The first BMW 3 Series is the prettiest of all
And none of the sixth later generations has managed to beat those looks.
To say that BMW's 3 Series is a bestseller is kind of an understatement. In fact, the compact executive car accounts for over 30% of BMW's total sales. In order to be so successful and stay ahead of the C-Class and A4, you need your car to have an edge on comfort, reliability, driving dynamics, interior space, technology, but not only. It also needs to be pretty. And in this field, the first generation 3 Series is at its best.
Let's face it, not all 3 Series were lookers. In its 45 years existence there have been a few hiccups in the design department. In all honesty, I think the fifth generation E90 sedan looks a bit odd, and the current seventh generation G20's style is close to Lexus'. I don't think they are ugly, they just could have been prettier. Just like the E21 from 1975.
The story of the 3 Series started in 1975 when it replaced the 02 Series. Weirdly enough, it was first offered as a 2-door coupé and it only had 4-cylinder engines in it. The E21 was produced until 1983, and was then replaced by the popular E30. Six generations followed the E21, and from then on the popularity and size of the 3 Series did not stop growing.
When we bought the Multipla from FabCars in Geneva, we noticed a beautiful BMW 318i in their parking lot. You don't see a lot of those anymore, and it might have been one of the prettiest examples we've see in a while. Finished in this beautiful Kaschmir Metallic colour, I was amazed by the simplicity of its design and I immediately asked them if we could start it up and take some photos. In my opinion, the E21 is prettiest 3 Series ever. Designed by none other than Paul Bracq, it resembled the E12 5 Series and was true to BMW's styling direction of this era. Of course, you had your kidney grille, Hofmeister kink, pointy front, the crease line along the body, and a raised tail section that gave it a sporty look. Back then, the BMW 3 Series already had top-of-its-class driving dynamics and performance. Even though our little 318i only has 103 horsepower, it still feels quite snappy. The 318i was a mid-range model that was supposed to bridge the gap between the economical 316 and the sporty 323i. The result is a car capable of going from 0-100km/h in 11.5 seconds, and hit a top speed of 107 mph. OK, that's not that impressive. It was probably slow to allow people to get a good look of the car before it went away.
As I mentioned, what I really like about the E21 are the looks. It's small, nimble, the lines are simple, it's boxy, and classy. Unfortunately, 3 Series have become fatter and fatter, and the closest thing to the original size today is the 2 Series. I like the fact that everything serves a purpose. There is nothing that is there just to be there. For the first time in BMW's history, the dashboard was oriented towards the driver. From then on, this feature would become standard in every BMW. The replacement of the E21 was the E30, and it may be my second-favorite 3 Series. Even though the car was bigger, had more variants, it was still short and nimble in order to have great driving dynamics and performance. In fact, the E30 was the first 3 Series to go racing and the first to receive the famous "M" treatment.
But from then on, everything changed. The design language became more complicated and cars were getting designed by computers. Gone were the iconic angular lines, now it was all about aerodynamics and sleek design. Some 3 Series like the fourth-generation E46 from 1997 got my attention, but it was still far away from those 70's looks. Unfortunately, classic designs like the E21's will never come back, and it's a shame to think that future 3 Series will probably never look this good. But maybe I'm all wrong. Maybe it's just the nostalgia or the stupidity inside of me speaking. I'd like to know which BMW 3 Series you think is the prettiest.
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I would like to express my deepest gratitude to FabCars, situated in Bernex, Switzerland, for giving me the opportunity to review and shoot this car.