A grey and a blue 2016 used BMW 3 Series for sale are shown in an empty lot.

The Best of the 3 Series

Sports sedans like the 3 Series are what BMW is known for. While the German car company made sure to get into the lucrative SUV market, the automaker made a name for itself with its incredible luxury sedans. Considering that BMW has been producing the iconic 3 Series since 1975, it can be hard to decide which year is best when searching for a used BMW 3 Series for sale. Each generation just seems to produce a sleeker, more modern design with the understated styling that drivers love when they want a little luxury without going over the top.

The first generation introduced drivers to what a luxury sedan could be. With a dashboard that wrapped around the driver, a distinctive silhouette, and the unmistakable kidney grille, the BMW 3 Series took off, becoming a hit with drivers that wanted a little more than your standard sedan. Since then, the sedan has only gotten better as generations have passed. The boxy frames of the 1970s and 1980s gradually smoothed out over a decade to produce a more serious-looking, almost frowning front that is impossible to miss. When people see a 3 Series, there’s no mistaking it for another vehicle.

Which Is the Best?

Still, the question remains, with so many years under its belt, is one generation of the 3 Series better than the others? Is any one model year the best of the bunch, or do they all come out to be about equal? Is it even possible to narrow your used car search down by year?

To help answer some of those questions, we’ve taken a look at the last three generations of the BMW 3 Series to see what generation and what year ranks among the most popular with drivers and if one year is truly better than any other. Even after seven generations, the BMW 3 Series remains a top-seller among sedans, making it tough to even know where to start.

The BMW 3 Series is a popular sedan for a reason, it has a lot of good things going for it. To pick out the best option, it’s good to ask yourself what you are looking for. If you’re like most drivers, you’re probably searching for a luxury sedan that fits into your budget while also offering high safety or reliability scores. Let’s check out some of the latest generations of the 3 Series and see what stands out.

The Fifth Generation: Car of the Year

The 3 Series kicked off its fifth generation in 2006, adopting a rounded, more stylized profile with a larger grille. It was an instant hit, being named the “World Car of the Year” soon after its debut at the Geneva Motor Show. This generation, known as the E90 to enthusiasts, can be had as a sedan, wagon, coupe, or convertible for the style that fits your life.

To keep things comfortable and flexible, the E90 was designed to be larger than its predecessor, delivering more cabin room and extra cargo space. Used E90s can be found with either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive. Add to that options for manual or automatic transmissions, and drivers have plenty of performance options to choose from to find the vehicle that meets their needs.

Responsive and efficient driving is noticeable throughout every model year of the fifth-generation 3 Series, making it a favorite of commuters and city drivers. The E90 was also the first year BMW began offering the innovative iDrive infotainment system. This user-friendly system allowed drivers to access navigation, manage calls, and adjust temperature and radio settings easier than ever before.

While the E90 was on sale, it set a new standard for what luxury and refinement could be in a car. With a driver-centered interior, modern lines, and impressive engine choices, the E90 was everything a sedan should be. In a sea of trucks and SUVs, the E90 breezed past with excellent fuel economy, steering, and an understated charm that many larger vehicles lacked. Drivers can expect to scoop up a bargain when looking at used E90 models, with many available for under $10k.

The Sixth Generation: Turbocharging Arrives

The sixth-generation 3 Series arrived in 2012 and was immediately considered a game-changer for BMW. Designated the F30, the new generation marked a significant change, using a range of smaller turbocharged engines instead of the traditional naturally-aspirated I-6 and V8 power plants. However, some critics noted it didn’t have the handling or driver-centered detailing that the previous E90 did. The F30 could be had as a sedan or a wagon, but the sleek coupe and convertible body styles were spun off into the new 4 Series for this generation.

While it may not be as sporty, the sixth-generation 3 Series is significantly roomier than the E90, and its turbocharged engines are noticeably more efficient. Because of its excellent engineering and updated engine choices, the F30 is known to retain its value, making it a great option if you want to trade in and trade up later on. The base 330i is one of the most highly-ranked used BMW models when it comes to reliability and overall customer satisfaction, while the 340i offers some impressive power.

A close up of the grille on a grey 2023 BMW 3 Series is shown.

The Seventh Generation: The Greatest Yet

The seventh generation of the 3 Series kicked off in 2019 in a big way. The G20 added upgraded technology, a new design, and a fresh appeal to the iconic model, making it one of the best generations yet. But don’t worry! If you’re in love with the 3 Series, BMW made sure to keep some of the classics that drivers love, like the twin headlamps and kidney grille, so there is no doubt the latest G20 is a BMW.

The G20 has shed some weight, coming in approximately 120 lbs lighter than previous generations, making it more efficient than ever. The car world has taken notice, with the G20 collecting various “Car of the Year Awards” from across the globe. The turbocharged I-6 engine that powers the M340i was named one of Ward 10 Best Engines for 2019 and 2020. Add to that an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award for 2019, and it’s clear why everyone is talking about the latest 3 Series.

On top of its turbocharged four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines, the G20 includes a plug-in hybrid for drivers looking to take their dollar further. However, even if you don’t choose the hybrid, the vehicle’s overall fuel economy and efficiency have increased in recent years thanks to its lighter frame, aluminum components, and aerodynamic body.

Drivers can opt for xDrive all-wheel drive for extra control in slippery conditions. One marked change in the lineup for the G20 is that no wagon or hatchback body options are available. This could be a turn-off for some buyers looking for the extra space such bodies provide, as they will have to turn to either an older 3 Series or an SUV to meet their space requirements.

If you’re looking for a used BMW that has all the latest and greatest the automaker has to offer, the G20 model years are right up your alley. It’s hard to go wrong with either the base 330i or the high-performance M340i and its noteworthy engine that delivers the trademark BMW driving experience.

The Best Pick

Picking just one year or generation as the best 3 Series is a near-impossible task, but we tried highlighting a few of the perks and features from the past three generations that stood out. From driver-centered interiors to improved reliability and engines, the 3 Series continues to excite drivers looking for a luxury sports sedan that will take their daily drive to the next level.

Go for the fifth generation for a budget-friendly car, or level up for new tech and higher efficiency. It all depends on your needs and budget. One thing is for certain, though––whichever used 3 Series you choose, get ready to be impressed. If there’s one car that BMW is known for, it is the 3 Series. With this model’s 48-year history behind it, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable and eye-catching ride than the iconic 3 Series.