2001 BMW 3-Series
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Despite heightened competition, the BMW 3-Series remains the class-leader for small 4-seat sports models—especially sedans.
BMW invented the modern small sports sedan and has relentlessly continued to improve it. Newcomers such as the Lexus IS 300 and Mercedes-Benz C320 sedans are quite good, but BMW's expertise with small 4-seat sports models keeps it on top with this type of car.
For instance, while some feel the power steering of 2001 3-Series models is overly light, it's as responsive and precise as ever and allows easier parking in increasingly congested metropolitan areas.
The first 3-Series models arrived in this country in 1977. The current-generation 3-Series debuted in 1999 in sedan form.
The 3-Series line contains the most affordable BMWs. And there seemingly is a 3-Series model for everyone. Offered are sedan, coupe, station wagon and convertible models with various engines and trim levels.
The sedan remains the most popular because it looks nearly as good as the coupe, and its extra doors make it more practical for the fairly affluent young families that buy it.
Engines Get More Power
There's also a new $26,990 325i sedan, which replaces last year's 323i model. Horsepower of the new model's retuned 2.5-liter inline 6-cylinder engine has been increased from 170 to 184. As with the 330i, the 325i sedan has more torque for better response at typical U.S. speeds.
The 325i wagon and 325Ci coupe also benefit from the higher horsepower, as do the 330Ci coupe and 330Ci convertible.
The fastest 3-Series models—and the last to arrive for 2001—are the low-volume $45,400 M3 coupe and $53,400 M3 convertible, which are rockets with their 333-horsepower inline 6-cylinder engines. These models are for car buffs with above-average driving skills.
New All-Wheel Drive
I tested a 325xi sedan and found its all-wheel-drive system to be virtually "invisible," although it adds several hundred pounds and thus is best suited to the more powerful 330i sedan.
All-wheel drive is a key option for the 3-Series, because all models in it have poor traction on snow and ice with their regular rear-wheel-drive setup. In fact, adding special sticky winter tires to 4-wheel-drive models also is a good idea in snow-belt areas of the country.
BMW actually offered all-wheel drive for its 1988-91 3-Series models, but the system was dropped because it was too expensive and predated the 4-wheel-drive sales boom. Glad it's back.
Impressive 330i Sedan
While the 325i provides lively acceleration, especially with the standard 5-speed manual transmission, the 330i is considerably faster, doing 0-60 mph in just 6.1 seconds with the manual, which has a smooth but occasionally notchy shifter.
Optional Automatic Transmission
The manual works with a clutch that takes little effort to press, and it engages smoothly. But it has BMW's traditional long-throw that becomes tiring in stop-and-go traffic. Still, the 3.0-liter engine has so much torque that it allows a driver to bypass first gear in heavy traffic and smoothly launch the car in second gear. The "stump-puller" first gear seems designed just to get the car moving very quickly.
My 330i had the $600-$1,500 (depending on model) 3-Series Sport Package, which contains a firmer suspension and wider tires for sharper handling, sport seats with additional support, and a sport steering wheel that is especially easy to grip.
Standard Suspension for Most
The brake pedal has a nice linear action that allows quick, sure stops. Both brake and clutch pedals have ribbed surfaces for good grip with wet shoes—a thoughtful touch.
Gauges can be quickly read and well-arranged controls work smoothly. Even the inside hood release lever is sturdy, which isn't the case in many cars.
Key Fob Frustration
The fairly big trunk has a low, wide opening and a lid that pops up well out of the way to prevent head banging. Fold-down rear seats aren't offered for the convertible, and you must pay extra to get such seats to enlarge the cargo area in sedans.
The rear of the car can't be seen when backing up, which makes the $350 Park Distance Control a good option. It uses sensors that trigger warning beeps if the BMW is approaching objects not visible to a driver.
Safety equipment? It includes side-impact airbags up front, an anti-skid system and a special brake control system that reinforces driver pedal effort in emergency braking.
Staying ahead of the pack in today's ultra-competitive auto market isn't easy, but BMW makes it look easy with its new 3-Series models.