Four decades since its introduction, the BMW 3 Series remains the undisputed king of compact sport sedans. Currently in its sixth generation, its dynasty breaks down easily into three distinct epochs. The first and second generations—E21 and E30, respectively—represent the formative era, defined by simplicity and well-rounded performance, if not outright power. The more recent fifth and sixth generations—E90 and F30—are the embodiment of success and sophistication, proof that sustaining dominance sometimes requires adapting to a changing world.
In between lie the two generations of 3 Series that for many driving enthusiasts epitomize the essence of the BMW brand, arguably at its peak. The third-gen E36 and its successor, the E46, craftily balance power against handling, modesty against refinement. In contrast to their newer siblings, their overall dynamics are still exceptionally analog, their proportions neatly compact. Visually, both the E36 and the E46 still look remarkably contemporary thanks to sleek silhouettes and unfussy surfaces.
Their popularity today is therefore understandable, reinforced by the fact that non-M versions of both coupes and sedans now fall into the realm of affordability by almost any metric. The market is downright flush with decent examples, and prices sit squarely in most enthusiasts’ sweet spot, ranging from around $3,000 to just under $10,000.
What makes a great buy when it comes to either of these 3s? Whether you need a daily commuter or a blank canvas for a performance project, we recommend following our own version of the popular KISS rule: Keep It Simple (but Sporty). In the interest of simplicity, dodge the M3s and the convertibles. Regarding sportiness, we recommend sticking with a six-cylinder engine, a manual transmission and Sport Package. From there, it’s all about condition (i.e. maintenance history) and mileage. Plenty of cars that fit the bill—and every budget—are available.
1992-1998 E36 325i/328i
coupe and sedan
Cheap, but not always cheerful