2005 325 New Car Test Drive
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.