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BMW's 3 Series offers a full line of driver's cars. The 3 Series is composed of sedans, coupes, convertibles, and wagons. They vary in price, power, and packaging, but all are superb cars. Each is a great driver's car within its respective price range.
All 3 Series models are highly refined machines that corner, accelerate and stop swiftly. These cars put drivers in touch with the road instead of isolating them. Their interiors are well-equipped and comfortable.
Styling revisions freshen the sedans and sport wagons for 2002.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the BMW 3 Series continues to serve as a benchmark for other automakers.
Two engines are available; both are inline six-cylinder engines. As the nomenclature indicates, 325 models get a 2.5-liter engine, while 330 models get a 3.0-liter engine. Wagons are only available with the 2.5-liter engine; sedan, coupe, and convertible are available with either engine.
The 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine is used in the 325i sedan ($27,100); 325i sport wagon ($29,500); 325Ci coupe ($29,100); 325Ci convertible ($36,100).
The 225-horsepower 3.0-liter engine is used in the 330i sedan ($33,990); 330Ci coupe ($34,990); and 330Ci convertible ($42,400). In addition to the increased power, 330 models come with more standard equipment and design upgrades. One example: 17-inch wheels with V-rated tires in place of the 325's standard 16-inch wheels with H-rated tires.
All-wheel-drive 325xi ($28,850) and 330xi ($35,740) sedans and the 325xi sport wagon ($31,250) offer much better traction and control in slippery conditions. For 2002, these all-wheel-drive models, denoted by the x, get Hill Descent Control added to the upgraded Dynamic Stability Control system.
The higher price of coupes and convertibles includes a slightly higher level of luxury equipment than what comes standard on sedans and wagons.
All models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission. Automatic transmissions are available: A superb ZF-built five-speed Steptronic ($1275).
For 2002, BMW has added functions to the standard Dynamic Stability Control system, including a new traction-control mode. New optional run-flat tires with a monitor are available for 330 models. Also optional are new wheel designs and 18-inch wheels and tires.
Smart front and front side-impact airbags come standard. 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.
Which model? The 325i sedan is a terrific car and you may never miss the power of the 330i. The sport wagons add space and versatility and the only way we could tell we weren't driving a sedan was to glance into the rear view mirror; it's taut. Coupes add sports appeal with their two-door styling, while split rear seats offer some versatility. The convertible, well, do you have to ask? The 330 models add a lot of performance to the equation. All-wheel drive offers winter capability to a car not noted for that and is equipped with a more sophisticated Dynamic Stability Control system.
Bi-xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps offer much better visibility on stormy nights and we recommend them. BMW's Park Distance Control ($350) works great, beeping to warn the driver of objects behind the car during parking maneuvers.
Related to the 3 Series are the M3 coupe ($45,900) and M3 convertible ($53,900), which boast much higher levels of performance and handling. (Look for separate review of the BMW M3 at NewCarTestDrive.com.)
Every car manufacturer, it seems, wants to build a BMW beater, and after looking at competent sedans such as the Acura TL one might begin to think they offer better value when measured against BMW's 3 Series cars. Then you get into a 330i sedan, or any of the other 3 Series models, and you realize the gap is far wider than price differential.
If price is an issue, then don't hesitate to choose the 325i. For nearly $7,000 less, you 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 linearly 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.
The 3.0-liter engine delivers more gusto at the top of the rev range, yet is surprisingly strong at lower engine speeds, too. BMW claims a 0-60 mph time of 6.4 seconds, versus 7.1 seconds for the 325i. Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go? Both models top out at an electronically limited 128 mph.
Bucking a worldwide trend, BMW uses inline six-cylinder 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 feature fully electronic throttle control, variable valve timing, and a dual-resonance intake system. The throttle feels light and linear, perhaps because of the electronic throttle control.
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. For 2002, BMW has switched shifting directions: Now, tip the shift lever forward to downshift, pull it rearward to upshift. Steptronic can be useful and entertaining. But the real benefit 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.
These cars are extremely stable. I found it difficult to obey the 55 mph speed limit while driving a 325i sedan around Washington's Capitol Beltway, and impossible to stay within the law on Maryland's back roads. The 330i is so smooth and stable that I needed to trail-brake the first time I came into a favorite sweeping turn, realizing that I was coming into it a little hotter than usual.
The suspension is tight, feeling like fine machinery. A 325i driven last year didn't seem as quiet, nor did it ride as smoothly as the best luxury sedans from Japan. But these cars feel much tauter. A 2002 330i sedan driven back to back with an Acura TL Type-S immediately showed how vastly more sophisticated the suspension felt. These cars put 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
BMW's 3 Series cars offer a truly satisfying driving experience. They offer rear-wheel drive and 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 roomier rear seating accommodations and more features 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.
These BMWs are superb cars and that's why the 3 Series continues to be the benchmark for sports sedans. It's been that way since the late 1970s, and we don't see it changing.
The purchase price of all 3 Series models includes scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles.