Manual transmissions are a scarcity. For nearly a decade, we’ve heard BMW tout its vehicles as the “ultimate driving machine.” This mantra certainly fits with the 2021 BMW 3-Series, as we have found it truly fun to drive.
Along the way, though, BMW weighed the shrinking number of manual transmission-consumers against the cost of offering manual gearboxes and dropped them from every 3-Series model – except for the range-topping M3. Automatic transmissions and paddle shifters are the way forward now, to the disappointment of core enthusiasts.
Obtaining a manually operated transmission will cost you, with a BMW M3 retailing from $70,000. That’s a steep price to pay for anyone who prefers to row their own.
Small sedan, big performance. There isn’t a slow 3-Series to be had anywhere, and that’s a good thing. The product line is composed entirely of turbocharged four- and six-cylinder engines, powering everything from the standard model with rear-wheel drive to the potent M3. Although RWD is standard, most sales are for all-wheel-drive xDrive models.
New this year is a 330e plug-in hybrid. This one comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a net 288 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. The PHEV features 22 miles of electric-only driving, according to the EPA, which is ideal for managing short trips around town.
The standard gas engine is a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder with 255 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Like the other trims, this one works with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Move up to the M340i and this trim comes with a 3.0-liter turbo inline-six with 382 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque.
Two years after the 3-Series received its latest overhaul, the M3 arrives and brings with it heart-thumping power. It also uses a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, but adds twin turbos to bang out 473 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque in the standard model or a whopping 503 and 479 in the Competition. A 0-60 mph time of under four seconds is possible with the Competition.
Styling from mild to wild. We’re accustomed to the 3-Series’ look, one that has spawned countless imitators through the years. On the standard 330i and M340i the look is clean and conservative with decent detailing and an interior that’s simply a cut above. Even with the M340i’s body kit, the chunkiness doesn’t overwhelm the canvas.
Where the standard look is mild, the M3 goes wild. Much of that has to do with the oversized twin-kidney grille and its gaping snouts. We saw the look when it appeared in the BMW M4 coupe last year and hoped it wouldn’t mark (some would say mar) the look of the new M3’s front end, but BMW determined to do otherwise. It’s a polarizing look, that’s for certain, with some welcoming the change, while others may be hard-pressed to move forward with their purchase decision.
Inside, the sedan’s cabin features real wood or aluminum accents and handsome ambient lights. The digitized displays for the instrument panel and center console are most welcome. The fit and finish are exquisite – we’d expect nothing less with a BMW.
Advanced safety features, for a price. The 3-Series holds a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS, and that’s where we expected this sedan to rate. You’ll find the usual crash avoidance features, although some require costly upgrades to obtain them.
Every model comes with lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and automatic emergency braking. We like the available adaptive cruise control plus tech as it supplies limited handsfree driving, which is ideal for reducing traffic fatigue. Also, the headlights that are prized the most are bundled within a pricey options package.
Final thoughts. The 2021 BMW 3-Series is the standard in the compact luxury sedan segment. With great technology, excellent fit and finish, and stunning engines, it offers something for most buyers. Purists will bemoan the lack of a manual transmission outside of the M3, while others will dismiss it because of its styling. We think that'd be a mistake.
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