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This is the benchmark. The BMW 3 Series cars are the aspiration for every automaker building a sports sedan or mid-size luxury sedan.
There's a good reason for that. The 3 Series cars are superb. Whether it's the 325i or the M3, these are terrific driver's cars. Each of them is dynamically outstanding, a highly refined machine that corners, accelerates, and stops swiftly. These cars put drivers in touch with the road instead of isolating them. Driving them is a joy. Their blend of luxury and sports and their high levels of quality makes living with them joyful as well. Their interiors are well-equipped and comfortable.
Another reason automakers are envious of the 3 Series is that it exemplifies BMW's consistency in product character and value. The 3 Series cars have been the benchmark for quite some time now and we do not see this changing in the near future.
2003 brings only minor changes to the line. Among them: The available BMW Onboard Navigation System has been re-engineered. Sedans add a center rear head restraint as standard equipment. BMW's Full Maintenance Program now covers four years or 50,000 miles, up from 3/36,000 previously.
The 3 Series is composed of sedans, coupes, convertibles, and wagons. Ten models are available, varying considerably in price, power, and packaging, plus there two M3 models. All are based on the same chassis and all ride on the same 107.3-inch wheelbase, but the coupes and convertibles share few body panels with the sedans and wagons.
Two engines are available, both inline six-cylinder engines. As the 3 Series nomenclature indicates, 325 models get a 2.5-liter engine, while 330 models get a 3.0-liter engine. Sedan, coupe, and convertible are available with either engine; wagons are only available with the 2.5-liter engine.
The 325i sedan ($27,800); 325i sport wagon ($30,400); 325Ci coupe ($29,600); 325Ci convertible ($36,700) are powered by the 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine. The higher price of coupes and convertibles includes a slightly higher level of luxury equipment than what comes standard on sedans and wagons.
The 330i sedan ($34,600); 330Ci coupe ($35,600); and 330Ci convertible ($42,900) benefit from the 225-horsepower 3.0-liter engine. 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 ($29,550) and 330xi ($36,350) sedans and the 325xi sport wagon ($32,150) offer much better traction and control in slippery conditions. They come equipped with Hill Descent Control, which could prove helpful when descending a steep, slippery driveway or back road.
All models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission. Automatic transmissions are available: A superb ZF-built five-speed Steptronic ($1275). Dynamic Stability Control comes standard on all models. Run-flat tires are an option on 330 models with an upgraded Tire Pressure Monitor for 2003. Also optional are 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. Bi-xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps offer much better visibility on stormy nights, but sometimes annoy other drivers. 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 ($46,500) and M3 convertible ($54,500), which boast much higher levels of performance and handling. Part of that comes via the 3.2-liter engine rated at 333 hp. The optional Sequential Manual Gearbox ($2700) is fantastic if you like it, but try it out to be sure.
Walkaround The BMW 3 Series cars are striking in appearance with their bold grilles, exotic-looking headlamps, and short front and rear overhangs. The current-generation 3 Series debuted in 1999. These cars sport BMW's classic look. They look elegant and refined, but purposeful. The roofline is long and gracefully integrated into the short rear deck. Their wheels fill the fenders and the body work seems wrapped tight, like it's stretched over muscle. The 3 Series sedans have the look of a true sports sedan. If there was a picture in the dictionary of a sports sedan it would be a BMW 330i.
Quad headlamps are enclosed in aerodynamic covers. The optional bi-xenon lights include low and high beams; the outer lamps provide high-intensity discharge illumination on low and high beams, while the inner lamps augment the high beams with halogen lighting. Auto-leveling of the bi-xenon lamps is included.
Introduced for model year 1999, the sedan was the first of this latest generation of 3 Series cars; it shares its styling and most of its body work with the sport wagon. Subtle changes to the design of the 3 Series sedans and sport wagons for 2002 freshened their appearance with redesigned front fascias, front and rear bumpers, grilles, headlamps, tail lamps, hoods, and fenders. Similar to the theme set by the new 7 Series, the headlamps now tilt up at the trailing edges of the wraparounds rather than tilting down as they have traditionally. BMW also redesigned the shape of the cutouts below the headlamps. When equipped with the aerodynamic package, the front fascia looks like more of an air dam than before with round integrated fog lamps instead of small, thin rectangular lights. The lower grille is split all the way across. Bumpers, front and rear, have a simpler, cleaner look and redesigned taillight units offer greater illuminated area. The grilles, continuing BMW's dual-kidneys tradition, were widened. The hood's character lines sweep outward and rearward from the grilles' upper outer corners back to the body's A-pillars. Front fenders were also modified, with more prominent wheel-opening flares that interrupt the side character lines for an additional element of design interest.
Coupe and convertible models were introduced for 2000 with updated design cues. Their headlamp cluster wraparounds taper down rather than up.
M3 models are distinguished by the hunkered stance, the deep front airdam with its vast opening, aggressive fender flares, massive low-profile Michelin Pilot Sport tires, the bulging hood (necessary to accommodate the engine), dual twin exhaust tips, even the horizontal air gills just below the windshield pillar. Even in a color as basic as white, the M3 attracts a lot of attention, particularly from men who notice its special styling cues that only hint at its amazing performance potential.
Well-designed exterior door handles are easy to grab. Interior Features The 3 Series interior is designed for the serious driver. The Natural Brown Leather ($1450) is a classic shade and the quality of the leather is high, making for a beautiful interior. The M3 Coupe we drove had an Imola Red interior that was sporty and handsome.
Bucket seats provide fine support without feeling hard, and come standard with six adjustments. Power adjustments come standard on all models except 325i sedans. The manual controls on the 325i sedan 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, and slide-out thigh support.
The leather-covered steering wheel tilts and telescopes for optimum adjustment. Its slim design is a benefit of the latest in compact airbag packaging. Audio and speed controls on the steering wheel work well and add convenience. Two different steering wheels are used depending on body style and model. M3 comes with a fat three-spoke steering wheel that contains buttons for cruise control, the audio system, and a factory-installed phone, which makes it bulkier and less racy than the Audi TT steering wheel.
Dashboard and door panels are rich in appearance, and appealing to the eye. A titanium finish is used around the instrument panel, console, and doors. Genuine myrtle wood inserts are optional. 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. Window controls are located 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. Auto up/auto down is available for all windows and the sunroof, which is a nice feature.
Automatic climate control and a microfilter ventilation system are standard. Automatic headlamps are available. The in-dash single-CD player that now comes standard is easy to operate; the previous cassette deck is available as a no-cost option. The Harmon Kardon stereo with 12 upgraded speakers sounds great. Available steering wheel audio controls work well and add convenience.
We're not in love with the center console, which doesn't hold much. The flip down armrest, standard for 2003, is a bit in the way when shifting and unattractive shallow cup holders in the center console seem like an afterthought.
The back seat in the sedans is roomy enough for two adults during a night on the town, but it's not as roomy as some of the other cars in its class. There's a reasonable amount of room in the rear, but the middle person needs to be a kid to have any chance at comfort, as the transmission tunnel rises nearly to the height of the seat. If rear cabin space is a top priority, you can find more for your money elsewhere. Practically speaking, the Coupes fit between a two-plus-two sports car and a sports sedan. The rear windows in the Coupe are power operated, but it's almost an affectation, because they only open by flaring out a few inches at the back, as if to let stale air out, not fresh air in.
The 3 Series cars are not class leaders when it comes to moving cargo, either. The trunk is small, and the trunk opening is even smaller. However, the Cold Weather Package ($1000) adds split fold-down rear seats with a ski boot and armrest, plus other features. The convertible offers little in the way of trunk space.
Sport wagons seem the perfect solution for enthusiast drivers who need some cargo capacity. When the car is unlocked, the rear hatch can be opened by touching the electric release above the license plate; or just 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
Driving doesn't get much better than the BMW 3 Series. Some of its competitors appear to offer a strong value and comparable performance. But climb into a BMW and take off and you realize the gap is 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 330i's 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. Both top out at an electronically limited 128 mph.
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. Last year, BMW 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.
M3 models offer a Sequential Manual Gearbox that you'll either love or hate. At first, I hated it, but after a few days I loved it. It's important to understand this is not an automatic transmission per se. If you want a smooth-shifting automatic, this isn't it. While the Steptronic is an automatic with a manual feature, the SMG is a manual with an automatic feature. Like a Formula 1 car or a Ferrari 360 Modena, the SMG has a clutch, but no clutch pedal. In automatic mode, it shifts like some robot is working the clutch for you. When I first climbed into the M3, it was set in the slow mode, which, to me, feels like someone who hasn't mastered smoothly coordinating the gas and clutch pedals: the car slows down, the shift is made, and the gas comes back on. Dial this up to the fastest setting and it shifts quickly and abruptly, more like an F1 machine. Advanced engine electronics interrupt the engine's power for just milliseconds, the control unit opens and closes the clutch, and changes gears electro-hydraulically. You can also set it for manual shifting. The sequential gearbox is operated either by the shift lever or with butterfly paddles on the steering wheel (one to upshift, one to downshift). The stick has a great feel and it responds like a manual with similar or better performance. Downshifting is really cool as it blips the engine,
Summary 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.
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. The M3 is the best high-performance car on the market that isn't a total exotic. Order mine with the Sequential Manual Gearbox.
Concerned about maintenance costs? Free scheduled maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles comes standard with all 2003 BMW 3 Series models.
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.
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