Saturday, April 24, 2004

BMW 3-series still a jewel

Most popular model has variety, performance, fair price

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

BMW 3 Series

The 3-series is the only BMW that has not yet had a redesign. But next year an as-yet-unrevealed design will appear. Will customers like it as well?
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
five wheels

What I drove: 2004 BMW 330i w/ Performance Package, four-door, five-passenger sedan w/ six-speed manual transmission

Base price: $38,920 (includes destination charge)

Price as tested: $40,095 (includes options and destination charge)

Options on test vehicle: Performance Package (sport suspension, front sport seats, M sport steering, aerodynamic package, M double-spoke 18-inch wheels, cloth/Alcantara upholstery, anthracite roof liner, cube aluminum trim), and xenon headlights.

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder* producing 235 hp and 222 lb-ft torque (*modified by BMW M for Performance Package)

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Wheelbase: 107.3 in.

Length: 176 in.

Width: 68.5 in.

Height: 55.1 in.

Weight: 3,285 lb.

EPA mpg, city/highway: 21/30

Warranty: Basic: 4 yrs/50,000 miles; full maintenance: 4 yrs/50,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 yrs/50,000 miles

Assembled in: Munich, Germany

Safety: Dual-stage front "smart" airbags, front side-impact airbags, front-seat head protection system, seatbelt pretensioners, child seat anchors, antilock brakes, dynamic stability and traction control, dynamic brake control, battery safety terminal.

Cool: M-tuned engine, sporty suspension, 6-speed shifter, on-board computer (no iDrive!), sexy Imola Red paint

Uncool: Dated interior with bad neck-tie trim Accolades: "Best Luxury Sedan under $40,000" in Automobile magazine's 2004; Reader's Choice All-Stars; one of Car and Driver magazine's "10 Best" for 2004; earned a "Best Pick" rating in IIHS frontal offset crash tests.

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First the 7-series got the "Chris Bangle" treatment in '02, followed by the Z4 and the 5-series in '03. Thus the 3-series is the only BMW car to have so far been spared a redesign by the company's controversial design chief. He's touching it as we speak, though, and a Bangle-designed 3-series will debut late next year.

Let's hope the public likes the Bangled 3-series as much as they like the current model. Otherwise BMW could be in a heap of trouble. The 3-series is Bavarian Motor Works' perennial best seller in the U.S.

The 3-series isn't just a volume leader; it's the gold standard by which all premium sport sedans are measured. Read a "sport sedan" comparison test in almost any automotive magazine, and the BMW 3-series will top the list. Ask a non-BMW automaker which car they benchmarked for their newest sport sedan, and they'll more than likely cite the BMW 3-series.

Best elements all together

So what makes the 3-series so hot?

In addition to being BMW's most affordable line (with prices starting at $28,795), the 3-series is the quintessential BMW. The cars in this series embody all the core attributes for which BMW is famous: communicative steering, braking and handling; world-class engines, transmissions and suspensions; first-class quality and distinctive styling.

A big part of the 3-series' appeal lies in its variety of body styles and drivetrains, which include rear- and all-wheel-drive sedans, coupes, wagons and convertibles. Every 3-series model is powered by an inline six-cylinder engine. In the case of the 325, it's a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine, and in the 330's case it's a 225-horsepower 3.0-liter power plant. Three transmissions are offered: a six-speed manual, a six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (with paddle shifters), and a five-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.

Performance package a plus

Recent changes to the 3-series include a revised grill, a new standard six-speed manual gearbox on all 330 models, and a stellar new performance package for the 330i sedan.

My 330i sedan tester was equipped with this performance package (a $3,900 option), and it made driving the 330i the next best thing to driving a $50,000 BMW M3 or Audi S4.

Developed by BMW's "M GimbH" subsidiary, the same group responsible for the M3 and M5, the performance package includes engine modifications that bump the 3.0-liter engine's output to 235 horsepower and 222 pound-feet of torque (from 225 hp and 214 lb-ft torque). The engine redlines at 6,800 rpm instead of 6,500 rpm, and top speed is governed at 155 mph, instead of the other 330i's 128 mph.

The performance package includes an "M" sport suspension, a shorter shift lever for quicker shifting, 18-inch wheels with Z-rated low-profile tires, sport seats, "M" body components, exclusive Imola Red exterior paint, and various interior goodies.

The latter include an extra-thick "sport" steering wheel wrapped in Alcantara, a suede-like material popular in European high-end sports cars. The Alcantara also sharply trims the seats, but special "Black Cube" dashboard trim looks like something you'd see on a bad neck tie.

Interior top-notch but dated

The interior materials are top-notch, and fit and finish is excellent; but the overall ambience feels conservative and dated, especially when compared with the newer BMWs. Clearly, the emphasis here is on comfort and user-friendliness. The seats are supportive, rear-seat room is generous and the cockpit controls are intuitive.

A dated interior can be a good thing, especially where radio controls, cup holders and onboard computers are concerned. The 330i's cup holders are deep and snug, the audio controls reside on the control panel and steering wheel, and the easy-to-use computer endures (as yet unreplaced by BMW's dastardly iDrive system). Simply press a button on the left-turn-signal stalk, and you are enlightened on matters such as time, outside temperature, average speed and average fuel consumption.

Driver-friendly sophistication

The best cars aren't just good to drive, they make you feel good about yourself as a driver. By this definition, the 330i sedan, especially one equipped with the performance package, is a great car. The steering, brakes and suspension are so precise and communicative, the driving experience is about as "one with the machine" as you can get. The six-speed manual's short-throw shifter never misses; it practically engages itself, and the car never dogs in first or second gear. The inline six sends out steady streams of torque and horsepower all the way to redline, and emits a guttural growl when you get hard on the throttle.

High marks for safety

It's nice to know that a car this fun to drive also has safety on its mind. Every 3-series model comes standard with antilock brakes, traction control, dual-stage "smart" front airbags and front side-impact airbags. The 3-series sedan earned "Best Pick" status in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's offset frontal crash tests.

Even in this, the final year of its current iteration, the BMW 3-series remains the gold standard to which other automakers can only aspire. A kitten on the highway and a tiger in the twisties, the 2004 330i sedan is one of the most driver-friendly cars you can buy. Too bad it's not a little more wallet-friendly. Starting from a base price of $34,800, my tester topped out at $40,095 with options and destination. That's no small change. But then, the 330i is no small performer. Let's hope the '05 version is just as good, if not better.


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