Irvin Gordon’s Volvo P1800S is set to cement its place in the record books when it passes the three million mile mark this autumn.
Expert guide to buying a BMW 3 Series
The BMW 3 Series in a nutshell
Not the most exclusive model, but certainly the no-brainer buy for those who want quality, performance and image. At least you have a large choice and can pick the very best. Arguably the best engines you can buy on the used market.
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First drive: BMW 3 Series F30
What are the BMW 3 Series stats?
Top speed 147mph/0-60mph 7.3 seconds (328i 1996)
Top speed 155mph/0-60mph 6.6 seconds (330i 2003)
Top speed 155mph/0-60mph 5.6 seconds (335i 2007)
Top speed 109mph/0-60mph 13.7 seconds (318tds Compact - 1994)
Top speed 124mph/0-60mph 12.1 seconds (316I - 2003)
Top speed 130mph/0-60mph 10.0 seconds (320iES - 2007)
Best 47.9 mpg (318tds - 1996) Worst 29.1mpg (320i - 1996)
Best 51.4 mpg (320d - 2001) Worst 31.0mpg (330i 2003)
Best 60.1 mpg (318d 2007) Worst 31.0mpg (335i 2007)
151g/km Band G (318d - 2003)
123/km Band D (318d - 2007)
218g/km Band K (330i - 2003)
218g/km Band K (335i- 2007)
Lowest, group 12 (316i 1997)
Highest group 16 (328i 1997)
Lowest, group 12 (316i/318i 2003)
Highest group 17 (330i 2003)
Lowest, group 12 (1.8i/318d 2007)
Highest group 18 (335d/335i 2007)
NCAP safety rating:
1 Stars (1997)
4 Stars (2002)
5 Stars (2009)
First drive: BMW M3 GTS
How much for a BMW 3 Series?
£1000 buys a 2000 1.6GL with 125,000 miles
£3000 buys a 2003 320iSE 4 Door with 115,000 miles
£5000 buys a 2003 330Ci Sport 112,000 miles
£7000 buys a 2003 325Ci Convertible with 79,000 miles
£9000 buys a 2007 320i 2.0 M Sport Touring with 99,000 miles
£12,000 buys a 2007 320d Saloon with 62,000 miles
Why buy a BMW 3 Series?
Firstly there is a great choice of engines, which has been the heart of every decent BMW for the last 37 years. For many the six-cylinder engines are what BMWs are all about with their characterful growl, smooth performance and instant responses. The punchy diesels have redefined the 3 Series and they offer the perfect combination of frugality and performance.
As well as the famed engines there's the sporty handling. That means a firm ride around town but it is smooth enough on the motorway and revisions from 2001 made the 3 Series even sharper. The Sport models are set up for even more focused handling.
The 3 Series driver can concentrate on driving because the interior is so well thought out. The instrument panel is simple and ergonomically spot on. There is also a massive choice of bodystyles, from coupe, to cabriolet to Touring estates and saloons, there is a definitely a model for everyone. The 3 Series is the car that created the compact executive market and for many, it still leads it.
What's the best spec 3 Series?
BMW was famed for making everything an extra, the radio, even the speakers and the aerial were cost options but customers were prepared to pay for the privilege. However, the manufacturer did start to include equipment packages in the 1980s and by the E36 model in the middle 1990s it had an established range of trim levels. SE added auto dim rear mirror, fog lamps and park distance control. Lux added alloys, colour-keyed bumpers and mirrors, trip computers and rear head restraints. The Sport has different alloys, sports seats and stiffened suspension.
By the late 90s stability control, height adjustable seats and a radio cassette were part of the package. SE added alloys, heated mirrors, air con or sunroof, front fog lamps, heated mirrors and washer jets. By the time the 5th generation 3 Series arrived in 2005, matters had improved massively. Now air conditioning, CD and four electric windows were all standard. ES added alloy wheels, colour-coded bodywork and front fog lights. SE models had larger alloys, multi-function steering wheel and reversing sensors. It is important to remember, however, that many 3 Series were fitted with all sorts of extras and that means there is no such thing as a standard car.
First drive: BMW 3 Series Coupe
BMW 3 Series updates
1990 to 1998 E36 BMW 3 Series - available as a Touring estate, convertible, and four-door, while the two-door coupe. 1992 all models got ABS and an immobiliser. Restyled in 1996 with new headlamps and grille.
1998 to 2005 E46 BMW 3 Series - introduced a wide range of petrol (318i, 323i and 328ii) and diesel engines including a 320d from 1999. 330d model available from 2000. 316i reintroduced from 2002 with more efficient 1.8 engine. Uprated 318i and 320d engines in 2001 plus across the range new headlamps, grille and indicators. Uprated steering and suspension on the saloons and coupes.
2005 to 2012 E90 BMW 3 Series - launched with four engines with the best-selling 320d diesel also petrol 2.0 litre and 3.0 litre options.
First drive: BMW M3 Convertible
What should I look for on a used BMW 3 Series
Lower control arm bushes can fail as low as 30-40k miles. Rear springs can take a beating especially on performance models. Listen out for knocks and clonks on the test drive. Wheels go out of alignment and the clearest indication is tyre wear. On Sport models with low settings sometimes the alignment is overlooked.
Corroded brake pipes mean MOT failure. Worn and warped discs on hard-used examples.
Alloys very prone to chipping.
Camshaft position sensors can fail. Manifolds can crack. Timing chain failure on E90 diesels.
In diesel models, there can be lots of blue smoke and lacklustre performance. The start of the problem is a whining sound. Common failure on the 320d. The part alone costs £500.
Sticking door handles. Noisy windscreen wiper motors.
Air mass sensors, injectors, swirl flaps and ECUs can fail.
Air conditioning thermostat and ECU failures. Older air conditioning and climate control units can fail. At its simplest that means £300 to replace the panel. Heater fan failure, engine fans, coils, wiring looms, and rear light clusters not being properly earthed.
Electric window motors are a problem. Early cars are now looking a bit shabby. Peeling trim on steering wheel.
Properly serviced BMWs lap up big mileages especially the larger engines. Some sellers though will reduce the mileage to increase the price. A full service history is the best guard against 'clocking'. The miles can be altered by computer and only when a BMW is hooked up to a diagnostic computer will the true mileage be read. It can never be erased.
First drive: BMW 320d Touring
What's the marketplace like for BMW 3 Series?
There is no shortage of 3 Series models and like all cars, the bigger petrols are marked down whereas the diesels can still fetch strong money. Coupes are particularly good value especially with high specifications. Shop around and find the very best examples you can as there is no excuse if you compromise with an average example.
Which should I buy?
Huge equipment upgrades over the years meant that on later cars the most basic models have air conditioning and four electric windows, which for a BMW is pretty good. Obviously power steering and twin front , side and head airbags are included only on the more recent E46 models. ES and Sport models have stiffer suspension, bigger wheels and different trim (metal inserts).
The 2.0 petrol doesn't cost much more to run than a 1.8 so it's worth considering, especially as fuel consumption is 39mpg. Otherwise, the 2.0 diesel is faster and more economical, but you do pay the price. For fun then a 3.0 and 3.5 petrol Coupe has never been cheaper. Low spec should always means a lower price, so never compromise.
First drive: BMW 320d
Where do I shop for 3 Series?
First stop always ought to be your friendly local BMW dealer, especially for the E90s. There you get the safety net of buying a BMW-approved used car.
Private buys can be good news, provided you are careful. Certainly with the older E numbers, there are not many other options. The cabriolet and coupe in particular are quintessential second cars. A nice family, in a nice house (sorry to be a snob, but you can tell a lot about the seller and car by its surroundings) selling a properly ramped and stamped, low-mile model is the ideal scenario. Just watch out for outstanding finance agreements.
Don't forget the auction hall. The last batches of ex-company E36s are going under the hammer and a fully warranted example with guaranteed mileage is the smart way to buy at wholesale prices.
There is a good network of independent BMW sales specialists. The secret of a good buy is making sure that the price is lower than you would pay at a BMW dealer and that the model for sale is not something a main agent would have rejected on the grounds of an iffy history, massive mileage, or prohibitive refurbishment costs.
First drive: BMW 3 Series 2005-2009
Any alternatives to the BMW 3 Series?
This model has steadily improved over the years and the most recent models are classy and quick with a range that rivals the size and choice of BMW's. Better bought as the comfort option, but the sporty versions are better than ever.
First drive: Mercedes C-Class 2011
Here is a spacious saloon, which has a big boot, and is surprisingly driver focused. Excellent diesel engines and competitive running costs. It is well built but not as sporty as a 3 Series, still good to drive though.
First drive: Audi A4 2012
Few cars are better built than the smallest Lexus and its dealer network is more than a match for the Germans. However, it is a compromise car when it comes to ride and accommodation and there isn't the huge choice of models and engines that other marques offer.
First drive: Lexus IS 2006
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First drive: BMW 3 Series F30
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