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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Kelsey Mays
March 24, 2010
Driving around Chicago in the winter involves too many cold mornings, too many potholes and too many roads that run in any direction you'd like, so long as they're straight. It takes a car like the BMW 3 Series to remind me that driving can still be fun; that the 3 is also livable during the daily grind is equally impressive. The 3 Series isn't the only car with such capabilities, though; others come close, and many do so for considerably less money. Venerable though it is, BMW's best-seller needs a few updates to maintain its edge.
The 3 Series comes in 328i and 335i variants, with normally aspirated and turbocharged six-cylinder engines, respectively. There's also a high-performance V-8-powered M3 and a diesel 335d; we cover the M3 separately on Cars.com. What kind of engine is available in each body style varies, but you can get a 3 Series in coupe, sedan, wagon or retractable-hardtop convertible layouts, most of them with rear- or all-wheel drive. I drove an all-wheel-drive, stick-shift 335i coupe. I've also driven the current generation's 328i, M3 and 335d in previous model years. Click here to see a comparison of all the variants. Exterior & Styling The current 3 Series sedan arrived for the 2006 model year, and it's gained yuppie ubiquity around my North Chicago neighborhood that's matched only by … well, a slew of Lexus IS and Mercedes C-Class sedans, actually. The BMW mixes well. It's a conservative design that takes few risks, even in coupe form — unusual restraint from an automaker responsible for the more controversial prior-generation 7 Series, the outgoing 5 Series and the current X6. If the 3 Series is BMW's bread and butter, perhaps it's a good thing the automaker stayed the uncontroversial route.
Sixteen-inch alloy wheels adorn the 328i sedan and wagon. Other 328i and all 335i models get 17s. If you like the M3's more aggressive bodywork, an optional M Sport Package imitates the look — if a bit stiltedly — on non-M cars, complete with 18- or 19-inch wheels. The 2011 3 Series coupe and convertible, which hit dealerships in the coming weeks, have updated styling with cues from BMW's Z4, as well as a few mechanical changes. Check out the changes here. The Moves The 230-horsepower 328i moves more capably from stoplights than its mere 200 pounds-feet of torque would suggest. Highway passing power feels modest, however, and you'll want to pay close attention during your test drive if you're getting the optional six-speed automatic. The last 328i I drove — a 2007 automatic convertible — didn't upshift smoothly around town. The 3 Series uses the same transmission today, but it's possible the software has been updated for smoother shifts. See how it works on your test drive and shoot me an email with your assessment.
The turbocharged 335i moves swiftly at any speed. I found usable passing power as low as 1,300 rpm. Push harder, and a hint of turbo lag precedes a surge of power that doesn't build so much as it stays there, even as the tach needle heads toward its redline. If all-out punch is what you want, the 335i delivers more of it at any speed than its competitors. The direct-injection Cadillac CTS feels ploddingly modest by comparison; the Infiniti G37 matches BMW's excitement, but only when pushed hard. Put simply, the 335i feels like a quick car all the time.
It's a shame BMW paired this engine with such a lackluster stick shift. My test car had a well-weighted clutch and decent gate placements, but the shifter had longish, rubbery throws; even with practice, upshifts took far too long. The shifter has been this way in too many BMWs for too many years, while other manual sport sedans — from the Infiniti G to the Audi A4 — have offered increasingly well-executed shifters. Attention, BMW: The emperor is long overdue for some clothes. (There's evidence he's donned a pair of socks: BMW's redesigned Z4 has a much-improved manual shifter. Let's hope it makes its way elsewhere.)
The six-speed automatic that's optional on the 335i is different from the automatic in the 328i, so it might suffer from fewer glitches; I've driven only the stick-shift 335i. The diesel-powered 335d, meanwhile, comes only with a six-speed automatic. Upshifts and downshifts are relatively smooth, though the latter are rarely needed. With 425 pounds-feet of torque at just 1,750 rpm, the 335d can scoot comfortably around slower traffic in sixth gear — uphill, if necessary. Diesel engines are renowned for their fuel efficiency, and proof comes in the 335d's EPA-rated 23/36 mpg city/highway.
Brakes are a BMW forte, and my tester's antilockdiscs didn't disappoint. Some may find the pedal grabby at first, but with practice it becomes easy to dole out exactly how much stopping power you want. The 328i has smaller brake discs than do the 335i and 335d.
My tester's xDrive all-wheel drive proved unflappable, with virtually no wheelspin on icy roads. Though it transfers power as needed between the front and rear axles, it doesn't overdrive the outside rear wheels during corners like the xDrive in BMW's X6 and X5 M do. City drivers should also take note: xDrive increases the 3 Series' turning circle from a relatively tight 36.1 feet to a so-so 38.7 feet. Ride & Handling The 335i's expert handling may not be too surprising; the fact that it rides fairly well, however, will be. Absent a sport-tuned suspension — part of sport packages offered on the rear-wheel-drive 3 Series — my test car absorbed bumps with unexpected aplomb. It's not the quietest car over potholes and expansion joints, but the rough patches never left me wishing I were driving something softer.
The steering wheel unwinds to center naturally, with none of the pockets of inexplicable numbness or sudden resistance that many European cars exhibit. It provides excellent turn-in precision and good feedback. With just a hint of understeer at the limits, the 335i displays a degree of balance that had me grinning. Though not objectionable, body roll is noticeable; those who want flatter cornering should look into a rear-wheel-drive 3 Series with either of two available sport packages. Naturally, the sport-tuned suspension will affect ride quality.
Heavy, low-assist steering is a BMW trademark, but competitors these days — the Audi A4 jumps to mind — return similar precision with much less effort. I've grown tired of the muscle needed to park a 3 Series. (Or, quite possibly, I've just become flabbier.) Introduced in the early 2000s, BMW's Active Steering system varies steering ratio in addition to the usual assist — and it delivers a much easier driving experience, particularly at low speeds. Optional on the rear-wheel-drive 335i, it's worth checking out. The Inside Cabin materials are good, with plenty of padded surfaces and tasteful metal trim. Radio and climate controls are easy to find and use, if a bit rickety in certain areas, and my test car's heated seats worked quickly. BMW's fourth-generation iDrive system, which uses a knob to control the optional navigation system, has a vastly improved interface compared with earlier iDrives. My test car's iPod-compatible CD stereo, on the other hand, delivered mediocre sound. (Logic7 surround-sound audio is an optional upgrade.)
BMW could take a page from the competition — and a number of non-luxury cars — on a few features. Sport sedans aren't known for their large storage areas, but the 3 Series' glove compartment and center console are embarrassingly small. The coupe's motorized seat belt extenders often miss the seat belts but catch other things, like my coat. The flip-out dashboard cupholders are flimsy contraptions, and one passenger complained that they intruded on her space.
The optional leather seats have supportive cushions and large enough side bolsters to hold you in place on curvy roads. The power front seats — optional on most 328i variants and standard elsewhere — have exceptional adjustment range, but taller drivers may find headroom tight.
For a two-door car, the 3 Series coupe's backseat isn't bad. Adults should find enough headroom and legroom for short trips. The Infiniti G37 coupe's backseat, in comparison, would have kids complaining about space. The sedan's backseat isn't much larger, however; as sedan backseats go, it's tight.
At 12 cubic feet, the 3 Series sedan's trunk is small. The A4's trunk is comparable, but most others are larger, some of them considerably so. Folding rear seats are optional in the 3 Series sedan but standard in the coupe, wagon and convertible. The wagon's 16.2 cubic feet of cargo volume expands to 48.9 cubic feet with the rear seats folded — more than in the sedan, but short, in some cases significantly, of similarly priced luxury wagons. Safety & Reliability The 3 Series sedan earned the top score, Good, in front- and side-impact crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The convertible scored Good for frontal impacts but Marginal for side impacts. IIHS cited poor torso protection for front occupants and poor head protection for rear ones. The coupe and wagon have not been tested, and both have different-enough body structures that the sedan's crash-test ratings cannot apply. No 3 Series has been subjected to IIHS' latest roof-crush evaluation.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes, an electronic stability system and dual front and side-impact airbags. Convertibles add front knee airbags and head extensions for the side-impact airbags, while the coupe, sedan and wagon have two-row side curtain airbags. Click here for a full list of safety features.
Overall reliability for the 3 Series has been average across the board. BMW's standard warranty is competitive, but it remains one of the only automakers to include four years of free maintenance. Features & Pricing The 328i sedan starts at $33,150; standard features include dual-zone automatic climate control and a CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack. Leather upholstery and an iPod/USB adapter are part of a no-charge Value Package on the 328i sedan and wagon; they cost extra on most other cars. Typical of a lot of European cars, you'll also have to pay extra for things like heated power seats and a moonroof.
The 335i starts at $40,600 in sedan form. The diesel-powered 335d sedan runs $43,950 but is eligible for a $900 federal tax credit. All-wheel drive, available on all but the convertible and diesel, runs about $2,000.
Other available features include iDrive and a navigation system, the automatic transmission, xenon headlights, adaptive cruise control, front and rear parking sensors and various sport packages. The list of options is considerable; check all the boxes, and a 335i can run close to $60,000 for a rear-wheel-drive sedan alone. 3 Series in the Market Crowd-pleaser styling, engaging performance and an array of configurations still add up to little reason to doubt the 3 Series' continued popularity. The car has had credible rivals for years, however, and its faults are starting to get pesky — a sloppy manual shifter here, a tiny glove box there. The 3 Series is still a solid choice, but BMW would do well to address these things before too long.