Used Car Spotlight: BMW 3-Series


Although the Ford Model-T might be the car that brought “motoring to the masses” in this country, it was not until BMW unveiled its iconic BMW 3-series that we as a nation finally understood the concept of “automotive nirvana”. The BMW 3-series redefined what drivers expected from their vehicles – it taught people that a practical sedan could be made up of a multitude of precisely engineered parts to create a sedan that sounded, handled, drove and felt like no other.

History – The first truly great BMW 3-series was the “boxy” E30 variant that was produced until 1991. During its heyday in the 1980’s, this stellar driver’s car got a bit of a bad reputation for being favored by “yuppies” who only drove them because they were “status symbols”. The fact that the character of “Kelly” in the TV series Beverly Hills 90210 drove a red convertible E30 only solidified the notion that the BMW 3-series were built for rich posers.

Thank heavens for the appearance of the M3 in 1989. The first M3 was based on the two door 325i model which came with a straight six cylinder engine rated at 168 horsepower. (Note: an engine that is referred to as a “straight six” is one where the six cylinders are all in a row. Some also call these “inline” six cylinder engines. This layout improves smoothness and helps lower the center of gravity for the engine when compared to “V6” engines where the cylinders are set up in a V-formation. BMW continues to use “straight” cylinder setups for its engines to this day.)

The E30 M3, in addition to boasting a host of suspension modifications, shoehorned a race tuned straight 4 cylinder engine with 193 horsepower into the engine bay. It was built just as a “homologation special” – these are built solely for the purpose of fulfilling rallying regulations that demand all race cars be based on “mass produced models”. During the short life of that first generation M3 only a few thousand were built but even today used ones command top dollar.

Just as with any “halo” performance model, the goodwill from the M3 erased all memories of “yuppie stigma” from the minds of the public. This was all just in time for BMW to introduce a more grown up 3-series, also known as the E36. Sold until early 2000, this BMW 3-series was the most luxurious, powerful and sporty BMW 3-series that BMW had ever produced. They sold like the proverbial hot cakes year in and year out.

The E36 expanded on the traditional coupe, sedan and convertible body styles with the introduction of a wagon version. Never a huge seller in the United States, the BMW 3-series wagon is much more popular in Europe. Handling on this model was a revelation when compared with its competition at the time thanks to a revolutionary “Z-Axle Multi-link” design. The M3 returned yet again, this time with a straight six engine (rated at 240 horsepower and 225 pound feet of torque for U.S. variants) that emitted noises unrivalled by any car of the era not made in Italy. To quantify it in real terms, the M3’s engine didn’t make noises but rather sang in an operatic falsetto. M3 engines even today continue this tradition of making beautiful metallic melodies out of the racket caused by internal combustion.

Do keep in mind that if you are looking into an M3 from the E36 years that there was a problem with the VANOS variable valve timing system in the engine that caused many an M3 to meet a premature end. Some used M3s will have updated motors replaced under warranty but others (especially ones with low miles) still might be the equivalent of a ticking time bomb. You do not want to have to shell out for a new M3 engine (it takes so many hours of labor some independent BMW mechanics won’t even do it) so make sure to confirm that you aren’t buying a vehicle with a bad VANOS unit.

In 1998 BMW released the E46 version of the BMW 3-series and turned the luxury sedan market on its ear. This was the most fully realized 3 yet and it solidified BMW’s rising status as a mainstream automaker. No longer on the sideline, this BMW 3-series won over thousands of new owners that are still loyal to the brand today.

The E46 also started one new BMW trend that unfortunately continues to this day, the use of systemically incorrect numbers as names for the various BMW 3-series models. For example, a 325i used to always be a BMW 3-series with a 2.5 liter engine. But as the E46 BMW 3-series had more engine options than ever the Bavarians saw fit to call an entry level model with a 2.5 liter straight six the 323i. Despite the fact that this system gets more nonsensical with each passing year, you can still pretty much assume any BMW 3-series with a lower number after the 3 is the entry level model.

The E46 M3 continued the BMW 3-series tradition of continual improvement when the home office in Munich finally granted United States M-Power enthusiasts their greatest wish. After years of pleading, the 3.2 liter 343 horsepower engine previously only available in Europe was finally installed into our edition of the M3.

The E46 sold strongly until 2005 (561,249 E46 models sold worldwide) when the current E90 BMW 3-series was released. Many feared the styling of the E90 would be an utter disaster in light of the hideous looking 7-series that was released to worldwide horror in 2002. Contrary to popular myth, the 2002 7-series was, in fact, designed by current BMW design chief Adrian van Hooydonk. It was not penned by Chris Bangle, the poor schlub who took the fall for the weird trunk design of the 7-series that was later called the “Bangle Butt”. I guess that is easier to remember than the “”VanHooydonk Butt.””

Thankfully for BMW 3-series lovers everywhere, the very “classical” (or conservative, depending on your view) styling of the E90 BMW 3-series was a near-perfect evolution of BMW’s very Germanic visual style. It has sold well each year it has been on the market and is available in coupe, hardtop convertible, sedan and wagon versions. The M3 only comes in coupe, sedan and hardtop convertible form and boasts a high revving 4.0 liter V8 engine rated at 414 horsepower.

What to Look For – Alright, the latest BMW 3-series may be known by BMW-geeks as the E90 but from here on out let’s just call it “the” 3-series. Most people shopping for a used 3 will be no doubt looking for a coupe or sedan in either 328, 330 or 335 form based on the year of the vehicle and the engine it has. The majority of my focus regarding pricing, reliability and what to look for will be directed at these models. The M3 and the hardtop convertible were released only recently so there are not many of them on the used market. The 3 series wagon is only available as a 328 and while it is a worthy car BMW imports very few to this country.

While there was a slight visual refresh for the coupe and sedan last year, the biggest changes were reserved for the idrive system that is standard on all BMW 3-series vehicles specified with the Navigation option. Some BMW owners claim idrive is a brilliant control interface for various vehicular controls while others think it is utterly unintuitive and as inherently evil as the “HAL” computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

If you decide you don’t like having to twirl a knob to perform basic functions that were previously taken care of by simple buttons just buy your used BMW 3-series without the Navigation option. You are then left with a very simple and straightforward dash that is arguably more aesthetically pleasing and undeniably more user friendly. If you need a navigation system, buy a Garmin or get one of the portable units sold by the parts department of your local BMW dealer. Or here’s a thought – buy some maps! Remember those?

For the 2006 model year only the sedan version of the new 3 was available. The coupe did not arrive until the 2007 model year. The 2006 BMW 3-series sedan boasted an entirely new platform, updated engines and transmissions along with the new styling. Oddly enough, the engines offered for this first model year are different than the ones offered in 2007 and beyond. An engine that is only on sale for one year sounds like poor product planning. Perhaps GM and BMW swapped executives for a week and this was the result.

For 2006 the entry level BMW 3-series sedan was designated a 325i and came with a 3.0 liter straight 6 engine good for 215 horsepower and a rather tepid 185 pound feet of torque. Think twice before buying a 325i with an automatic as the manual transmission version is far better at accessing what little power this car has.

The 330i engine was also a 3.0 liter straight six engine but that is about where the similarities ended. Made out of a highly advanced aluminum and magnesium composite (for lightness and durability), this brand new engine was also the first BMW 3-series motor to get Valvetronic technology.

Valvetronic is an advanced variable valve timing system that uses valve lift to infinitely adjust engine throttle speeds as to optimize performance and efficiency. It also had a fully electric water pump that increased engine efficiency by 15%. Available with either a six speed manual or a 6 speed automatic, the engine in the 330i was rated at 255 horsepower and 225 pound feet of torque. (Fuel economy ratings for the 2006 325i were 19 city/25 highway while the more powerful 330i was rated at 20 city/30 highway.)

Although all BMW 3-series models boast fine automatic transmissions, if you are a true enthusiast you will kick yourself for never experiencing the pleasure of a slick shifting BMW manual. This fact cannot be emphasized enough – the 3-series, no matter which model you buy, is at its best with a manual transmission.

Paul Brown, the owner of an E90 328xi sedan with a manual transmission, always thought that buying a BMW 3-series with an automatic was a rather ridiculous idea. Yet he still found himself having trouble when the time came to buy the car he wanted. “When I told the salesman at the dealership that I wanted a manual he actually asked me if I meant the kind with the clutch on the floor. BMW makes some of the best transmissions and clutches in the business. Sitting there with those paddle shifters (optional with automatic models) while your left leg sits there like a useless stump just feels wrong”.

As Mr. Brown lives in rainy Seattle he wisely ticked the “all-wheel drive” option for his 3-series. These variants are always designated with an “x” right after the numbers and before the “i”. For example – 330xi. If you live in a dry state like California or Arizona there is no need to add the weight or complexity of all wheel drive to your 3-series. But it can make a lot of sense if you live somewhere like Washington State or Minnesota where actual weather notions such as “rain” and “snow” occur.

In addition to seeing the introduction of the coupe model, the 2007 model year also boasted serious engine upgrades for the 3-series. The entry level model was now called the 328i and it featured an updated 3.0 liter engine with 230 horsepower with 200 pound feet of torque. This entry level engine really has enough power to keep most any driver grinning. The 328i models are also very fuel efficient for the luxury class with ratings of 21 miles per gallon city and 30 miles per gallon highway.

This was also the year that BMW unleashed the nigh-on-unholy beast known as the 335i. The 335i shares the same engine with the 328i but adds twin turbocharging for a whopping 300 horsepower and 300 pound feet of torque. The 335i is a truly addictive machine for truly power mad drivers. It even gets 19 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway which, considering the performance on hand is rather shocking.

After the 2007 model year no changes were made to the engines or naming system for the 3-series. The only addition was made during the current 2009 model year when BMW introduced its diesel-engine 335d sedan (available with automatic only). This new diesel engine is also a 3.0 liter straight six with a respectable 265 horsepower and an utterly mind blowing 425 pound feet of torque. This engine also is EPA rated at 23 mpg city and 35 mpg on the highway. Yes, you read correctly. 425 pound feet of torque coupled with a highway fuel economy reading that bests the Honda Civic.

Costs – One of the biggest selling points of a new BMW is their 4 year/50,000 mile maintenance contract that covers all service costs including wiper blade and brake replacements. It is a class leading program and if you buy a used BMW under the mileage or time limits you will continue to reap the benefits of the free service.

If you buy from a BMW dealer they will also happily extend your “free” service benefits by charging you money for the privilege. Pre-paying for maintenance like this on a used car is rarely cost effective. Car companies write huge profit margins into these contracts.

If you are still under the original 4 year/50,000 mile warranty when you buy your BMW BMW 3-series a dealer can extend that for you as well. While dealers make money on these extended warranties, it never hurts to be covered in case of a catastrophic mechanical breakdown. Especially if your economic situation occasionally “fluctuates”. You wouldn’t want a bill for $5000 in repairs during an especially slow sales month, for example. But a $200 service during that same month probably won’t kill you.

So if you don’t like to gamble extended warranties can be helpful but only when purchased from THE ORIGINAL MANUFACTURER. In other words, only buy an extended warranty for your BMW 3-series from BMW. Aftermarket companies will always try to nickel and dime you when you have a breakdown. BMW has a reputation as a class leading automaker to uphold – a second rate aftermarket warranty company based in Hoboken, New Jersey does not.

Depending on the length of the warranty extension, prices can range from $2,500 to $6,000. This, of course, doesn’t all need to be paid at one time because if you buy your used BMW from a dealer it can be written in as part of your finance contract. So don’t panic. It may sound like a lot of money but when compared to similar extended warranty programs at Mercedes they really are quite reasonable.

BMW sedans and coupes come in many different exterior and interior colors. Most have leather seats but do be aware that some base models are sold with “leatherette” or vinyl seats. Most people probably would never be able to tell the difference but be sure to find out from your seller. Again, only if such things matter to you.

The BMW 3-series looks great in all exterior colors but as with any executive car the hottest sellers are always silver or black. White and blue can take longer to sell so you might be able to secure a better deal on one of those. BMW 3-series interiors can really take abuse but owners report on various automotive message boards that the black interiors hold up better than the light beige or gray ones. The far more rare saddle brown leather option also seems to hold up well to the rigors of daily commuting.

Prices vary based on whether you are looking for a 325, 328 or 335 model and how richly that vehicle is specified option-wise. Navigation is usually the option that causes the largest used price changes but many luxury buyers also demand the Xenon headlamps, Sport and Premium Packages as well as iPod Connectivity. While uprated wheels and tires can add extra appeal to a used 3-series, options such as active cruise control and the comfort access system (which gives you a “start” button) have little impact on prices.

Come purchase time you essentially have three options as to how to pursue the used BMW 3-series of your dreams. You can buy from a private party, buy used from a dealer or buy “certified pre-owned” from a BMW dealer. And what you decide here will have a huge impact on how much money you wind up spending.

As always, private parties are usually the best way to get a good deal but going that route can be a lot more work than just walking into a BMW dealer. You really have to trust that a private seller is being 100% honest with you regarding accident history, mechanical history and the like.

A BMW dealer, on the other hand, will always show you a CARFAX vehicle history report for the car you are looking at and if you buy “certified pre-owned” model you also know that a factory trained technician went over the car with a fine tooth comb.

In addition to this mechanical inspection, all “certified pre-owned” BMWs are guaranteed to “be of a certain standard” (meaning they are clean, never smoked in and are generally lightly used lease returns) and come with a 6 year/100,000 mile extended warranty with roadside assistance. All of this does, of course, make these “extra special” BMW BMW 3-series models more expensive.

This is a listing of some BMW 3-series models found for sale at various dealerships and with certain private parties. Do keep in mind that this is before any haggling so none of these price examples are set in stone. It is just to give you an idea of the price you might pay for certain models, years and specifications. As the BMW 3-series is such a desirable car it also has one of the strongest resale values in the industry.

2006 330i Sedan-(dealership)-(39,545 miles)-certified pre-owned, manual, navigator–$30,995

2006 325i Sedan-(dealership)-(19,945 miles)-certified, automatic, premium pkg–$26,991

2007 328i Coupe-(dealership)-(25,609)-certified, automatic, premium pkg–$29,991

2008 328i Coupe-(dealership)-(10,945)-certified, auto, nav, prem, sprt, ipod–$37,991

2007 328i Sedan-(dealership)-(18,072)-automatic–$25,991

2007 335i Coupe-(dealership)-(20,175)-automatic, premium, sport, nav–$37,991

2009 328i Sedan-(dealership)-(9,432)-automatic, premium–$30,991

2008 335i Sedan-(private)-(15,134)-auto, prem., sport, nav–$40,500

2008 335i Sedan-(private)-(25,000)-auto, premium, dented fender–$25,000

2006 330i Sedan-(private)-(39,445)-auto, premium, nav–$24,900



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