BMWs 3 Series is a popular choice among buyers entering the luxury market because of its sporty image and reputation for quality. This also makes it a prime target for competitors. Two key rivals are zeroing in on the 3 Series this year: Lexus with its new IS 300 and Mercedes-Benz with a redesigned C-Class line. Next year, Jaguar will introduce its own 3 Series rival.
BMW is defending its turf with two new inline-six-cylinder engines, two new body styles, optional all-wheel drive and a high-performance M3 model. The new engines arrive this fall; convertible and wagon body styles arrived last spring, joining the sedan and coupe; and the M3 is due later this model year.
All models come with standard rear-wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is a new option for the sedan and wagon. The AWD option includes Dynamic Stability Control BMWs electronic stability system.
At first glance, the sedan and coupe look the same except for the number of doors. BMW, however, says the two share no body panels. The convertible shares the coupes styling. They retain BMWs trademark look with four round headlamps and a twin-kidney grille, though they are different from the sedans front features.
At 176.7 inches, the coupe and convertible are slightly longer than the 176-inch sedan; they are also wider and lower than the sedan. In addition, the windshield on the coupe and convertible is raked 2 degrees more. All three share a 107-inch wheelbase.
A manual folding top is standard on the convertible, and a power top is optional.
The current 3 Series design is roomier than the previous generation, but backseat passengers will not have room to stretch their legs; the accommodations in back are rather austere. BMW lists the sedan as a five-passenger car and the coupe and convertible as four-passenger vehicles. The front bucket seats, on the other hand, have ample space.
A typical BMW dashboard arrays large, clearly marked gauges where they are easy to see, and the stereo and climate controls are simple push-buttons within easy reach.
Under the Hood
New engines are the result of new model designations this year. A 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine replaces a 170-hp engine of the same size, and a 225-hp 3.0-liter replaces a 2.8-liter engine. Sedans are now designated 325i instead of 323i, and 330i instead of 328i. Coupes and convertibles are labeled 325Ci and 330Ci. Sedans with the new all-wheel-drive option are designated 325xi and 330xi.
Both engines are available with five-speed transmissions or five-speed automatic manual. The automatic allows manual gear changing.
All models have standard side-impact and curtain-type airbags for the front seats, and rear-seat side airbags are optional on the sedan. The front airbags are designed to deploy with less force in low-speed impacts and with full force in severe collisions. If the front passenger seat is unoccupied in a crash, that airbag will not deploy. Antilock brakes, traction control and Dynamic Stability Control, which reduces engine power and applies the brakes to prevent skids, are standard on all models.
While competitors debate whether to emphasize luxury or performance, BMW stays true to its roots, stressing dynamic qualities over luxury amenities. Lexus and Mercedes exemplify two rivals that are trying to emulate BMWs success in drawing young buyers with a performance-oriented image.
All models offer adept handling and spirited performance, and 3 Series prices are competitive with other near-luxury cars. The biggest drawback for those who can afford these cars may be the small rear seat.