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When this generation of 3-Series BMWs was introduced in mid-'91, it won awards in all the automotive-enthusiast magazines. The modern, spacious interior, generous trunk space, and elegant, compact exterior turned a cramped, conservative but great-handling car into a roomy, stylish, relatively affordable and great-handling car. Sales have since boomed, and the car remains a perennial on everyone's 10-best lists.
For 1995, the 3-Series cars remain mechanically unchanged after a flurry of additions last year. A lower-cost 318i convertible was introduced in mid-1994, as well as the top-of-the-line M3 coupe, with a sizzling 240 hp inline 6-cylinder.
The major changes this year are new body-colored bumpers and outside mirrors for the 318i models, making them visually identical to the more expensive 325i models.
Our test car was a 318i convertible. With a wealth of standard features and little optional goodies such as heated front seats, the price registered at $31,520.
The BMW 3-Series cars are taut little wedges with the snappy muscularity one expects from a German sports car. Only one and a half inches longer than a Honda Civic, they have a compact, purposeful presence that echoes their power and engineering substance.
Without calling it as such, BMW employs the "cab-forward" concept that Chrysler made famous, in which the wheels are pushed out to the ends of the car, creating more interior volume and a longer wheelbase for a better ride and more stable handling. It's a design technique that also produces attractive proportions, keeping more of the car's mass between the axles. Compared with the Audi Cabrio, for example, the BMW is one and a half inches shorter but has a wheelbase that's 6 inches longer.
The 3-Series lineup consists of sedan, coupe and convertible versions in each power level: the 4-cylinder 318i and the 6-cylinder 325i.
All have BMW's high level of safety features. A differentiated deployment system is now standard for the dual airbags and automotive front seat-belt tensioners. In less severe impacts, only the seat-belt tensioners activate. In more severe impacts, the airbags deploy as well. Another thoughtful safety touch: If the passenger seat is empty, that airbag doesn't deploy, saving you repair costs.
The cars meet 1997 side-impact standards and have standard anti-lock brakes (ABS). A recommended optional safety feature for the convertibles is the automatic Rollover Protection System. When the system senses that the car is about to flip over, roll bars pop up from behind the rear seats, supplementing the protection from the reinforced windshield frame.
Another convertible point: One of the factors that allows the 318i a base price of $31,520 rather than the 325i's $40,070 is that it has a manual top. It's a one-person job requiring only a few minutes' work, but it must be done from outside the car, thus eliminating the spontaneous top-down driving offered by the 325i's power top. Both models have a slick, automatic self-sealing system to improve quietness. As you open the door, the frameless door windows lower slightly; close the door and they raise automatically, positioning themselves tightly in the seals.
The look of the interior is classically European: spare, upright and cerebral. The gauges are BMW's traditional round analog dials, with speedometer and tachometer front and center. Controls are all well-placed and easy to use, once you decipher their purpose (with German cars, a thorough read of the owner's manual is a smart idea). Standard cruise control has been extended to the 318i.
For some drivers, the no-nonsense interior is appropriate - stripped down and ready for action. For others, the interior looks shockingly spartan for a $30,000-plus car. Compared with the best American and Japanese interiors, the materials may seem less than luxurious and the padding thin. The cupholders are a crude dealer-installed option - BMW's grudging response to what it perceives as a sloppy American habit of slurping beverages while driving.
On the other hand, the interior is remarkably roomy for a car of its size. The coupe and the convertible lose some rear legroom compared with the sedan (6 in. in the case of the convertible), but they are still acceptable for adults and far more useful than the compact rear compartments in many sporty coupes and convertibles.
Highly supportive seats reinforce the 3-Series' aggressive character. The deep side bolsters are clearly designed to keep both the driver and front passenger in place when the car is hustling around corners.
A premium 10-speaker, 200-watt audio system and leather interior - standard on the 325i - are now available as options on the 318i, as are sport suspension packages.
Security has been a big issue at BMW because the cars have a particular appeal in the hot-car market. All the radios have standard theft-deterrent systems, and the engines have a disabling feature designed to foil hot-wire artists. New for '95 is a freewheeling lock cylinder that defeats entry by anything other than the correct key.
The point of owning a BMW - the reason people pay the tariff and put up with the theft risk - is that they're marvelous driving machines. Plenty of vehicles offer high-quality transportation and driving pleasure for less money, but they don't feel like a BMW.
The heart of any BMW's personality is its front-engine/rear-drive layout. In a car the size of the 3-Series, this translates into a sporty, responsive, nimble package. The long wheelbase and stiff, well-engineered chassis help deliver a surprisingly comfortable and quiet ride, considering the car's athletic character.
The refined strut-type front suspension, multi-link rear suspension and balanced weight distribution provide exhilarating handling. The large disc brakes, combined with standard ABS, provide exceptional braking ability, stop after stop.
Our test vehicle's 1.8-liter 16-valve 4-cylinder engine, producing 138 hp at 6000 rpm, provided plenty of fun. But this is not a lightweight car, and the greater power of the 325i's 2.5-liter 6-cylinder engine would have been more satisfying.
Although rear-drive devotees swear by the responsiveness of their cars, they must acknowledge that there are limitations on slippery surfaces compared with front-drive cars. The 318i doesn't offer a traction-control system, but it does have an optional limited slip differential to improve traction during acceleration on slick surfaces.
The standard transmission is a 5-speed manual. In our 318i, it offered short, precise shifting and an elastic third gear that was excellent in city traffic. Given the versatility of the manual transmission, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want an automatic, but a well-geared 4-speed is available. It's a little slow off the line, but the sport mode lets you enjoy the power that comes at higher revs.
BMW is one of the legendary makes, with lots of well-earned charisma. The prices are steep and the theft rate is atrocious, but the cars deliver an unparalleled driving experience that is sprightly, sporty and responsive.
There are sport sedans and coupes that offer smoother ride quality, but they also isolate the driver more from the pleasure of sporty performance. A BMW never lets you forget that you're in command of a beautifully orchestrated road machine.
If you're interested in the most power for the buck, look at a Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro. But if a beautifully engineered, meticulously finished German car is more to your taste, the 3-Series cars deliver a sensational package.