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I'm wondering what the difference is between the different model numbers in the BMW 3-series. Also, what is the difference between the E30, E36 and E46?

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Model number differentiates the power (and usually size of the engine) of the car. You can often expect that car with a larger model number will have better optional equipment (it is valid for BMW 7 series models, perhaps series 3 and 5 have the same tendency). Models with bigger engines usually have different (stronger) suspension and stronger brakes. They often have different transmission and a larger battery.

Letter "i" indicates the car is fueled with gasoline, letter "d" indicates it should be fuelled with diesel. Additional letter "L" informs that this model is longer than regular ones (usually series 7 have a "long" attribute). Letter "M" indicates you are dealing with model equipped with "M" packet (special sport engine, different wheels, different brakes, more power, different interior equipment).

E30, E36, E46 are the distinctions of generations of a model in a given series (in this case series 3). E30 models were sold between 1982 and 1994. Their successor, model E36 was sold from 1990 to 2000, etc. It is as same as with Ford Mustang. One brand, many models.

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I'm not sure if it is still the case today, but I tought that the number behind the model number (5xx or 3xx), also tells you the size of the engine (where 335 would be a 3 series with an 3.5 litre engine). Edit: Nevermind,I see you mentioned engine size –  Ahatius May 20 '13 at 12:31
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It used to be the way you think. Unfortunately it changed a few years ago. For example the newest 3-series E92 335i has a 3 liter R6 engine. –  Andrzej Bobak May 20 '13 at 12:37
    
Does the "i" also indicate fuel injection? Not sure, then, what models without a letter, eg. "316", indicates. Maybe a carburetor? –  Lars Jun 7 '13 at 20:55
    
Yes, @Lars 'i' indicates fuel injection. Older E21 and E30 cars like 315 or 316 without 'i' have carburetors. But I'm not aware of any E36 or E46's without injection. –  Engin Kurutepe Jul 2 '13 at 11:13
    
Not entirely true, cares with e are still fuel injection, and s refers to sport package, x refers to 4 wheel drive, d refers to diesel, and c refers to convertible and sometimes coupe depending on the model –  Chris James Champeau Dec 9 '13 at 23:01
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The number doesn't always match the engine size. A 320i has a 2.2L 6-cylinder engine whereas my 318i has a 4-cylinder 2.0L engine.

Try wikipedia page here

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Historically, a 318i would have been an 1800cc, etc. But with the last two or three generations, what BMW has sheepishly done is to increase the 318i's engine capacity to 2000cc, and made the 320i a 2.0 Turbo engine. It's all just to keep incrementally upgrading engine performance and power output. Audi is more forthcoming and actually displays the fact that their A4 equivalent to a 320i is now a 2.0T instead of a 1.8T as was the norm a few years ago. –  Juann Strauss Jun 26 '13 at 12:29
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This wikipedia page explains model naming conventions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_BMW_vehicles#Model_nomenclature

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