BMW released its E21 in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, attracting customers seeking both prestige and economy, nearly doubling BMW's worldwide auto sales figures in three years, and winning numerous automotive world awards and honors. Three decades later, the 3 Series' E46 was the best-selling of its class,as commonplace in Asia and America as in Europe, while maintaining its prestigious brand and image.
The 3 series has also maintained BMW's racing heritage. The M version of the 3 series, M3, debuted in the 1980. Marketed as a daily driver and a track ready race car, M3's popularity as a sports sedan raised customer awareness of the 3 series brand.
3 Series vehicles can be largely differentiated by the underlying platform:
- BMW E21 - (1975–1983) 3 Series
- BMW E30 - (1984–1994) 3 Series
- BMW E36 - (1992–1998) 3 Series
- BMW E46 - (1999–2006) 3 Series
- BMW E90 - (2005–) 3 Series Sedan
- BMW E91 - (2006-) 3 Series Wagon
- BMW E92 - (2007-) 3 Series Coupé
- BMW E93 - (2007-) 3 Series Convertible