The answer to that question is much clearer today than it was a few years ago but it still is debatable. The 3 series has been BMW’s bread and butter model since its launch in the 1980s. The 3 Series has been the one model in the BMW lineup that could make or break the manufacturer, thankfully it has continued to be smooth sailing but the waters are getting choppier.
Progressively the 3 series has moved up in both its size and price point, making it a much different offering today than it was at its E46 hayday. Today’s car is more in line with the 5 Series from two generations ago (E39) than a 3 series of the same period. This may be showing in sales as we have seen the decline of the latest F30 3 series in the US market but not in other markets around the world. The difference?
While there are many factors at play with sales one concept worth exploring is that outside the US the 3er is a car that is often provided by businesses as a perk of employment, a car that is part of large fleets and in the US it is mostly purchased or leased by individuals. These individuals are more sensitive to vehicle size and pricepoint than a large coorporation looking to dangle a car as a bonus to an employee. These large businesses have usually just bought cars based on name and past experience rather than comparative shopping. If Mr. Jones had a 328i for his last car and he was just given a promotion he is destined for a new 335i has been the way of life for many years but the current economy is changing that.
BMW has been reluctant to mention let alone entertain the idea of a smaller sedan than the 3 because it has feared it would impact the sales of its staple model to fleets and businesses outside the US, cutting into volume and profits. Businesses and individuals are less loyal to “brands” since the downturn and will look for the most bang for the buck (or Euro). They now cross shop, look at other models and even look at used. The status quo is no more. Additionally, down sizing has become a way of life in the car world; it is more and more likely that people will move down to the next lowest model in a quest for savings and efficiency.
The competition in the forms of MB and Audi may force BMW’s hand to produce a smaller sedan as both manufactuers are slated to launch just such vehicles in the near future; or at least smaller four door vehicles that are not hatches. Will a 1 Series sedan take some prestige away from the brand or is it the car BMW so desperately needs? Personally we feel there is room in the lineup and with the ever expanding price and size of the 3 Series BMW could afford to offer a more entry luxury product, maybe even just for the US. BMW doesn’t offer its entry level 1 Series hatch in the US so it would not be that far fetched for them to do something similar and offer a sedan stateside and not to the rest of the world if that is what they want to do to protect 3 series volume sales.
One thing is certain, the entry level luxury/premium small car market is growing and BMW is out of that market in the US (and MINI is not mainstream enough for many buyers). There could be a smaller four door offering in the US and it most liely would sell very well, hopefully it happens sooner than later because it could become an enthusiasts dream.