This is the benchmark. The BMW 3 Series cars are the aspiration for every automaker building a sports sedan or smaller luxury sedan.
There's a good reason for that. The 3 Series is superb. Whether it's the standard 325i or the high-performance M3, they are driver's cars. Dynamically, each is outstanding: a highly refined machine that corners, accelerates, and stops swiftly. The 3 Series puts drivers in touch with the road instead of isolating them. Driving the sedan, coupe, convertible or sport wagon is a joy. They blend luxury and sport with high levels of quality, making living with them joyful as well. Their interiors are well equipped and comfortable.
Other automakers are envious of the 3 Series for another reason: It exemplifies consistency in product character and values. BMW's 3 Series cars have been the benchmark for entry luxury cars for some time, and we do not see this changing soon.
The competition may be gaining, but BMW is hardly sitting still. For 2004, the 3 Series gets an extensive array of updates. The coupe and convertible are mildy restyled, front and rear, and there's more of just about everything: More technology, more standard equipment, more wheel design choices. 330 models now come standard with a 6-speed manual transmission, and BMW's trick Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) is offered on all rear-drive models. There's a new Performance Package for the 330i sedan that makes it a virtual four-door M3. All 3 Series are offered with a BMW Assist telematics package that no longer requires the optional navigation system.
The coupe and convertible prices increase several hundred dollars, but all 3 Series cars come with the same full-maintenance included for the duration of the four- year, 50,000-mile warranty. For entry luxury market shoppers who put a premium on driving satisfaction, the BMW 3 Series remains the place to start.
With their bold grilles, exotic-looking headlamps and short front and rear overhangs, the BMW 3 Series cars are striking. These beauties have never been the subject of the bold/ugly debate currently swirling around BMW's 5 Series and 7 Series models.
The current-generation 3 Series debuted in 1999. Each model is classic BMW: elegant and refined, but purposeful. The roofline is long and gracefully integrated into the short rear deck. The wheels fill the fenders wells to the flares and the body work seems wrapped tight, like it's stretched over muscle. If there was a picture in the dictionary of a sports sedan it would be a BMW 330i.
The 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, and for 2004 they actually turn into a curve as the car tracks through.
The sedan was the first of this latest generation 3 Series to be launched. It shares its styling and most of its bodywork with the sport wagon. Subtle changes to the design of the 3 Series sedans and wagons freshened their appearance in 2002 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. The front fascia now looks more like a true air dam, with round integrated fog lamps instead of small, thin rectangular lights. Character lines on the hood and front fenders were modified, and BMW's trademark dual-kidney grilles were widened. Bumpers, front and rear, have a simpler, cleaner look and redesigned taillights offer greater illuminated area.
Coupe and convertible models were introduced for 2000, and for 2004 they benefit from a freshening similar to that undertaken on the sedan two years ago. The headlights now sweep upward as they wrap around the sides of the car. The grilles are wider, and the contours of the hood, fenders and wheel flares are more prominent.
M3 models are distinguished by their hunkered stance, a deep front air dam, massive low-profile Michelin Pilot Sport tires tucked into aggressive fender flares, a bulging hood to accommodate the engine and unique horizontal air gills just below the windshield pillars. Even in a color as basic as white, the M3 attracts a lot of attention, particularly from enthusiasts who know that the special styling cues only hint at the car's performance potential. For 2004, the 330i Performance Package adds many of the same cues, creating the look of an M3 sedan (but without the M3 engine).
All 3 Series variants have well-designed exterior door handles that are easy to grab. The trunk lift grips have been widened for 2004. All variants are equipped with a new technology BMW calls adaptive brake lights. Introduced on the 7 Series, these illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the driver applies the brakes full-lock, or when the ABS operates. The idea is to inform drivers in cars following the 3 Series that it's stopping hard (and assumes the driver following knows how to decipher the signals).
The 3 Series interior is designed for the serious driver. The Natural Brown Leather ($1,450) is a classic shade and the quality of the leather is high, making for beautiful surroundings.
The front bucket seats provide good support without feeling hard, and come standard with six adjustments. The manual controls work well, though they are best used when the car is stationary. Power adjustments come standard on all models except 325i sedans. The 10-way power seats that come with some of the option packages 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. The rim is thick enough, and grippy, while the slim design of the hub is a benefit of the latest in compact airbag packaging. Audio and speed controls on the steering wheel work well and add convenience. Three different steering wheels are used depending on body style, model and options. The Performance Package for the 330i adds a suede-like Alcantara covering around the steering wheel similar to what's sometimes found on a contemporary race car. The M3 comes with a fat three-spoke steering wheel that mounts 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.
The dashboard and door panels are rich in appearance, and appealing to the eye. In recent years, some of the most noticeable 3 Series improvements have come in the quality of the hard and soft plastics inside. A titanium-finished plastic trim is used around the instrument panel, console, and doors. Genuine Myrtle wood or real aluminum inserts are optional. The instruments feature soft orange lighting, which helps reduce glare at night. Some people find orange backlighting 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. The window controls are located on the center console, allowing both front occupants to operate all windows, and presumably saving the cost of the switch typically installed on the passenger door. But the center switches require a glance down to open or close windows. The more common driver-door mounted window switches are usually easier to use. Fortunately, one-touch open/close operation is available for all windows and the sunroof, which is a nice feature.
Automatic climate control and a microfilter ventilation system are standard. Automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers are standard on 2004 models. The standard in-dash single-CD player is easy to operate; a cassette deck remains as a no-cost option. The Harman Kardon stereo upgrade ($695) with 12 speakers is one of the best-sounding radios BMW has offered. The steering wheel audio controls work well and add convenience.
We're not in love with the center console, which doesn't hold much and harkens back to a day of cheapish-looking 3 Series interiors. The flip-down armrest, standard since 2003, can get in the way when shifting. Shallow, unattractive cup holders in the 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 this class. The person in the middle needs to be a kid for any chance at comfort. The transmission tunnel rises nearly to the height of the seat, and the short-straw passenger in the center sits with legs straddled in the outside passengers' space. 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 they only open by flaring out a few inches at the back, as if to let stale air out rather than fresh air in.
The 3 Series cars lag behind the class when it comes to moving cargo. The trunk is small, and the trunk opening is even smaller. However, the Cold Weather Package ($1
Driving doesn't get much better than the BMW 3 Series, at least not with room for five, a high-level of all-season comfort and good mileage. Yes, some of its competitors offer a stronger price/equipment equation and comparable objective performance. But if you take off in a 3 Series and immediately realize the gap to the rest of the pack is wider than the price differential, then you can consider yourself an enthusiast driver and that your money was well spent.
If price is an issue, don't hesitate to choose the 325i. For a price less than the typical mid-size SUV, and nearly $7,000 less than the 330i, you get a true European 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 it has plenty of power and it's delivered in smooth, linear fashion with no significant dead spots or rushes. Just strong, steady 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 uses inline six-cylinder engines instead of V6s. Though it takes up more space, an inline-6 is has its strengths in terms of operational performance. Indeed, BMW believes that six pistons lined up in a row run more smoothly than two banks of three pistons arranged in a V, and we agree. Both 3 Series engines feature the latest high-output technology, including fully electronic throttle control and a dual-resonance intake system. The throttle feels light, responsive and linear in its power delivery. 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. Both engine meet new ULEV2 emissions standards in California and the Northeast.
The 330i's 3.0-liter engine delivers most of its 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 for the 330s with the manual transmission, versus 7.1 seconds for the 325i. Both top out at an electronically limited 128 mph, unless you order the Performance Package.
The new Performance Package for the 330i sedan adds 10 horsepower and 8 pounds-feet of torque to the 3.0-liter engine. Moreover, it includes an integrated package of performance upgrades, including a sport suspension tuned by BMW's elite M division, and a manual shifter that reduces shift throws 0.4 inch (the Performance Package is also offered with the automatic transmission). So equipped, the 330i sedan goes like a virtual four-door M3, with a similarly aggressive appearance for at least $7,000 less than the M3 coupe. This package trims another second from the 330i's 0-60 times: 5.4 seconds is fast for any sedan, much less one with a six-cylinder engine. The top speed extends to 155 mph, which is the voluntary limit adopted by most German automakers. We should note that this increase in speed is not solely because of the engine. The performance package includes Z-rated tires that are certified to operate safely at 155 mph. (That doesn't mean the driver will operate safely at this speed, however.)
Shifting in the 3 Series is a smooth, satisfying operation, even with the base five-speed manual in the 325 models. The shifter uses longer throws than that in a sports car, but its movement befits a world-class sports sedan. The six-speed in the 330 models adds more flexibility with six gears to choose from and reduces engine revs at cruising speeds. The short-throw shifter with the Performance Package is more like that of a sports car; it shortens lever movement between gears and snicks impressively from one slot to the next.
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 downshif
BMW's 3 Series cars offer a truly satisfying driving experience. They offer rear-wheel drive and manual transmissions, 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 330 is smoother and far quieter, and the Acura TL provides a roomier rear seat 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. It's four doors and usable rear seat are practical, 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. The coupes add sports appeal with their two-door styling, and their split rear seats provide 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. The M3 is the best, earthly priced high-performance car on the market with a real back seat. Order mine with the Sequential Manual Gearbox. The 330i sedan with the new Performance Package may offer the best balance of all 12 variants measured by price, performance and practicality.
Concerned about maintenance costs? Free scheduled maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles comes standard with all 2004 BMW 3 Series models.
Depending on equipment, the 3 Series can be pricey, measured by objective values of space, features and horsepower for the money. Subjectively, there is nothing better in the class. There's no mystery why the 3 Series remains the benchmark for moderately priced sports sedans. It's been that way since the late 1970s, and we don't see it changing.
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