E Numbers for dummies: How to decipher your 3-Series BMW’s

We’ve all been there. You see a nice 3 Series, whether it’s an M3, a badhed up shit-box or just a bog-standard 3-series estate. However, just exactly whihc 3-series is it? The E30? E36? E46? E32? No, wait, that was an M5…..

The generation of 3 Series is pretty important, unless of course you don’t care about cars at all. I trust that you, reading this article, do care about cars.

So, here’s a practical guide to every 3 Series in the world and how you can tell them apart.

E21 (1975-83)

BMW E21 3 Series

Ah yes, the one that nobody remembers.

Designed to replace the rather old 02 Series, the E21 was at first available with only 4-cylinder carburetted engines, which soon gave way to fuel injection and by 1977 6 cylinders were available.

There was never an M version of the E21, which is perhaps why a lot of car enthusiasts, myself included, didn’t even know it existed. However, the top-level 320/6 had a massive 119 horsepower, which was probably enough for it to get out of its own way.

E30 (1982-94)

BMW E30 3 Series

The E30 is something of a legend in the car world, probably since we got the first M3 from this generation, and also because it was now available with a diesel engine. There’s nothing petrolheads love more than a diesel, right?

The M3 got quite a lot of power – up to 235 horsepower for the limited-run Sport Evolution. It also got box flares on the wheel arches, meaning that it is really quite simple to tell apart an M3 from a not-M3.

The E30 looks pretty similar to the preceding E21, but there are a few differences. The E21 has one headlamp on each side; the E30 has two. The E21 also has a piece of black trim between the rear lights. And finally, the E30’s indicators are on the bumper, unlike in the E21. Oh, and if it’s got four doors, it’s an E30. The E21 only ever had two.

See? We can do consumer advice!

E36 (1990-2000)

BMW E36 3 Series

The E36 was next. Although well-loved by enthusiasts, it has always been felt that it was a little inferior compared to its successor, the E46.

The E36 is, thankfully, easily distinguishable from the E30. Like, it’s pretty difficult to confuse them, let’s face it.

There was another style of E36 that nobody really talks about much, probably because it’s completely awful: the E36 Compact.
I think I’ve said enough about it already.

E46 (1998-2006)

BMW E46 3 Series

The E46 is one of the most loved 3 Series’, with a much more aggressive body and, with the M3, more than 300 horsepower. Although it was a little heavier than the E36, it was much stiffer, and got a 50/50 weight distribution.

The main difference between the E46 and E36 is the headlights – the E46 gets the ‘angle eyes’ that contribute to its great looks. At the rear, the lights are once again different – the E36 has got a couple of rounded rectangles on the back, the E46 has got some random shape instead.

On the compact, the headlights are, again, the main difference. The E36 has, again, a couple of rounded rectangles, whilst the E46 goes much more exotic. That’s as much as I can say about them before I throw up.

E90 (2004-12)

BMW E90 3 Series

If you can confuse this with an E46 you’re doing really, really badly.

The E90 was launched to much critical acclaim in 2004, and among the updates and improvements, there was a big one: the M3 would no longer have a straight-six. Shock horror, I know. Instead, it got a 400+ horsepower V8, so things could have been worse.

Also, if you see an M badge on one of these, it’s probably fake. Just saying. But at least there was no compact version. Can you imagine? Actually that’s a challenge you don’t want to take on.

F30 (2011-present)

BMW F30 3 Series

Yes, F30. No, I’ve no idea why they started using the letter F either.

Although it looks very similar to the E90, I haven’t accidentally used a picture of the same car twice. No. There are actually some differences. On the F30, the headlights stretch right across to touch the kidney grille, whereas on the E90 they do not. At the back, the F30’s tail lights have a nice and complicated shape, whilst on the E90 they’re more like a blob. And that’s it, really.

Oh, and then there’s the 4 Series, which is the coupé and convertible version of the F30, just to make things more confusing.

So, have I helped you with identifying 3 Series? Hopefully the answer is yes, if it isn’t then this hasn’t gone very well.

If you are a BMW owner, in which case I would have thought that you would have had no bother with identifying 3 Series’, Stealth Auto has a whole pile of goodies for your car!


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