A hit in Germany, but never a strong seller in North America.
The predecessor of the modern BMW 1 Series is the Bavarian brand’s only attempt to create a hot hatch in the 90s.
What is it?
Meet the BMW 3 Series Hatchback, known in Europe as the 3 Series Compact. This is a hatchback/liftback version of the 3 Series, which was produced in two generations.
When and where was it made?
The German automaker assembled the 3 Series Hatch/Compact between 1993 and 2004, and managed to sell more than 400,000 examples worldwide.
The first generation model was based on the 3 Series E36. In fact, it was identical with the sedan, coupe, and wagon versions from the front bumper to the A pillar. It was available with four four-cylinder engines and one six-cylinder unit, all sending power to the rear wheels through manual or automatic transmissions.
The second generation arrived in 2000 as part of the 3 Series E46 family, bringing more six-cylinder motors and a powerful 2.0-litre diesel with 150 horsepower.
Was it that bad?
It depends on how you perceive it. If you think of it as a normal, everyday hatchback, then you won’t be disappointed. But if you consider it a sports car, then you won’t be happy with your choice. So, where's the problem? It was actually designed to be a hot hatch...
While it was powered by modern engines with up to 170 horsepower in its first generation, the 3 Series hatch was not an entertaining car drive thanks to its suspension. The front axle had the same MacPherson strut design as the other E36 models, but the rear suspension used the semi trailing arm layout of the previous E30 models. The result – the car oversteered in sharp corners and was highly criticized for its handling by the automotive press when it debuted.
We hate to say it, but it was also ugly - messed up proportions, boring factory wheel designs, and too short rear overhang. With the second generation of the model things got even worse, as the front end featured a distinctive, but dull design.
Shortly after its market launch, the 3 Series Compact received a five-door version. Thankfully, this car never made it to customers, as BMW decided to cancel the project due to the low initial sales of the three-door variant compared to the sedan and the coupe.
But after the first couple of months on the market, the car proved to be an interesting offer on the European market and sales raised significantly. BMW even decided to export the model to the North American market, where the 3 Series Hatchback arrived in 1995 as the 318ti. Unfortunately, North American customers were not fond of the liftback body style and sales were cancelled after four years.
We don’t all agree
Yes, the 3 Series Hatchback/Compact is not a true sports car, there’s no doubt about it. But it actually paved the way for the 1 Series hatch, one of the most popular modern BMW models worldwide. Not only that, but the 3 Series hatch was a truly unique offering on the market in the 90s, as it was virtually the only model with front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout and six-cylinder engines.