The second-generation of 3 Series Coupe was launched in April 1999, initially as the 323Ci and 328Ci but followed soon afterwards by the 320Ci and 318Ci. The Touring model also appeared in 1999.
The E46 generation marked the first time that diesel-engined 3 Series cars were brought by UK customers in large numbers. In the previously generation E36, 325td and 325tds models were offered. The E46 320d changed that, delivering 136bhp and a top speed of 128mph. However, with the obvious benefits of diesel engines, the car still delivered 49.6mpg on the combined cycle. Although UK customers were, at the time, relatively slow to appreciate the benefits of diesel technology, word soon spread and in 2003, the 320d overtook the 318i as the UK’s single largest selling model in the BMW range. The larger diesel-engined 330d was launched in 2000 in Touring guise, delivering 184bhp but more importantly 390Nm of torque. Achieving a top speed of 140mph yet still delivering 40.3mpg, this represented the first opportunity UK drivers had of buying a diesel-engined sports car - something that would have been considered unthinkable only a few years prior. As a further demonstration of diesel engines pushing back the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable, the 2.0-litre and 3.0-litre diesel engines subsequently made their way into Coupe and Convertible variants.
The final piece of the 3 Series jigsaw was the E46 3 Series Compact. Launched in 2001, the smaller dimensions of the car (same wheelbase as other E46 models but 21cms shorter) and the large-opening hatchback boot lid appealed to those who wanted a ‘compact’ car but needed to retain 3 Series levels of practicality. But the 3 Series Compact also marked a landmark for the BMW Group in the UK. The 1.6-litre and 1.8-litre four-cylinder engines in the Compact featured VALVETRONIC variable valve lift technology for the first time, and were built at BMW’s manufacturing plant at Hams Hall, Warwickshire.
From the start of production in 1998 until February 2005, a total of 3,141,330 E46 3 Series models had been built.
E90 - 30 years after its introduction, the fifth generation of 3 Series
The success of all generations of 3 Series models can be measured by the 9.59 million cars produced since 1975 and by the focus placed by other car makers upon this sector of the market which was, effectively, created by BMW. Hardly a month goes by in which a manufacturer launching a new model does not refer to BMW and the 3 Series as its goal. Competitors such as Mercedes Benz joined this category in the early 1980’s with the 190 and subsequently the C Class, Audi with the 80 and A4 not to mention almost every other European and Japanese car company. This is on the one hand a tremendous compliment and, on the other, a spur to keep developing and evolving. With the arrival of the new 3 Series Saloon, BMW has attempted to ‘raise the bar’ again, putting the new BMW 3 Series further out of reach of the competition.Published 13 March 2005