Someone searching for a used 3 Series BMW certainly does not suffer from a lack of choices in 2020. There are tons of used 3 Series BMWs on the market right now. Ranging from the current generation G20 all the way back to the E36 is five generations of 3 Series BMWs. Each of these 3 Series BMWs still has lots of examples on the road now and plenty available on the used car market.
But what used 3 Series is going to give you the best bang for your buck? Which one is going to be the most dependable and best all around daily driver? I will identify in this Article exactly what I think is the best used 3 Series BMW and discuss the important differences between the various generations.
Why Would You Buy A Used BMW?
Because they are awesome, duh! I know, I have heard the opinions that BMWs are extremely unreliable and they should be dumped before they get out of warranty. Well in my opinion it depends on the BMW, but most of your used 3 Series options are going to be pretty good if you do a little research ahead of time. Over the years I have owned several E36s, an E46 and I have repaired dozens of E90s, F30s and a few G20s.
New BMWs are really expensive, especially when you consider how fast they lose their value after you drive them off the lot. But because BMWs depreciate so quickly you have the opportunity to get a 3 Series with relatively low mileage for a steal on the price.
So now you know why you want a used BMW, but what on earth should you be looking for?!
I figured I would start this off with the latest 3 Series and go backwards. The G20 is the latest model 3 Series and has only been available for about a year. This model is easy on the eyes, and BMW apparently was able increase the size of this generation and decrease the weight compared to the F30.
The G20 has received a lot of praise for it’s improved handling, and due to the increased usage of aluminum components the G20 has been able to achieve 50-50 weight distribution.
Unfortunately however, these cars are still so new that there are relatively few on the used car market. Those that are on the used car market are still priced well above $30,000, not much of a savings from buying brand new if you ask me.
Another thing to consider is that because these vehicles are still so new reports on maintenance issues are limited if not non-existent. My advice is to wait until 2021 or 2022 to consider picking up a used G20, and focus your hunt on previous generations instead.
The predecessor to the G20, the F30 was criticized considerably more than the G20 for its exterior looks. Personally I don’t think the F30 is as attractive as the G20 or the E90, but hey don’t let my personal aesthetic tastes dissuade you!
The F30 introduced an electronic steering interface which changed the steering feel considerably and it is the second most spacious 3 Series after the G20.
This vehicle is considered relatively reliable as far as BMWs go, I have seen very few horror stories with long term F30 ownership. I will qualify this statement however, some of the 4 cylinder turbocharged models are known to have problems with timing chain issues and turbocharger problems.
There are plenty of F30s available in excellent condition ranging between $10-$20k. Some of the most recent vehicles with low mileage approach the $30k mark.
Overall, if you are interested in an F30 do some additional research on the turbocharger models, as some years are considered far better to own than others.
E90 ( 2006-2011)
Entering the more modern generation of 3 Series in my opinion is the E90. The E90 continued with the traditional increases to the wheelbase. Although some have criticized this as basically turning the 3 Series into a 5 Series, most people don’t complain about the added leg room.
The E90 added turbochargers and additional interior technology, resulting in increased sophistication as compared to the E46. The E90 also made a turn in many people’s eyes away from a driver minded focus and toward a luxury focus.
What really sets this vehicle apart from the pack is the handling and performance. These vehicles handle phenomenally well and the performance is upgraded from the E46.
The maintenance is not terribly high as these vehicles are considered relatively reliable. The additional tech was not limited to the interior, BMW added a plethora of sensors under the hood. Unfortunately with more under the hood sensors comes more maintenance, throttle position actuators, turbocharger issues on the earlier models, crankcase issues, and vanos solenoid failures are common maintenance issues. One maintenance issue that you wont find on the E90s is suspension problems, the E90 has a solid suspension compared to the E46.
You can find tons of solid E90s for well under $10,000, and overall in my opinion these make excellent daily drivers for used car buyers.
For a more detailed review of the BMW 3 Series E90 check out this article!
The E46 dramatically ramped up the luxury technology from it’s predecessor, increased the size of the car and gave its models some more horsepower. The E46 M3 is so well praised that it has substantially increased in price over the past five years. I now commonly see E46 M3s in the price range of $10-$20k.
The E46 does have some maintenance issues, some rust problems, and some significant suspension issues, but overall these vehicles are considered relatively reliable.
There are tons of these on the used car market today, they were extremely popular cars. Good examples with well under 150k miles are commonly found for less than $6,000.
With these vehicles expect a lot more interior technology than the E36, a little more space, more horsepower, and a little higher maintenance but probably not nearly enough to steer you away.
For a more detailed review of the BMW 3 Series E46 check out this article!
My first love, I will be forever biased toward these vehicles even though I realize that they are getting old. This is the oldest generation that I will delve into in detail because although they are getting old at this point I still see people use them as daily drivers on the street. In fact my daily driver until 2018 was an E36 Convertible.
These are excellent cars, known for their “dolphin shape”, they are significantly simpler to repair and maintain compared to their newer brethren, and the handling is amazing.
You will not get nearly as much horsepower out of an E36 as you will get from an E90 or an F30, but the larger 328i and M3 models have enough to put a smile on your face. Remember that the E36 is a 3 Series from the 90s, so the luxury technology that BMW owners have come to know and love over the past two decades is non-existent in the E36.
E36s are cheap for the most part. You can spend as little as $1000 on a project car, but if you are looking for a daily driver you will need to spend a little more to find one in good shape. I routinely see high end examples in the D.C metro area with under 100,000 miles for less than $6000.
If you are considering an E36 remember the years on these vehicles. Owning one as a daily driver is still possible, HELL I did it, but the older a vehicle gets the more important it becomes that the previous owner has taken good care of the car. Be wary in inquiring how well the owner took car of his or her E36 because that will make the key difference between a fun daily driver and a nightmare!
For a more detailed review of the BMW 3 Series E36 check out this article!
In my opinion the best bang for your buck used 3 Series currently is either an E90 or a late year E46. The E90 is an awesome car overall with exceptional handling, modern bells and whistles and significantly more leg space for passengers. E90s can also be found in excellent condition for under $10,000, this becomes substantially more difficult if you are interested in an F30 and impossible if you are interested in a G20.
As for the E46, they are cheap at this point and they are still quite capable of being operated as daily drivers. The important thing is to be aware that these vehicles are nearly two decades old and you should be picky about the vehicles that you give your consideration to.
If you are thinking about a used E90 or an E46 have a mechanic perform a pre-purchase inspection, once the mileage starts to rack up on BMWs how the previous owner took care of the vehicle becomes far more important.
I hope this article has helped in your consideration of 3 Series BMWs if your interested in more tips on buying used BMWs you can check out this article!