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BMW's 3 Series continues to be the benchmark for sports sedans. It's been that way since the late 1970s, and the 2001 lineup continues this tradition with 10 different models, all of which are truly outstanding automobiles. In addition to the sedan models, there are sport coupes, convertibles, and a sport wagon.
BMW uses the word sport when describing its 3 Series models and it's apt. All 3 Series models corner, accelerate and stop swiftly. These are highly refined machines. If you're more interested in kicking back and cruising than you are in driving, then these cars may not be the best choice. They put drivers in touch with the road instead of isolating them, but their ultra-sharp steering response demands close attention. Interiors are well-equipped and comfortable, but are all business.
Several significant changes highlight the 2001 3 Series lineup, but the headline news is more power. Through engine refinements, the 2.5-liter gain 14 horsepower and now produce 184 horsepower. They are also awarded a new badge: 325i; this replaces last year's 323i designation and reflects their true engine size. At the same time, the 2.8-liter 328 gets a real increase in displacement, to 3.0 liters; it comes with a new 330i designation, and 225 horsepower, which is up substantially over last year's 193.
The 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine is used in the 325i sedan ($26,990); 325i sport wagon ($29,400); 325Ci coupe ($28,990); 325Ci convertible ($35,990).
The 225-horsepower 3.0-liter engine is used in the 330i sedan ($33,990); 330Ci coupe ($34,990); and 330Ci convertible ($42,400).
Coupe and convertible prices include a slightly higher level of luxury equipment than in the sedans and wagon. All models come with a five-speed manual transmission, an unusually enthusiast-friendly policy even among sports sedans. Of course, an automatic transmission is available: A superb ZF-built five-speed Steptronic, it adds $1275 to the price of any 3 Series model. (A conventionally controlled automatic is no longer offered.)
New for 2001 is a sophisticated all-wheel-drive package that adds $1750 to the price of a 325i sedan or sport wagon or 330i sedan. It also adds an X to the model designation, thus 325Xi and 330Xi.
Look for a super-high-performance M3 model this year.
Don't hesitate to choose the 325i if you just can't see your way to shelling out for the 330i. For $7,000 less, you still get an outstanding sports sedan. You may never miss the extra power of the 330i, and you certainly won't miss the increase in monthly payments. The 2.5-liter engine doesn't develop the urgent thrust of the 3.0-liter. But there's plenty of power here, and it's delivered smooth and linear with no significant dead spots or rushes. Just strong, gradual propulsion. It's so smooth, that it's easy to rev past the redline to where the rev limiter cuts back on the throttle. BMW's Double VANOS variable-valve timing helps both engines provide plenty of torque (the force that makes a car jump when you hit the gas) throughout the rev range.
For a real kick in the pants, the 3.0-liter delivers more gusto at the top of the rev range, yet is surprisingly strong at lower engine speeds, too. BMW claims a 0-60mph time of 6.4 seconds, vs. 7.1 for the 325i. Both models top out at an electronically limited 128 mph.
Changing gears with the five-speed manual gearbox is a smooth, satisfying operation. The shifter uses longer throws than in a sports car, but it's a precise movement befitting a world-class sports sedan.
The automatic transmission works superbly, always keeping the engine in the optimal power range. All automatics are five-speed Steptronics. Pulling the lever to the left allows auto-manual downshifting and upshifting. This can be useful and entertaining in stop-and-go traffic. But the real feature of these transmissions is how well they work in the automatic mode. Shifting is smooth and precise and the driver almost always feels the transmission is working as part of the team, rather than fighting against driver and engine.
At highway speeds, the 325i is extremely stable. I found it difficult to obey the 55mph speed limit around Washington's Capitol Beltway, and impossible to stay within the law on Maryland's back roads. The suspension is tight, feeling like fine machinery. The 325i isn't as quiet, nor does it ride as smoothly as the best luxury sedans from Japan, but this is by design. Instead, the 3 Series puts the driver in touch with the road. You hear and feel what's going on, though the outside world is muted well enough to ensure comfort. It's a balance that BMW masters. The stiff chassis structure allows the suspension to dampen irritating road vibration, reducing the chance of squeaks and rattles.
Steering response is more like that of a sports car than a luxury sedan. There's little play in the steering and the feeling is one of directness. This car goes exactly where you point it. Unlike the over-boosted power steering found on many other luxury sedans, the BMW's steering provides a real feel of the road. This car handles curves with aplomb, gripping through aggressive cornering maneuvers. When the tires finally let go, the resulting slide is still fairly easy to control, though it requires a bit more skill than in a front-wheel-drive car.
Brakes are even more important to going fast than horsepower, and the 3 Series provides excellent stopping power. On a familiar twisting, bumpy, gnarly road, I slammed on the brakes both in a straight line and while turning, the latter a real no-no. Either way, the 323i brought me to a quick, uneventful stop. The anti-lock braking system was hardly needed on the dry pavement because the tires offer good grip and the suspension does its job, keeping the car stable and minimizing nosedive, so that the rear tires can contribute to the effort. As a result, this car stops very quickly, and it's easy to control in a panic braking situation.
While front-wheel drive has its merits, pure race cars use rear-wheel drive. Enthusiasts prefer rear-wheel drive because they can actually steer the car with throttle inputs. The payback for this added element of control can be a skittish rear end, particularly on slick surfaces, a condition known as oversteer.
There's more to this 3 Series line than just BMW cachet. These cars offer a truly satisfying driving experience. They are equipped with rear-wheel drive and an available five-speed gearbox, and BMW's commitment to this combination speaks volumes about its priorities.
Other cars in this price range surpass the 3 Series in significant areas. The Lexus ES 300 is smoother and far quieter, and the Acura TL provides more equipment for less cash. But those are near-luxury cars, while the BMW is a true sports sedan. If driving satisfaction is top priority, one of the 3 Series models should top your shopping list.