Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
BMW keeps raising the bar.
BMW's 3 Series offers a full line of driver's cars. The 3 Series is composed of sedans, coupes, convertibles, and wagons. They vary in price, power, and packaging, but all are superb cars. Each is a great driver's car within its respective price range.
All 3 Series models are highly refined machines that corner, accelerate and stop swiftly. These cars put drivers in touch with the road instead of isolating them. Their interiors are well-equipped and comfortable.
Styling revisions freshen the sedans and sport wagons for 2002.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the BMW 3 Series continues to serve as a benchmark for other automakers.
The current generation of 3 Series cars debuted in 1999 and has since grown to 10 models. All 3 Series models are based on the same chassis and all ride on the same 107.3-inch wheelbase. However, the two-door coupes and convertibles share few body panels with the four-door sedans and wagons.
Two engines are available; both are inline six-cylinder engines. As the nomenclature indicates, 325 models get a 2.5-liter engine, while 330 models get a 3.0-liter engine. Wagons are only available with the 2.5-liter engine; sedan, coupe, and convertible are available with either engine.
The 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine is used in the 325i sedan ($27,100); 325i sport wagon ($29,500); 325Ci coupe ($29,100); 325Ci convertible ($36,100).
The 225-horsepower 3.0-liter engine is used in the 330i sedan ($33,990); 330Ci coupe ($34,990); and 330Ci convertible ($42,400). 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 ($28,850) and 330xi ($35,740) sedans and the 325xi sport wagon ($31,250) offer much better traction and control in slippery conditions. For 2002, these all-wheel-drive models, denoted by the x, get Hill Descent Control added to the upgraded Dynamic Stability Control system.
The higher price of coupes and convertibles includes a slightly higher level of luxury equipment than what comes standard on sedans and wagons.
All models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission. Automatic transmissions are available: A superb ZF-built five-speed Steptronic ($1275).
For 2002, BMW has added functions to the standard Dynamic Stability Control system, including a new traction-control mode. New optional run-flat tires with a monitor are available for 330 models. Also optional are new wheel designs and 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.
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.
Bi-xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps offer much better visibility on stormy nights and we recommend them. 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 ($45,900) and M3 convertible ($53,900), which boast much higher levels of performance and handling. (Look for separate review of the BMW M3 at NewCarTestDrive.com.).
The 3 Series 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. These cars are striking in appearance with their bold grilles, exotic-looking headlamps, and short front and rear overhangs. 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. And the other models take full advantage of that.
Traditional quad headlamps are enclosed in aerodynamic covers. For 2002, BMW has upgraded the optional xenon headlights to bi-xenon lights, which include both 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 this year has freshened their appearance. Most people won't notice the differences, but park a new 3 Series sedan or sport wagon next to a 2001 model and the details are readily apparent.
For 2002, the sedan and sport wagon feature 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. This year the lower grille is split all the way across. Bumpers, front and rear, have been given a simpler, cleaner look and the taillight units' functional segments reapportioned to give the main taillights greater illuminated area. The grilles, continuing BMW's dual-kidneys tradition, have been widened. The hood's character lines now sweep outward and rearward from the grilles' upper outer corners back to the body's A-pillars. Front fenders are 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 and go into 2002 without any significant styling changes. Their headlamp cluster wraparounds taper down rather than up.
Well-designed exterior door handles are easy to grab.
The 3 Series interior is designed for the serious driver. Our 330i sedan came with the handsome Natural Brown Leather ($1450) package that's new for 2002. It's a classic shade and the quality of the leather is high, making for a beautiful interior.
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.
Dashboard and door panels are rich in appearance, and appealing to the eye. For 2002, a new titanium finish on the instrument panel, console, and doors comes standard. 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. For 2002, 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.
I don't particularly care for the center console. The flip down armrest is a bit in the way when shifting and unattractive shallow cup holders in the center console seem like an afterthought.
The back seat 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. If rear cabin space is a top priority, you can find more for your money elsewhere. The Acura TL, for example, offers a roomier back seat, but it's no BMW.
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.
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 place to hide valuables. Alternatively, a net slides up and hooks onto the ceiling to allow cargo to be piled to the ceiling. With the dog fence in place, the 325i sport wagon can carry 25.7 cubic feet of cargo and four passengers. That's more than twice the 10.7 cubic feet of cargo the sedan can handle. That makes the wagon a much better choice at the airport, though it doesn't have the cargo capacity of an SUV or minivan. For more cargo space, it's easy to fold the wagon's rear seats down; there's no need to remove the headrests. This reveals a nearly flat cargo area. It's plenty of room for two people involved in outdoor activities. Ski racks, bike racks and other accessories can be attached to the beefy roof ra.
Every car manufacturer, it seems, wants to build a BMW beater, and after looking at competent sedans such as the Acura TL one might begin to think they offer better value when measured against BMW's 3 Series cars. Then you get into a 330i sedan, or any of the other 3 Series models, and you realize the gap is far 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 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. Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go? Both models top out at an electronically limited 128 mph.
Bucking a worldwide trend, 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. For 2002, BMW has 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.
These cars are extremely stable. I found it difficult to obey the 55 mph speed limit while driving a 325i sedan around Washington's Capitol Beltway, and impossible to stay within the law on Maryland's back roads. The 330i is so smooth and stable that I needed to trail-brake the first time I came into a favorite sweeping turn, realizing that I was coming into it a little hotter than usual.
The suspension is tight, feeling like fine machinery. A 325i driven last year didn't seem as quiet, nor did it ride as smoothly as the best luxury sedans from Japan. But these cars feel much tauter. A 2002 330i sedan driven back to back with an Acura TL Type-S immediately showed how vastly more sophisticated the suspension felt. These cars put the driver in touch with the road. You hear and feel what's going on, though the outside world is muted well enough to ensure comfort. It's a balance that BMW masters. The stiff chassis structure allows the suspension to dampen irritating road vibration, reducing the chance of squeaks and rattles.
Steering response is more like that of a sports car than a luxury sedan. There's little play in the steering and the feeling is one of directness. This car goes exactly where you point.
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.
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.
The purchase price of all 3 Series models includes scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles.
325i sedan ($27,100); 330i sedan ($33,990); 325Ci coupe ($29,100); 330Ci coupe ($34,990); 325i sport wagon ($29,500); 325Ci convertible ($36,100); 330Ci convertible ($42,400); 325xi sedan ($28,850); 330xi sedan ($35,740); 325xi sport wagon ($31,250).
Options As Tested
Natural Brown Leather ($1450); Cold Weather Package ($1000) includes heated front seats, split fold-down rear seats, ski bag, rear armrest, headlamp cleaning system; power glass moonroof ($1050); bi-xenon headlamps ($700); Oxford Green metallic paint ($475); Sport Package ($1200) includes M double-spoke alloy wheels, performance tires, adjustable front sport seats, aerodynamic package, leather sport steering wheel.
330i sedan ($33,990).
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