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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.
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.
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,
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.