In Praise of the BMW 3-Series, The Last Full Line Presently Sold in America

BMW 3-series

Back in the day, many auto makers offered single marques in a profusion of body styles, sometimes offering multiple distinct versions of a single type. Take has an example the 1956 Chevrolet. Even excluding trim levels (150, 210, Bel Air), the brand mainstay was available in nine distinct body styles  – including both pillared and pillar-less two-doors. This variety demonstrated a brand that was reading the market and willing to go to great lengths to ensure they had a product to meet just about anyone’s needs- within a certain price range. Today, most car makers achieve this through not a single model, but a wide range of them.

Consider now Chevy’s current analogue to that ’50s family of family cars, the Impala, which comes in… one 4-door sedan body style. Now the Impala is a nice car, I mean seriously the new one is leaps and bounds better than the last, rental-only version, but it’s kind of a one size better darn-well fit all offering. The last time that Chevy offered multiple models on the mid-sizer was back in the ’90s when the Lumina offered a choice of two- or four-door sedans. Even by then the idea of giving buyers a choice of convertible or wagon wasn’t even a consideration. In fact if you needed the extra capacity of a longroof, your only options by then – and now – were to go with an SUV. 

1956ChevySMOther mainstream manufacturers have followed suit. Ford sells four and five door versions of the Focus, but the wagon, sport coupe and (in Europe) drop top editions have all been Escorted to the pages of history. And Chrysler, well just a few years ago they brought both a sedan and a wagon for their big-car offerings, but you needed to choose between a Chrysler and a Dodge if you wanted one over the other. That’s a far cry from the ’80s when a K-car could be had with 2 or 4 doors, a wagon, or even a convertible top, all under one model name. 

Why has this freedom of choice become so much less… well, free? Cost for one thing. It takes a lot of dough-ray-me to design and  – more importantly certify for safety and emissions – any new car and the fewer versions you have the better your margins will be. Then there’s the market research, the focus groups and surveys, that drive corporate decision making. 

And what you might ask does this have to do with BMW and their beloved 3-Series? Well, right now, with the impending introduction of the 2-door 4-series still waiting in the wings, BMW’s most popular car is also its most bounteous. Right now the 3-series is available in 4-door sedan, 2-door coupe, 2-door convertible, 5-door wagon, and – in some markets – a 5-door hatchback, the GT. That’s five different and distinct body styles, making the 3-series, at least as far as I can tell, the largest single model family currently being sold in the U.S. of A. Pretty much all other contenders have fallen by the wayside.

Close contenders include the Mercedes E-class which may still be had in 2-door coupe, 4-door sedan, wagon and convertible, and of all things, the Cadillac CTS which until the wagon goes by-by (Oops, probably shouldn’t have said that), can be had in three different body styles. While the expensive brands continue to offer this level of choice, the cheap seats have pretty much given up on the ides. Consider that in 1982 Toyota offered the Corolla in 5 body styles – 4-door, 2-door, sport back, lift back and wagon. Today, the company gives you but one Corolla from which to choose.

Now soon BMW will split their model naming convention, creating the 4-series family of 2-doors and convertibles and leaving the 3s to soldier on with 4 or more. Sure, right now the body styles for the new 4-door and old coupe/convertibles aren’t the same, but they’re not all that different. And while that model diversification with splitting the models by door count may make the positioning of each model more accurate, at the same time it’s kind of sad to have the choices within a single family go away. This is the reason that I come here today not to bury the 3, but to praise it, in all its freedom-affording forms. 

Image sources: BMWUSA, Chevrolet, The Paddock

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13 responses to “In Praise of the BMW 3-Series, The Last Full Line Presently Sold in America”

  1. muthalovin Avatar

    Wow, I had not realized this had happened. Crap!

  2. duurtlang_ Avatar

    This is a very American problem though. In Europe most lineups are much, much broader. Sticking to BMW the US gets the 1 series coupe. And maybe the convertible, I'm not sure. Europe gets the 3-d and 5-d hatches as well. And let's take a bread and butter car, the VW Golf. The US gets the 3-d and 5-d hatches. And the sedan, sort of (Jetta). That's quite a lot for the US really, 3 options is 2 more than usual. Yet Europe gets that and a wagon, a convertible, an old person 5-d hatch (Golf Plus) and arguably the Scirocco coupe. That's 7 versions of the same car. Another example: the Opel Astra. 3 door 'coupe', 5 door hatch, sedan, wagon and a convertible (Cascada). What does the US get? Just the sedan (Buick Verano).
    To be fair, not all of these versions are bought as often. I can go for weeks without seeing the Astra sedan, yet the 5 door and wagon are everywhere.
    <img src="; width="600">
    <img src="; width="600">

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Had the same thought, but the question is: Why? Production cost shouldn't differ. In fact, the US is a bigger, regulatively more unified market: Economies of scale should be easier to achieve.
      Regulatory cost should be about the same. I'd expect environmental standards to be stricter in Europe. The more relevant crash standards should be roughly comparable.
      The only thing I can think of is that Americans are used o drive cars off the lot immediately, while Europeans often wait for custom-built versions of their car. Having to have potential oddballs waiting at all dealers is expensive; inventory is uncool. Then again…you get to buy the Juke, don't you?

      1. duurtlang_ Avatar

        I think you've nailed it. My uninformed guess is the same as yours; ordering versus buying off lots. It's the same reason why, besides offering more body variants, EU market cars are offered with way more engines as well.
        The example I used, the current VW Golf, is offered with 7 different engine options already when looking at the mk7 hatch. 8 engine options if you add the performance pack (+10 hp) for the GTI. And this is early in the life cycle of the Golf, it will get more. Or take the Astra, that's available with 8 different engine options as well. 9 if you add the OPC. The vast majority of these with a choice between either a manual or an automatic. And did I mention the different trim packages available per engine? And this is just in my market, the Netherlands. It's quite possible other countries get different engines. How many body styles, engines per body style, transmissions per engine and trim packages per body+engine+transmission combo does the Buick Verano offer?

      2. TurboBrick Avatar

        You got it. Americans don't like to wait for their cars. Just sign your name on the papers and here's the keys. The dealers don't want to get stuck with a brown stickshift diesel station wagon that just takes up space and they end up having to sell it at cost to some creep from the Internet. And before that at the corporate level you also have the problem of having the federalize everything and that means crash testing and fuel economy certification for every powertrain combo.

        1. hubba Avatar

          Certification of variants is no different in the EU.

      3. hubba Avatar

        Compared to the EU, there's little incentive to get as little car as possible to do the job. In the US, if you can afford a new car, the fuel for it is a small fraction of total cost. Thus, there's little market for hatches and small wagons. If you sometimes need to carry a load, you probably have a bigger car in the household, or you just buy a bigger vehicle and drive it all the time.

    2. BlackIce_GTS Avatar

      related issue? In Europe, there are not only larger model families, but larger brand families;
      In North America GM has 3 (or 4) brands with price range from 12K$ (base Spark) to 85K$ (Escalade Hybrid). In Europe, Mercedes-Benz has one brand, with a price range from 24K Euro/31K USD (A 180 Limousine yes that is what they call it) to 213K Euro/282K USD* (SLS AMG GT Roadster)
      *Prices from, which is unhelpfully not available in English, so it probably goes a lot higher. Cadillac was nice enough to give me a price ceiling. In English.
      **I didn't mention smart, I don't think people who work for Mercedes do either. Besides, I'm not sure if that strengthens my point (greater price delta) or weakens it (more than one brand). Also not sure exactly what my point is.
      ***Volkswagen group is the opposite of whatever my point is.

      1. duurtlang_ Avatar

        You could've used the British Merc site 🙂 Anyway, I don't really see what you're trying to say. GM is a conglomerate with brands that seem awfully close together, from base level to semi-luxury brands without supercars. Mercedes is a luxury brand only, with supercars. Your other example, VW, well let's compare a VW Up (or the Skoda or SEAT clone) with a top of the range Bentley or Lambo. Or even a Phaeton. But these are just excesses. If you look at a brand like Renault or some other non-luxury Euro brand there isn't such a broad range price-wise

        1. BlackIce_GTS Avatar

          Prices are sort of inflated in the UK, I was looking for something mainland Europe?
          My point was, Mercedes isn't a luxury only brand. They cover a 250,000$ range with only one brand. GM has three brands that only cover a 70,000$ range. And that's new GM, they used to do it with five.
          I think my point is that Europe has not only more bodystyle diversity per model name, but also more price/prestige delta per brand.
          I said VW was a counterpoint, but they still go from Up to Phaeton. But the Phaeton is weird,
          Audi goes from A1 to S8. BMW has overlap in the lower end of the market with Mini, but there's still a far larger difference than GM would be comfortable with between a base 1-series and a loaded 760iL.
          I guess what I'm saying actually applies to Germany, and not Europe in general. You're right about Renault. PSA has overlap in the middle, but Peugeot builds mostly cheaper cars and Citroen builds mostly mid-priced-and-up cars(?). FIAT is quite comparable to GM with it's multi-brand strategy.
          This seems strange, because judging from… mostly Top Gear, I guess, it seems that people are judged even more based on their car's brand prestige than they are in North America. But, German brands have always done it that way, and American companies have always done it this way. ('always' meaning for a very long time in this case)

          1. Sjalabais Avatar

            Inflated British prices? Here's a look at what my fellow Norwegians need to pay for a slightly luxurious Volvo XC70. Let's deinflate!

  3. Lotte Avatar

    I really, really, really hope they decide to make a two-door Impala:
    <img src="; width="500/">
    Make it a pillarless hardtop and I will die of happiness.
    I doubt it'll happen, but a hardtop coupe, a convertible and a wagon in addition to the sedan Impala would make a kick-ass lineup. Maybe throw in a fastback, too…

    1. TurboBrick Avatar

      Pillarless hardtop 2dr Impala… and we end up with a $40K FWD Chevy which the autojournos will tear apart for not being a BMW and having noisy and leaky hardtop windows. Anyone under 65 will be unable to either afford one or be able to accommodate one in their life. It's pretty but I don't think it would sell anymore (otherwise Monte Carlo would still be available).
      Now figure out how to put that body on a pickup truck platform and brand it as a GMC and we might have something. We'll call it "GMC Vaquero, professional grade luxury and style". Then you can spend half as much to build it, option it out to $60K and make some money on it.