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.
3 Series styling represents a fresh rendition of a classic look. BMW's traditional quad headlamps are enclosed in aerodynamic covers. The roofline is long and gracefully integrated into the rear deck. Though elegant and refined, the 3 Series is striking in appearance.
Yet these are practical sedans as well, roomier than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class or even the front-wheel-drive Audi A4, according to the government standard for measuring interior volume. There are vibration dampening devices throughout the car, including hydraulic mounts for the differential and front suspension.
Bucking a worldwide trend, BMW uses inline-6 engines instead of V6 designs. Though it takes up more space, an inline-6 is considered to be inherently smoother by design than a V6. Indeed, BMW believes that six pistons lined up in a row run more smoothly than two banks of three pistons arranged in a V. Both 3 Series inline-6s are improved and refined for 2001, with fully electronic throttle control, revised valve lift (but retaining steplessly variable valve timing) and a redesigned dual resonance intake system. These changes add up to more power and cleaner exhaust; except for all-wheel-drive models, all 3 Series cars are now Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles.
The all-wheel-drive system on 325xi and 330xi models uses a planetary center differential to split drive torque 38/62 percent front/rear, preserving the rear-wheel-drive feel that BMW enthusiasts demand. All-Season Traction Control (AST) and a specially calibrated version of BMW's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC-X) enhance foul-weather safety.
This is an interior designed for the business of driving. Bucket seats provide fine support without feeling hard, and come standard with six adjustments (manual on 325i sedans and wagons, power on coupes, convertibles, and 330i). The manual controls work well, though they are best used when the car is stationary. The 10-way power seats that come with the optional Sport Package are superb, adding more side bolstering for winding roads. The previously optional leather-covered steering wheel has been made standard for 2001, and it tilts and telescopes for optimum adjustment.
Dashboard and door panels are rich in appearance, and appealing to the eye. Different trim packages offer a choice of Myrtle wood inserts or plastic that looks like polished aluminum. The instruments themselves feature soft orange lighting, which help reduce glare at night; some people find orange instrument lighting easier on the eyes than other colors.
Most switches fall intuitively to the driver's fingertips, but the 3 Series interior is not without its faults. Like many European vehicles sold in markets that can't agree on which side to locate the steering wheel, the 3 Series puts its window controls on the center console, requiring a glance down to open or close a windows. Having the controls on the doors would make them much easier to use. Automatic climate control and a microfilter ventilation system are standard; but the radio buttons look a bit too similar to the climate controls, so again a glance down is required to change radio stations. (Optional volume and station controls located on the steering wheel address this.) Unattractive shallow cupholders in the center console seem like an afterthought.
The back seat is roomy enough for two adults during a night on the town, but bear in mind that the 3 Series is a compact. If rear cabin space is a top priority, you can find more for your money elsewhere.
The 3 Series cars are not class leaders when it comes to moving cargo, either. The trunk is small, the trunk opening is even smaller and the rear seats do not fold down.
Sport wagons seem the perfect solution for enthusiast drivers who need some cargo capacity. When the car is unlocked, the rear hatch could be opened by touching the electric release above the license plate; the rear glass can be opened by pressing a button under the rear wiper. The rear cargo cover is nicely designed with a vinyl panel that easily slides out and hooks into place to hide valuables. Alternatively, a net slides up and hooks onto the ceiling to allow cargo to be piled to the ceiling. With the dog fence in place, the 325i sport wagon can carry 25.7 cubic feet of cargo and four passengers. That's more than twice the 10.7 cubic feet the sedan can handle. That makes the wagon a much better choice at the airport, though it doesn't have the cargo capacity of an SUV or minivan. For more cargo space, it's easy to fold the rear seats down; and there's no need to remove the headrests. This reveals a nearly flat cargo area. It's plenty of room for two people involved in outdoor activities. Ski racks, bike racks and other accessories can be attached to the beefy roof rack rails.
Front and front side-impact airbags come standard; new for 2001 is a more sophisticated airbag management system that activates only the belt tensioner for a belted occupant in a moderate collision, saving the airbag for unbelted passengers and/or really serious crashes. The system also shuts off both the belt tensioner and the airbag on the passenger side if that seat is not occupied, saving repair costs after an accident. Also standard (on all but the convertibles) are head-protection airbags that deploy from the headliner along the length of both sides of the cabin. Rear side-impact airbags are optional.
Xenon high-intensity discharge low beams offer much better visibility on stormy nights and we recommend them as an option, even at $500. BMW's Park Distance Control, a $350 option on a
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.
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