have defined Britain’s motoring landscape like the 3-Series. From company car parks to the drives of detached homes across the country, it made BMW an essential part of life for the upwardly mobile.

It was the 1982 version, with the in-house code E30, which started the ball rolling. And arguably, it’s the most important car BMW has ever made – particularly the post-1987 facelift model that ditched the chrome bumpers.

The 170bhp 325i is the fast car fan’s choice, although the 316i and 318i are most common. They’re slower, yet reliable. Six-cylinder cars are huge fun, but watch out for crash damage; such power, coupled with low-tech rear suspension, means the handling can be challenging.

You can pick up a 316i with a full MoT for £200, yet while two and four-door prices are similar, Touring estates command £1,000 and convertibles can still go for more than £2,500.

Rust is an issue, particularly on the rear arches and jacking points. Engines can do huge mileages as long as the timing belt is changed every 36,000 miles. As with all BMWs, variable servicing is indicated by a series of lights, but ensure these are backed up by documentation.

E36 generation
BMW hit the big time with the E36. It was more practical than the E30, and offered greater sophistication and driving dynamics, thanks to a new multilink rear suspension set-up.

The four-cylinder 318i is a staple model, but the six-cylinder variants are better to drive – particularly the 193bhp 328i. This arrived with the E36’s mild facelift in 1996. Before then, in 1991, the first diesel 3-Series appeared, and the 325td impressed with petrol-like refinement.

The two-door E36 was marketed as a proper coupé, while the Touring estate followed in 1992 and the convertible in 1994. You can get a high-mileage 318i for £500 or less, but it’s still rare to see decent six-cylinder cars below £1,000. A 328i will cost upwards of £1,500; a Touring of similar vintage adds £500, and the coupé £750. Convertibles can fetch more than twice as much as a saloon of the same age!

Well documented bore wear problems afflict six-cylinder cars; as many units were replaced, don’t panic if the engine number doesn’t match the original documents. Equipment was also mean; many cars miss out on air-con, while a stereo wasn’t even standard for a while! Try to find a decent-spec SE variant, from 1993.

E46 generation
improving what went before, 1998’s 3-Series was faster, smoother and larger than the model it replaced. BMW upped the refinement, while formalising a line-up of base, SE and, later, Sport variants. The entry-spec ES arrived in 2003.

By now, the 318i featured a 116bhp 1.9-litre engine, while the diesel 320d had 136bhp. The flagship 328i was replaced in 2000 by the 330i, and the 181bhp 330d debuted. Coupé, cabrio and Touring models were also offered.

The suspension was tweaked in early 2001 to improve handling, while a facelift later that year was marked by new front indicators. Key changes were a 2.0-litre engine for the 318i and a 150bhp output for the 320d. Air-con was also standard.

Pay from £3,000 for an early high-mile E46, although the in-demand 320d is rarely less than £4,500. A facelifted 330i Sport will cost you from £8,500, or over £10,000 at a dealer.

Thermostats can fail, so keep an eye on the temperature gauge. Make sure the ventilation fan works on all speeds, too. Front suspension balljoints can wear and rear coil springs snap. Check all the tail-lamps and that the airbag warning light isn’t illuminated – although this is often traced to a loose connection.

E90 generation
By 2005, controversial designer Chris Bangle was established at BMW, and the world was keen to know what he’d do to the 3-Series. The result split opinion, yet proved successful. Now, E90 models are hitting the used market in numbers.

It’s bigger and more practical than previous 3-Series, while Touring, two-door and coupé-cabriolet versions are also available. Posher variants got the iDrive cabin control system and computer-adjusted suspension. While the E90 is better equipped, there remain some surprising omissions: base models lack climate control, while split-fold rear seats and Isofix child seat mountings are options on saloons.

The line-up consists of ES, SE and M Sport. Best seller is the 320d, and it has recently been given a power boost. All 3-Series now benefit from BMW’s Efficient Dynamics, which improves fuel economy. It’s rare to find an E90 for less than £13,000, while the 330i costs upwards of £18,000 – or nearer £20,000 at a dealer.

Run-flat tyres are standard, but these can be costly to replace and remove the reassurance of a spare wheel. Power-steering can leak, while M Sport suspension leads to a bone-jarring ride that may deter some buyers.

3-Series specifications

E30 generation
Price range:
Manufactured from: 1982-1990
Engines: 90bhp 1.6, 102bhp 1.6, 103bhp 1.8, 115bhp 1.8, 140bhp 1.8, 125bhp 2.0, 130bhp 2.0, 139bhp 2.3, 170bhp 2.5 petrols
Insurance groups: 12-16
Beware! Rust, silver wheelarch trim covering corrosion, seat wear, slack gearboxes, juddering clutches, crash damage, smoky engines

E36 generation
Price range:
Manufactured from: 1990-1998
Engines: 102bhp 1.6, 115bhp 1.8, 140bhp 1.8, 150bhp 2.0, 192bhp 2.5, 193bhp 2.8 petrols; 90bhp 1.7, 115bhp 2.5, 143bhp 2.5 diesels
Insurance groups: 10-17
Beware! Clocked digital odometers, six-cylinder bore wear, smoking engines, rusty wheelarches, whining gears, ill-fitting dash trim

E46 generation
Price range:
Manufactured from: 1998-2005
Engines: 105bhp/116bhp 1.9, 143bhp/150bhp 2.0, 168bhp 2.2, 168bhp/189bhp 2.5, 193bhp 2.8, 231bhp 3.0 petrol; 136bhp/15bhp 2.0, 181bhp 3.0 diesel
Insurance: 11-18
Beware! Failed thermostats, heaters blowing cold, wayward temp dials, snapped rear springs, knocking front suspension

E90 generation
Price range:
Manufactured from: 2005-date
Engines: 141bhp/168bhp 2.0, 215bhp 2.5, 268bhp 3.0, 302bhp 3.0 T petrol; 141bhp/163bhp/174bhp 2.0, 194bhp/228bhp/282bhp 3.0 diesel
Insurance: 12-19
Beware! Leaking power-steering, damaged tyres, mix of conventional and run-flat rubber, damaged M Sport wheels and bumpers