Is BMW 3 Series a Good First Car? (10 Key Aspects Explained)

Overall, the BMW 3-Series is an average first car for teenagers, but if you desire a premium vehicle, the 3-Series is an excellent choice.

Its pluses and minuses matter more or less, depending on your budget and priority.

bmw 3 series good first car

10 Factors for Getting the BMW 3-Series as Your First Car

Not all of them are negatives; read on to find out.

#1 Expensive New BMW, Affordable Old BMW

Luxury cars typically do not suit new drivers looking to gain experience behind the wheel.

The latest BMW 3-Series base trim costs north of $40,000.

Depending on the variant, a ten-year-old 3-Series will still cost a hefty $12,000 to $20,000 – top up a few thousand dollars, and you can get a brand-new Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, or Mazda 3.

They are highly dependable and have low running costs.

Opting for a sub-$10,000 3-Series may mean settling for a fifteen-year-old model that will potentially cost you more in upkeep with reliability uncertainties (see the next point).

Your initial outlay is only one of many cost components you need to set aside, so meticulousness is essential to cover your bases.

#2 Costly Luxury Car to Maintain

Driving a BMW means accepting the high ownership costs of running a luxury vehicle.

For example, the BMW 328i costs approximately $773 annually to maintain; the figure is above luxury midsize cars’ average of $739 a year.

RepairPal ranked it #19 out of 31 luxury midsize cars.

Crucially, that is more than double what you’ll pay to maintain a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.

If you’re considering a used BMW 3-Series for your first car, the year-on-year increase in annual maintenance costs (below) should help.

The regular Honda Civic sedan is an excellent yardstick because it’s one of the best first cars with low ownership costs.

Meanwhile, the Audi A4 is a direct rival to the 3-Series.

YearAnnual Costs (BMW 3-Series)Annual Costs (Merc CLA)Annual Costs (Audi A4)Annual Costs (Honda Civic)
3-Series vs. CLA vs. A4 vs. Civic annual upkeep costs (CarEdge)

The probability of significant repair also increases with the 3-Series’s age:

  • 4.17% in year 1,
  • 19.61$ in year 5,
  • 40.39% in year 10, and
  • 77.82% in year 12.

That said, a used car’s condition varies depending on its service history, directly affecting your upkeep expenses.

#3 (But) One of the Cheapest BMWs in Upkeep

BMWs are generally expensive to maintain, even among luxury brands.

However, if you have to choose the least expensive BMW to maintain, it will be one of the 3-Series models.

ModelMaint. Costs (avg/yr)
BMW 1 Series$959
BMW 2 Series$921
BMW 3 Series (generally)$867
BMW 3 Series – 318i$666
BMW 3 Series – 325i$731
BMW 3 Series – 328i$773
BMW 3 Series – 330i$748
BMW 3 Series – 335i$1,030
BMW 4 Series$1,011
BMW 5 Series$999
BMW i3$1,173
BMW i8$979
BMW M3$1,161
BMW M4$2,781
BMW M5$1,173
BMW X1$915
BMW X3$1,034
BMW X4$988
BMW X5$1,166
BMW Z3$691
BMW Z4$895
BMW models maintenance cost (RepairPal)

#4 One of the Costlier Luxury Brands to Insure

Expensive cars come with pricey insurance – as much as powerful vehicles in the hands of new drivers are more prone to accidents.

Non-luxury vehicles aside, the BMW is the costliest to insure among the three German luxury automakers – BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi.

See the table below on the average full coverage cost for the various age groups (assuming good driver and credit):

BMW 3 Series$6,019/year$2,717/year
Mercedes CLA$5,938/year$2,681/year
Audi A4$5,441/year$2,456/year
Honda Civic$5,070/year$2,289/year
3 Series vs. CLA vs. A4 vs. Civic insurance costs (CarEdge)

16-year-old male teens can expect higher insurance costs.

#5 Mediocre Reliability

BMWs generally do not fare well in the reliability stake compared to the cheaper and more-dependable Japanese and Korean cars.

They are luxury vehicles built to pamper and thrill in equal measure.

However, ease of maintenance and affordability in running costs aren’t a top design priority, leading to overall subpar reliability because drivers typically neglect proper vehicle upkeep.

Consumer Reports ranked BMW #17 out of 28 automakers in their 2021 reliability survey.

Elsewhere, RepairPal ranked the BMW 328i #19 out of 31 luxury midsize cars and the BMW 335i #28 – the picture is anything but rosy.

That said, you can play a significant part in ensuring your car runs reliably by providing it appropriate and timely care.

#6 Average Fuel Economy for a First Car

Thirsty cars are a bane among first car owners.

However, the 3 Series counts among the more fuel-efficient luxury cars.

 Fuel Economy
BMW 335i25 mpg combined
BMW 328i27 mpg combined
BMW 330i30 mpg combined
Merc CLA29 mpg combined
Audi A428 mpg combined
Honda Civic33 mpg combined
BMW 3-Series vs. other cars in fuel consumption.

First cars should ideally achieve high-20s to 30s mpg in combined driving.

That said, first cars can never be too fuel-efficient – the more you can stretch your petrol money, the better it is for your pocket.

#7 Premium Fuel

First cars should ideally operate on the cheaper lower-octane gas.

Unfortunately, most BMWs must or should run on premium unleaded fuel, save for pre-2001 3-Series models (318i, 323i, 325i, 328i) and some select trims after that.

It is an unnecessary extra cost for new drivers when a regular gas vehicle will suffice.

#8 Rear-Wheel-Drive

BMW 3 Series are mostly rear-wheel-drive cars, except for a few AWDs.

RWD vehicles provide stronger acceleration than FWD vehicles due to the rearward weight transfer.

The RWD system places all the weight on the rear axle and thus has relatively more traction under hard acceleration.

Conversely, FWD cars are cheaper and return higher fuel economy because they are typically lighter than RWDs and AWDs – other specifications being equal.

The lower expense of an FWD covers the vehicle price and upkeep and represents a better value proposition for new drivers.

#9 Poor Value Retention

Value retention in the BMW 3-Series is subpar, losing 55% of its value after five years and 78% after ten years.

The table below assumes a brand-new BMW 330i that retails for approx. $42,000.

Vehicle AgeDepreciationValue LostResale Value
BMW 3-Series 10-year depreciation.

The BMW 3-Series comes with:

  • 4-year/50,000-mile basic warranty.
  • 4-year/unlimited-mile roadside warranty.
  • 4-year/50,000-mile powertrain warranty.

As such, BMW 3-Series models typically see a sharp decline in their value at the warranty’s expiry.

Buying extended coverage is necessary to buffer BMW’s high repair and maintenance costs outside of the manufacturer’s warranty.

If you compare the 3-Series to the less-expensive and cheaper-to-maintain non-luxury compacts, the stark difference may make you re-think if a new-ish 3-Series is worth the initial outlay.

 5-yr Depreciation10-yr Depreciation
Honda Civic39%71%
Toyota Corolla38%59%
Mercedes CLA49%78%
Audi A451%77%
BMW 3-Series55%78%
BMW 3-Series depreciation compared to other cars.

That said, the depreciation rate is only a concern up to a point when a relatively old but well-cared-for vehicle can re-sell at or near its previous purchase price.

#10 Top-notch Safety

How well the car protects the driver and passengers in a collision is a top priority in first car selection.

In that case, the BMW 3-Series shines brightly.

The 3-Series is a multiple-time winner of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

 IIHS Award
2022 BMW 3 Series (4dr sedan)Top Safety Pick
2021 BMW 3 Series (4dr sedan)Top Safety Pick
2020 BMW 3 Series (4dr sedan)Top Safety Pick
2019 BMW 3 Series (4dr sedan)Top Safety Pick +
2018 BMW 3 Series (4dr sedan)Top Safety Pick
2012 BMW 3 Series (4dr sedan)Top Safety Pick
2009 BMW 3 Series (4dr sedan)Top Safety Pick
2006 BMW 3 Series (4dr sedan)Top Safety Pick (silver)
BMW 3-Series IIHS awards.

Few cars can lay claim to such an achievement in crash safety.

BMW 3-Series Generations

The 3-Series has been the German automaker’s standard-bearer since 1975, covering seven generations, and is still going strong.

 CodeYears BuiltModels
Gen-1E211975-1983320i, 323i.
Gen-2E301982-1994318i, 325i, M3.
Gen-3E361990-2000318i, 325i, 328i, M3.
Gen-4E461997-2006316i, 318i, 318Ci, 320i, 320Ci, 323i, 323ci, 325i, 325ci, 328i, 328ci, 330i, 330ci.
Gen-5E90-E932005-2013323i, 325i, 328i, 330i, 335i, 335d, M3.
Gen-6F30-31, F342011-2018320i, 328i, 328d, 330i, 330e, 335i, 340i.
Gen-7G202018 onwards330i, 330e, M340i.
BMW 3-Series generations.

Specific 3-Series Models:

Is a BMW 318i a Good First Car?

BMW 318i models spanned several generations and are available up to 1998.

Despite its age, the BMW 318i is still a reasonably good first car, provided you can verify that it’s in good condition:

  • Affordable BMW – old but cheap to buy.
  • Inexpensive maintenance – $666/year is one of the cheapest among BMWs.
  • Regular gas – good news for first car shoppers; newer BMWs love or need premium fuel.
  • Excellent visibility – upright styling and slim pillars all around.

However, 318i models are very old now, so verifying the condition is crucial before deciding.

Is a BMW 325i a Good First Car?

The production of 325i models covers four generations – 2nd gen (E30), 3rd gen (E36), 4th gen (E46), and 5th gen (E90).

Premium cars typically have bigger engines than non-luxury ones.

But the BMW 325i, with its adequately powerful six-cylinder engine, is a reasonable first car despite some middling credentials:

  • Moderate horsepower output – 184 hp.
  • Good visibility – decent-sized glass area and slim roof pillars.
  • Compact dimensions – ideal for city driving and parking.
  • Mediocre fuel economy – 21 mpg combined is average for its time but relatively poor in today’s terms.
  • Premium fuel required – most BMWs have this requirement.

The 2006 BMW 325i has an upgraded inline-six engine that produces more horsepower than previous models, making it comparatively less suitable for a first car.

That said, the power output is still manageable for most new drivers.

Among the 325i model years, note that the 2003 model has the most overall complaints, according to CarComplaints.

The most-reported problem is steering wheel fault that requires wheel column replacement.

Is a BMW 328i a Good First Car?

The BMW 328i sedan is among the better 3-Series for your first car with these pluses:

  • Strong fuel economy – 27 mpg in combined driving (2012 328i and newer).
  • Average maintenance cost – $773/year compared to $739 for luxury midsize cars.
  • Good visibility – 328i sedan provides a better outward view than the 328Ci coupe.

However, the premium fuel requirement for 328i models represents an extra monthly cost that new drivers should note.

This model spanned several 3-Series generations, so specifications may vary considerably.

According to CarComplaints, the 2007 BMW 328 model has the most reported problems, with electric water pump failure topping the list.

Is a BMW 335i a Good First Car?

Overall, the BMW 335i is not a good first car, given that better options exist:

  • Powerful V6 – 300 hp may be a little hot to handle for some new drivers, although it’s nowhere near excessive.
  • Middling fuel economy – between 23 to 25 mpg combined.
  • Premium fuel required – the added cost may be small, but most teen drivers have a small gas budget.
  • Expensive maintenance – $1,030/year compared to luxury midsize cars’ average of $739/year.
  • Abysmal reliability – RepairPal rated it 2 out of 5 stars and ranked it #28 out of 31 luxury midsize cars.

Most 3-Series models cost less than the 335i in annual maintenance and repair.

Is a BMW e30 a Good First Car?

E30 is the chassis code for the second-generation 3-Series models built from 1982 to 1994.

They include the 318i and 325i, among others.

The E30 played a crucial role in establishing BMW’s reputation for building small luxury cars without sacrificing a fun-to-drive character.

Plus, it was the version that spawned the high-performance M3.

That said, the BMW E30 has been around for several decades, and is a reasonably good first car, provided you can find one in good condition and without rust:

  • Excellent visibility – the boxy style with plenty of glass provides a relatively unimpeded outward view in all directions, a big plus for new drivers.
  • Compact size – nimble and easy to drive.
  • Regular or premium fuel – older 318i models run on regular gas, but others like the 325i may need the more expensive gas.
  • Relatively expensive – despite its age, the e30 is a classic among enthusiasts. They can cost up to $20,000, model and condition dependent.
  • Lacks safety features – older E30s may not have airbags and other safety aids present in newer models; it’s crucial to check that you’re buying a safety vehicle.

If you’re targeting an E30, please check the service history to verify its health.

Is a BMW e36 a Good First Car?

The E36 is the 3rd generation 3-Series that succeeded the E30.

It signaled the German automaker’s departure from the boxy shape to a more-flowing design language.

The BMW E36 generally improved on the previous-gen 3-Series on multiple fronts and is a good first car for BMW shoppers in the used market:

  • Relatively more fuel-efficient – the 328i is one of the thriftier used 3-Series models.
  • Improved ride comfort – a more luxurious and quieter interior than the previous gen.
  • Adequate horsepower – generally heavier than the E30 but with a stronger drivetrain without bordering excessive, including the six-cylinder engines.
  • Excellent visibility – comparatively more modern-looking than the E30, without sacrificing the driver’s outward views.
  • Better build quality than the E30 – excellent news for used 3-Series shoppers.
  • Potentially problematic – water pump and radiator issues were commonplace.

Is a BMW e46 a Good First Car?

Codenamed E46, the fourth-generation 3-Series is available as a coupe, convertible, sedan, and wagon in North America up to 2006.

The BMW E46 is a good first car and an excellent choice for new drivers who desire sporty driving – subsequent 3 Series generations leaned heavily towards luxury:

  • Moderately powerful but smooth inline-6 engines – up to 255 hp (330i)
  • Abundant safety features – later E46 models like the 325i and 330i come equipped with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EDB), Emergency Brake Assist (EBA), Anti-lock Brake System (ABS), traction control, and stability control.
  • Average gas mileage – low-20s mpg combined.
  • Premium or regular fuel – the 318i, 323i, and 328i run on regular gas, but the newer 325i and 330i require premium gas.
  • Good visibility – as the design modernized, thankfully, the relatively unhampered visibility remains in the sedans.
  • Perfect blend of dynamic handling and comfortable ride – if you want the sweet spot between these two aspects in your compact BMW, the E46 will please you.
  • Safe vehicles – the 2006 3-Series sedan won IIHS’s Top Safety Pick award.
  • Potentially problematic – water pump and radiator issues are common problems to look out for.
  • Relatively inexpensive maintenance for a BMW – the E46 models average around $700-plus in annual maintenance; most BMWs cost close to $1,000/year or more.

That said, the 300-plus-horsepower E46 M3s aren’t suitable for teen drivers.

Is a BMW 330Ci a Good First Car?

330i sedans are a reasonable choice for new drivers wanting an E46 3-Series.

Although the BMW 330Ci coupe or convertible has a more-stylish body style, it isn’t a good first car because it lacks the crash safety of the 330 sedans.

2006 BMW 3-Series won the IIHS Top Safety Pick but only for the four-door sedan.

All things being equal, a sedan is the safer first car than a coupe or convertible.

Is a BMW e90 a Good First Car?

E90 is a 3-Series gen-five, and the N54 twin-turbocharged straight-six petrol engine won the International Engine of the Year awards.

Compared to the preceding generation, the BMW E90 models aren’t suitable first cars; they grew in size and horsepower (turbocharged i6 engines in newer 328i and 335i models) and aren’t reliable (a large number of high-pressure fuel pump failures).

Avoid the 335i as it is one of the most expensive 3-Series models to maintain, according to RepairPal.

It averages $1,030 in annual upkeep.

If you have your heart set on a used 335i, verify that the car has newly-replaced fuel pump, fuel injector, water pump, gaskets, and twin turbos.

Owner reports indicate that these parts tend to fail by 80k miles.

Is a BMW M3 a Good First Car?

The M3 is a premium performance car available as a sedan, coupe, convertible, or wagon, depending on the model year.

The ‘M’ stands for motorsport.

M3 models come with more potent powertrains, different suspension parts, and larger brakes – its design intent is obvious.

Unfortunately, the BMW M3 is one of the worst BMWs for teen drivers:

  • Explosive acceleration – up to 500 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque, depending on the model year.
  • Rear-wheel-drive – most BMWs are RWDs, but the potent engine and RWD system are a dangerous combination for inexperienced drivers.
  • Poor fuel economy – averaging sub-20s mpg.
  • Premium unleaded fuel – a requirement by BMW.
  • Massive upkeep cost – $1,161/year, according to RepairPal; luxury midsize cars average $739/year.

A less potent and cheaper car is the better choice for teen drivers.

Is the BMW i3 a Good First Car?

The i3 is BMW’s first mass-produced zero-emissions vehicle.

It has unique and unconventional rear-hinged rear doors.

Overall, the BMW i3 is an excellent first car with many positives, although an EV may not suit drivers in some locations at this point:

  • Excellent range – EPA 124 mpg-equivalent in combined driving; it travels significantly farther (on a single full charge) than a petrol car.
  • Easy to drive and park – the lightweight chassis and diminutive size are handy when maneuvering in tight urban settings.
  • Good visibility – large windshield and slightly-raised front seats.
  • Roomy cabin – the lack of a central tunnel (common in gas cars) frees up floor space in both seating rows. Four adults can comfortably fit in an i3.
  • Quiet interior – comfortable for short and long-distance driving.

One of the i3’s downsides is its relatively-higher price than competing entry-level electric cars.

Plus, i3s don’t retain value well – opting for a used i3 is the wiser choice.

The 2021 BMW i3 is the final model you can buy.

Best BMW 3-Series Model for First Car

The 3-Series has been in the market for several decades with many models, so your list of options is long and can be confusing.

Table Guide:

  • Fuel Economy: mpg city/highway/combined (base trim).
  • Fuel Type: Premium includes required or recommended.
  • Maintenance Costs: per year avg. (RepairPal).
Fuel Econ.Fuel TypeMaint. Costs
BMW 318i20/29/23Regular$666
BMW 320i24/35/28Premium$1,157
BMW 323i18/26/21Regular$717
BMW 323Ci18/26/21Regular$768
BMW 325i18/28/21Premium$731
BMW 325Ci18/27/21Premium$733
BMW 328i23/35/27Premium$773
BMW 328Ci19/28/22Premium$706
BMW 330i26/36/30Premium$748
BMW 330Ci18/28/21Premium$759
BMW 335i21/32/25Premium$1,030
BMW 340i21/32/25PremiumNA
BMW 3-Series models comparison.

The 330i is the most fuel-efficient among the 3-Series models and earned IIHS’s Top Safety Pick awards.

However, newer models are undoubtedly more expensive, so the relatively older 328i is still a great choice for your first car with good fuel economy and reasonably affordable maintenance for a BMW.

Note that BMW 328i models before 2012 were significantly less fuel-efficient, achieving only 22 mpg combined.

The fuel economy in the BMW 335i is average (25 mpg combined) and is not ideal for a first car as its average annual upkeep cost is the highest among 3-Series models.

The BMW 318i’s inexpensive maintenance – in Bavarian terms – makes it an attractive option for a first car.

Plus, its advanced age means it’s affordable to buy.

BMW 3-Series Compared with Better First Cars

You have several options from the premium and mainstream brands.

Table Guide:

  • Fuel Economy: mpg city/highway/combined (base trim).
  • Reliability: /100; higher = fewer problems; 5yr avg. (JD Power).
  • Maintenance Costs: per year avg. (RepairPal).
  • Safety (IIHS): 1 (poor) to 4 (good); IIHS tests average.
  • Safety (NHTSA): 1 (poor) to 5 (safest); NHTSA overall.
  • Visibility: excellent, good, average, poor.
 Fuel Econ.ReliabilityMaint. CostsSafety (IIHS)Safety (NHTSA)Visibility
BMW 3 Series26/36/3080/100$8674/45/5Good
Audi A427/35/3081/100$7394/45/5Excellent
Merc C-Class23/35/2779/100$7394/45/5Average
Mercedes CLA25/36/2979/100$736NANAAverage
Volvo S6023/34/2778/100$7504/45/5Good
Lexus IS 30021/31/2583/100$4284/45/5Good
Honda Civic Si26/36/3082/100$368+4/45/5Good
Honda Civic30/38/3382/100$3684/45/5Good
Toyota Corolla30/38/3383/100$3624/45/5Good
BMW 3 Series comparison with other first cars.

As far as premium cars go, the Audi A4 (or the slightly smaller Audi A3) is a compelling choice for a first car with a lower-than-BMW maintenance cost and excellent visibility that makes driving safer.

Volvo may not have the same brand appeal as Audi or BMW, but the Volvo S60 is an option worth considering.

Regardless of the extent of your first car research, non-luxury compact cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla should make your shortlist.

Their fuel efficiency and affordable ownership costs are superb first car attributes.