Top Gear’s guide to buying a used BMW 3 Series
It’s been a benchmark saloon for more than 40 years now. So, probably worth getting up to speed
What is it?
Many things, to many different people. A method of telling your neighbours that you’re doing better than they are. How you know when the estate agent has arrived. Perhaps the best evidence yet that we’re still interested in living in a clearly delineated hierarchical society, despite any arguments to the contrary.
But what it is to most people (at least those who have most of their wits about them) is a mid-sized saloon from one of Germany’s big three car makers. And yes, we said ‘mid-sized’ – the days of the 3 being a genuinely small saloon were over by the time the first dot-com bubble burst.
It’s also been the driver’s choice for a small (or indeed mid-sized) saloon since it debuted in the mid-Seventies. Which leads us to our next point.Advertisement - Page continues below
What’s so good about the BMW 3 Series?
At the risk of sounding unabashedly positive, most things. But to flirt with the concept of ‘specificity’ for once, we’ll break down the big selling points.
First up is handling. And by first, we really mean it – the 3 Series has been the driver’s choice of saloon (and estate) since its inception. And before the 3 Series, the BMW 2002 was already laying some pretty significant groundwork in that regard. It's not just a matter of grip or cornering g, but rather an immediacy of sensation and feedback that other small saloon manufacturers aspire to – and routinely benchmark their creations against. This tactility inspires the confidence you need to explore the 3’s performance envelope. Which, to waterboard a metaphor for a moment, is perhaps less of an envelope and more of a shipping container’s worth.
Second is the luxury. Long gone are the days where a BMW was as Spartan as Leonidas; modern tastes, expectations and competition (particularly from the interior maestros at Audi) means that a Beemer from the last decade or so will be as plush as a Stone Temple Pilots song.
Third is the array of engines on offer – after machinery like the 635CSi, E34 M5 and E46 M3, BMW straight sixes are getting on for legendary these days. And the 3 Series has been home to some of the greatest. Like the E46 M3, for example.
And fourth is... well, the badge. Say what you will about brands, branding or brand worship, the fact is that the BMW roundel has adorned enough seriously special metal to be a selling point in its own right. Much like Louis Vuitton made its name with durable travel cases and Burberry with waterproof garments, both brands – and, of course, BMW – can now trade on name recognition as well as expertise.
What’s so bad about the BMW 3 Series?
Given that we’re talking about it as a second-hand prospect, we’ll gloss over its pretty steep purchase price when new and focus instead on... well, what we’re here to focus on.
The main problem with the BMW 3 Series is its reliability. While it’s far from the ‘start considering insurance fraud just to be rid of it’ level of flimsiness, it’s also well adrift from other used car prospects. Also, in case so much wasn’t already obvious, do not commit insurance fraud. Not even if you have a Dodge Nitro.
Getting back to the 3 Series, we find a car that returns mediocre reliability results. Issues ranging from the crankshaft to the seatbelts afflict various 3ers, with many being the subject of manufacturer recalls, while various customer satisfaction surveys of owners put BMW cars in the bottom half of rankings in terms of longevity and reliability. At the top end of the bottom half, mind, but still in the bottom half.
Now, with that said, that specific survey was BMW on the whole, not just the 3 Series. And if you take diesel-powered variants of the 3 Series out of the mix, the proven petrol engines vault the 3er up to second place out of 26 so-called ‘executive cars’ surveyed.
That means that the most interesting, joy-inducing and aurally spectacular BMWs you can buy are also the most reliable. And yes, you can quote us on that when you’re trying to convince your significant other to buy a 340i.Advertisement - Page continues below
What are the common problems?
That really comes down to the year and spec of 3 Series, but there are some common issues across each generation of 3 Series worth mentioning.
The E90 3 Series, for instance, became infamous for the almost chiropractic level of bone-cracking doled out by its rock-hard, run-flat tyres. And the ‘maintenance-free’ timing chain in the diesels, which... wasn’t. Funnily enough.
Increasingly complex electrical systems also had their fair share of increasingly frustrating failures – resulting in increasingly large bills at the auto electrician – while minor gripes ranged from banjaxed windscreen wiper motors to brake discs that were eaten up like corn chips.
With the later F80, Some models had underperforming power steering pumps that could let go entirely and leave you strong-arming the wheel, while the bolts that held clutch pressure plates on early manual-equipped cars could back out and make it (rather obviously) a touch more difficult to change gears.
And while issues like failing fuel pumps and EGR (exhaust gas recirculation, needed to pass emissions) systems could leave you stranded, you could also find yourself stymied by something as simple as a faulty seatbelt mechanism. It can apparently lock up (generally in colder weather) and make it somewhere between an absolute chore and a physical impossibility to do up your seatbelt. Of all the excuses to be late, we wonder how far one would get with ‘I couldn’t do up my seatbelt’.
What engines and trims are available?
So very many. Which got increasingly confusing as the years progressed, but we’ll give it a shot.
Back in the day, buying a 330i meant getting a 3 Series with a 3.0-litre engine. A diesel with the same displacement, on the other hand, would be a 330d. The motorsports version is the M3. You see the simplicity here.
But then the coupe-bodied 3 became a 4, as did the cabrio version. Then there was a four-door 4 which was a separate car from the 3, in which you could get a 2.0-litre engine... which would then, naturally, be called the 430i. The argument on BMW’s behalf is that the downsized turbocharged engines had equivalent power to larger naturally aspirated engines. And that after decades of looking at a 3 Series and instinctively knowing ‘bigger number is better’, buyers might feel short-changed buying a 320 for 330 money. Helpfully enough, the used 3 Series we’d pick in a heartbeat is still called a 3 Series, still has a 3.0-litre engine, and was called a 335i... and then a 340i. Eh, close enough.
As for trim levels... well, as they change by country (and year), the general rule is to keep looking at the number codes. It’s all well and good to hear 3 Series M-Sport, but if the car in question is a 318, then you can make an apfels-zu-apfels assessment of its merits versus, say, a 328. The only exception to the bigger-number-better rule is that the top of the tree was, is and will be the M3.
Is it safe?
Generally, yes. Attaining five-star Euro NCAP ratings since 2005 (when the E90 first came out) is not a result you’d get by... well, accident. The E46 got four NCAP stars, in case you were wondering.
The Euro NCAP tests have become much more involved – and strict – in the years since the 3 Series got its first five-star result, but the 3 has never dropped below that exemplary score since.
If you’re concerned enough about safety to still be reading about it after three paragraphs, a) you probably have kids, b) you’re in good hands in a modern 3 Series, and c) you should be trying to get the most modern one you can afford, because it’ll be the safest.
How economical is the BMW 3 Series?
Hard to say with any kind of accuracy, unless we make a few assumptions.
With that in mind, let’s assume 30mpg is decent, 40 is good, 50 is great and 60 is incredible. Let’s also assume that the 3 Series you’re looking at is in fine fettle, so will be getting the same sort of miles per gallon it got when new.
So armed with the mother of all... um, ‘foul-ups’, let’s look at where the 3 Series sits on the spectrum. The old M3, with a 4.0-litre V8, will do about 20mpg unless you absolutely baby it. Which, according to our assumptions, is decidedly not decent. But that’s the problem with assumptions, isn’t it? For a 414bhp, motorsports-derived V8 with a red line above 8,000rpm, we’d say it’s entirely decent.
At the other end of the spectrum is something like a 320d, which – at least officially - can do something in the order of 60mpg. And this, both by our assumptions and just... y’know, generally, is incredible. How close you get to that is really up to a) how you drive, and b) whether that mpg figure was achieved on the old NEDC or the new WLTP testing procedure.
For our money, though, the best of both worlds comes with something like the F80 328i or 340i. If you favour parsimony, pick the four-cylinder 328i, which can do 40mpg (i.e. good) in the real world, and won’t have the various reliability issues/goat gargling rocks sound of diesel. The 340i, on the other hand, is a straight-six BMW, which is already most of the way towards fantastic. Add in a turbo for more than 300bhp, and the prospect of a real-world 30mpg (still decent), and it might very well be the absolute sweet spot of the whole range.Advertisement - Page continues below
How does the BMW 3 Series drive?
In a nutshell, unerringly well. Quick reflexes, responsive handling, balance that could give gyroscopes a run for their money... these aren’t limited to the up-spec performance version; they form the fundaments of the 3 Series as a whole. Convertibles will be slightly worse – as befits pretty much any regular coupe with the roof lopped off – and M versions will be better. So far, so obvious.
If you’re driving a second-hand 3 Series and it’s not the benchmark for handling for its class and contemporaries, then something has gone at least moderately awry. Worn parts, crash damage, a 3 Series badge affixed to a Shire horse; any or all of the above will have serious ramifications.
How fast is the BMW 3 Series?
If you imagine the 3 Series is a butler, that might help – because it really is a case of ‘How fast would sir like to go?’
And, if that answer is ‘jolly fast’, you’ll want something that starts with an M, rather than a 3. The F80 M3's straight six – all 430bhp of it – fires the four-door from rest to 62mph in a skerrick over four seconds, then on to a limited top speed of 155mph. Which feels like enough. As did the old V8 M3, which managed the same 0–62 sprint in the high fours, before roaring away to the same limited top speed.
If, on the other hand, Sir answers with ‘Oh, I don’t care; just as long as it can outrun a cart-pulling Clydesdale’, there’s always the facelifted 2016 318i, with a little 1.5-litre turbo doing its best to lug around an entire four-door saloon. Other drearily slow entrants in the 3 Series oeuvre include the last gasp of natural aspiration in the old E90, with as little as 120lb ft on offer in the 316i. If you are looking at the E90, we would suggest looking at the straight-six 328i and up.
Speaking of the 328i, the turbo four-cylinder that replaced the straight six for the F30 generation is actually a proper gem. Quiet as a mime in a library, smooth enough to warrant a Sade follow-up album and, when matched with the excellent eight-speed ZF auto, about as free from conscious effort as a Jackson Pollock painting. Sure, you can rag it to achieve a 5.9-second sprint from a standstill to 62, but is that really what you bought a four-cylinder automatic saloon to do?Advertisement - Page continues below
What’s the interior of the BMW 3 Series like?
Eerily like a car interior, as a matter of fact.
Speaking in generalities so broad they should get bumped down a rank (to... Colonel-alities?), it’ll be comfortable and logical, with enough amenities and luxuries to warrant what BMW charged for them when they were new.
The days of pauper-spec Beemers were pretty much done by the time the E46 came around, so buying anything made after that means you won’t be hand-cranking your windows or sweltering without aircon in the ‘No, but we live in England... seriously, what’s going on?’ heatwaves that seem to be a thing now.
Anything from 2012 on will look (and feel) good; from 2019 onwards upgrades that to great. A helpful offset for the exterior, then?
How reliable is the BMW 3 Series?
Owner reports of older 3 Series are best described as ‘lengthy’, and worst described as ‘unerringly positive’. But, folding in our own experiences (allowing for the fact that anecdotal evidence is only evidence of an anecdote and all that), the key takeaway is that a 3 Series will generally keep working, but you will need to embrace a good deal more solicitude to ensure it.
So high-quality, low-sulfur fuel is a must (Nikasil-lined bores aren’t fans of anything less), as well as top-grade oils (for the VANOS), fluids and coolant. Keeping the door latches and locks lubricated is another great idea, as is regular inspection of suspension components and reconditioning or replacing the battery ahead of schedule, to ensure it doesn’t cause havoc with the Beemer’s bevy of computers and sensors.
How much does the BMW 3 Series cost to insure and tax?
Up in the pricey courtside seats is the M3, with insurance groups on the wrong side of 40 out of 50. And remember, much like golf scores, you want this number to be as low as possible.
Lower insurance groups require a few basic things: a fairly bargain-basement price when new, cheap replacement parts and for the car in question to be off the radar of the light-fingered and heavy-handed among us. So, guess how well any 3 Series does in that regard?
Yep, logically enough, only the most basic and boring 3 Series from the past decade manage to duck under group 20 for insurance; anything with any kind of poke, fruit, toys, get-up, chutzpah or other such colloquial metaphors will be well into the twenties and thirties. That means, unless you’re older than Apple Computers, will mean another four-figure bill to add to the running costs. So... enjoy that, then.