BMW introduced a new 3 Series sedan for 1999, and this year it rolls out a two-door coupe version. But wait, more is on the way: A convertible and a station wagon are scheduled to arrive in the spring to round out the lineup.
Though the market for near-luxury cars like the 3 Series is dominated by front-wheel-drive models, BMW sticks with its traditional rear-drive layout, which the German company says provides optimum handling. It is hard to argue with that decision based on sales. The 3 Series currently outsells its key front-wheel-drive rivals, the Lexus ES300, Infiniti I30 and Acura 3.2TL.
At first glance, the new 3 Series coupe looks like the sedan with two fewer doors. However, BMW says the two share no body panels. The coupe retains BMW's trademark look with four round headlamps and a twin-kidney grille, though both differ from the sedan's.
The coupe is slightly longer and wider than the sedan and 1.8 inches lower. In addition, the coupe's windshield is raked two degrees more. The sedan and coupe share a 107.3-inch wheelbase.
The current 3 Series design is roomier than the previous generation, but rear-seat passengers still do not have room to stretch their legs. There is adequate space for two average-size adults. The front bucket seats, on the other hand, have ample space. Leather upholstery is optional.
A typical BMW dashboard positions large, clearly marked gauges where they are easy to see, and the stereo and climate controls are simple pushbuttons within easy reach.
Under the Hood
Two inline six-cylinder engines are available. The 323i (sedan) and 323Ci (coupe) use a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter engine, and the 328i and 328Ci use a 2.8-liter engine with 193 horsepower. Both come with a standard five-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic transmission. The automatic allows clutchless manual shifting.
Anti-lock brakes, traction control and Dynamic Stability Control, which reduces engine power and applies the brakes to prevent skids, are standard on all models.
All models have standard side-impact airbags for the front seats and the Head Protection System, a protective tube that deploys on impact to protect a front-seat occupant from hitting the side window. Rear side-impact airbags are optional on the sedan.
BMW's Head Protection System uses a tubular airbag to protect a front-seat occupant from hitting the side window.
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, the airbag does not deploy.
BMW stays true to its roots, stressing dynamic performance over luxury amenities. The prices start at nearly $28,000 and get close to $40,000 on a loaded 328Ci, but BMWs hold their value well, reducing the overall cost.
To combat the impression that BMW stands for "Break My Wallet" when it comes to parts and service, the company provides free scheduled maintenance the first three years.