Used Sport Sedan Buying Guide: BMW 3-Series (2005-2011)
By James Hamel
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 3-series that we as a nation finally understood the concept of “automotive nirvana.” The 3-series redefined what drivers expected from their vehicles—it taught people that a practical sedan could be made up of a multitude of exactingly engineered parts to create a sedan that sounded, handled, drove and felt like no other.
History—The first truly great 3-series was the “boxy” E30 variant that was built 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” that only drove them because they were “status symbols.” The fact that the character of “Kelly” on TV’s “Beverly Hills 90210” drove a red convertible E30 only solidified the notion that the 3-series was a car purpose built for rich posers.
Thank heaven then 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 3-series was the most luxurious, powerful and sporty 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 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 noise as much as sing 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 still others (especially ones with low miles) 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 be sure to confirm that you aren’t buying a vehicle with a bad VANOS unit.
In 1998 BMW released the E46 version of the 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 a sideline player, this 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 3-series models. For example, a 325i used to always be a 3-series with a 2.5 liter engine. But as the E46 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 3-series with a lower number after the 3 is the poorer relation to something with a higher number. How snooty.
The E46 M3 continued the 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 E90 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 VanHooydank. 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.” We guess that is easier to remember than the “VanHooydank Butt.”
Thankfully for 3-series lovers everywhere, the very “classical” (or conservative, depending on your view) styling of the E90 3-series was a near-perfect evolution of BMW’s very Germanic visual style. It sold well each year it was 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. It was only recently replaced in 2012 by another evolutionary redesign of this model, which may stand as the true pinnacle of the 3-Series as a driver’s car. So now more than ever, driving enthusiasts should be seriously considering these used luxury sport sedan bargains.
What to Look For—Alright, the latest 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 our focus regarding specifications, reliability and what to look for will be directed at these models. The M3 and the hardtop convertible were sold in rather limited numbers so there are not as many on the used market. And many that are have been badly aged by their first owner’s hooliganism. The 3 series wagon is only available as a 328 and while it is a worthy car BMW imported very few to this country.
While there was a slight visual refresh for the coupe and sedan once in its life cycle, the biggest changes were reserved for the idrive system that was standard on all 3-series vehicles specified with the Navigation option. Some BMW owners claim idrive is a brilliant control interface for various vehicular controls while others claim 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 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 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 BMW went back in time to 1980’s General Motors and swapped executives for one week and this was the result.
For 2006 the entry level 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 also was the first 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 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, owner of an E90 328xi sedan with a manual transmission, always thought that buying a 3-series with an automatic was a rather ridiculous idea. Yet he still found himself having trouble when it came time 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 events like “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 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 that right. 425 pound feet of torque coupled with a highway fuel economy reading on par with the likes of the Honda Civic from that time.
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. Some later year used 3-Series of this vintage may still have the coverage.
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 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 at work, for example. But a $200 service during that same month probably won’t to 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 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 all 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 distance but be sure to find out from your seller. Again, only if such things matter to you.
The 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 3-series of your dreams. You can buy from a private party, buy used from any 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 3-series models more expensive.
Mechanical Problems and Recalls—This generation of 3-series is highly rated in JD Power quality surveys with an owners score of 8.0 out of 10. That is well above average especially considering that luxury car owners are a picky bunch. BMW technical service bulletins for this generation 3-series deal pretty much exclusively with 2006 model year vehicles—the first year on the new platform. It is very common for first year cars to have a multitude of flaws. There have been no recalls.
One issue that popped up later with some of the new turbocharged 335i engines in the very beginning had to do with the twin-scroll turbocharger unit which BMW quickly changed to single scroll thanks to some overheating issues. Some engines had to be replaced under warranty but not enough for it to be a universal problem.
2006—(All Models)—(AC not blowing cold)—this problem is due to an evaporator unit refrigerant leak. Check that your vehicle has updated evaporator.
(Check Engine light illuminated)—Failure of the torque converter seal on automatic transmission models allows torque converter to slip thereby illuminating check engine light.
(Power Mirror/Window Failure)—On models with Xenon lights the mirror and window controls may fail if control unit behind Xenon lamps becomes wet.
(Power Steering Failure)—Power steering pump may fail due to deterioration of mechanical assembly inside the pump. Updated pump design is available.
(Electric Water Pump Failure)—Water pump known to fail on 2006 and 2007 models resulting in rapid overheating of engine if specific air bleeding process is not done. BMWs have long had one undeniable weak spot and that is their cooling systems. While the E90 does not suffer from radiator leaks as commonly as its predecessors (usually by 60k miles or so), be sure to keep an eye on this new electric water pump. Post 07 models seem to not be having any problems with an updated design but as with any car it never hurts to keep any eye on your engine temperature gauge.
Servicing Costs—The beauty of the 3-series is that you don’t have to pay a penny to service it for the first 4 years and 50,000 miles. You only have to replace tires and if you rotate them regularly you shouldn’t plow through new ones too quickly.
Once you pass either 4 years or 50,000 miles you will start having to pay for regular services. The BMW 3-series has an onboard computer that notifies you when your next service is due based on fluid conditions, driving style and the driving conditions that it thinks the vehicle is experiencing. Prices for these services vary depending on the dealership or if you decide to go to an independent BMW specialist.
There are three kinds of services demanded at various intervals. There is “Inspection One,” “Inspection Two,” and “Every Other Inspection Two” which just adds an air filter replacement every other time you have the “Inspection Two” service. Sound confusing? Well, that’s why your 3 series thinks for you.
Here is a general idea of what these services entail. Different repair centers may make different recommendations and include services like coolant flushes, spark plug changes at high mileages and more. How much you want to have done is up to you but BMW is very adamant about the annual flush of the brake fluid with your oil change service.
Inspection One—Oil change, oil filter change, brake fluid flush, cabin air filter replacement, Oxygen sensor replacement, rotate tires. General inspection of all systems. Check operation of rollover protection system (convertible), fuel filter replacement (diesel)
Inspection Two—Oil and filter change, brake fluid flush, cabin air filter replace, rotate tires, inspect transmission, general vehicle check.
Every Other Inspection Two—this service is exactly like an inspection two but adds an engine air filter replacement.
Prices vary but Edmunds.com estimates Inspection One services usually cost somewhere near $600 while Inspection Twos can range from under $400 to $500. All of the latest 3-series engines run on synthetic oil so they can go for many miles between services—usually anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 miles.
If you go to an independent BMW service facility you can probably lower your service costs substantially to around $200 for the basic oil/brake fluid/tire rotation/inspection service. Do double check that your independent service mechanic uses the same oil as your dealership, however. Do not go to Jiffy Lube and allow them to change you over to regular/non-synthetic oil as a way to save money. Your engine will throw what I will now refer to as an “automotive hissy fit”—this sort of treatment usually ends with the owner of the 3-series owing $5,000 for engine repairs. Never trust a Jiffy Lube oil change technician. He does not know what your E90 3-series needs.
Rivals—To many drivers the BMW experience knows of no natural rival. These people are sometimes also referred to as snobs as the Infiniti G37, Audi A4, Volvo S60, Acura TL and Lexus IS all deserve to be cross shopped against the 3-series. If you must have the three pointed star, go ahead and hit your local Costco to buy a new C-Class. We hear they stack them ten deep over there.
In Closing—To our way of thinking, the latest redesign of the newest 3-Series was not a sufficient quantum leap forward for it to justify its hugely elevated prices compared to a nice, used version of the E90. It is currently our favorite 3-Series generation and we think anyone who loves to drive would love to own one.