The next-generation BMW 3 Series is set to make its debut any day now. While its unveiling awaits, looking back at the venerable luxury sport sedan’s heritage provides context for what can be expected for model year 2019.
Over six generations the 3 Series has gone through evolution and revolutions in terms of style and has grown significantly in size. Will the next 3-Series take on a retro flair and embody the minimalism of the E21 or go a more radical route with flame surfacing like the E90? Let’s examine every generation of the 3 Series to get a better idea of what could lie ahead.
The first-generation BMW 3 Series (code named E21) made its debut in the United States for the 1977 model year. Its simplistic form, prominent double kidney grille and circular headlamps set against black fixtures gave the vehicle a purposeful and sporty look. This design was ahead of its time. Over the next three decades the minimalist style would prove highly influential as sedan designs became progressively more understated in the 3 Series idiom, with excessive chrome and opera lights falling by the wayside as a sportier and less ornamental design philosophy took hold.
The second-generation BMW 3 Series (code named E30) made its debut for the 1984 model year in the United States and ushered in an evolutionary design that had a bit more substantial presence. Four headlamps adorned a more upright front fascia. Taillamps increased in size and the trunklid was higher in this generation. Interior dimensions also increased, which drew the compact 3 Series further into the mainstream and contributed to its surging popularity.
1992 brought the third 3 Series (code named E36), which ushered in a more aerodynamic design language. Headlamps were encased in plastic housings and the double kidney grilles were more elegantly incorporated into the front end. Out back the taillamps took on a more nuanced form, giving the 3 Series a more aggressive stance. Aprons below the door sills provide a grounded and sporty look.
As the millennium approached, so did a new 3 Series. Making its debut for the 1999 model year was the fourth-generation 3 Series (code named E46). While enthusiast began to grumble that the car lost some of its excellent steering sharpness, the design at least was well executed. Sharp curves of the previous generation were gently rounded all over the vehicle, lending this generation a very sophisticated aesthetic. A significantly higher trunklid and upsized taillamps took away slightly from the hunkered down look of prior 3 Series. This generation would see its coupe and cabriolet come equipped with body-colored rub strips, while the sedan carried on with the traditional black rubber strips.
As the Bangle design era took hold at BMW, which saw the release of the radical 2002 7 Series and 2006 5 Series, the fifth-generation 3 Series (code named E90) made its debut for the 2006 model year. While its design was not as outlandish as its stablemates, the 3 Series did take on some funky design detailing, which coincided with lessened driving dynamics as the model became ever so softer and more mainstream. Scuff guards were removed altogether, lending the design a clean look, but also increasing visual mass. On the sedan the double kidney grille was bisected along the top whereby the upper portion was placed on the hood while the remainder was attached to the front fascia, the coupe retained a more traditional grille treatment. A mid-generation refresh would see the coupe’s more elegant grille treatment grafted onto the sedan, along with other updates that honed in the quirky design. Sharp and deep bodyside creases known as “flame surfacing” added definition to the 3 Series, but also removed the subtlety of prior generations.
A full return to traditional design came with the 2012 release of the six-generation 3 Series (code named F30). BMW played it safe with this model and removed all echoes of the Bangle era with this interpretation. Aggressively shaped headlamps hark back to the fourth-generation model. The horizontal taillamp design that made its debut on the fifth-generation coupe was carried across the range for this generation, provided a more grounded appearance for the sedan. Along the sides of the vehicle sharp creases were incorporated with more subtle and organic forms compared to the prior generation.
BMW has released a teaser of the seventh-generation 3 Series, however the camouflage obscures detailing. An official debut is expected in autumn 2018.