2004 BMW 3-Series

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2001 BMW 3-Series

This 2001 review is representative of model years 1999 to 2005.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 8

Bottom Line:

Stronger engines help keep 3-Series the top small 4-seat sports models.
Pros:
  • More potent engines
  • Sharp handling
  • Comfortable
  • All-wheel-drive option
Cons:
  • Long-throw clutch
  • Choppy ride with Sport Package
  • Annoying key fob controls

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.

Well Rounded
The 3-Series leadership is largely a matter of balance. While 3-Series rivals may feel better in some areas, these BMW models do everything so well that no one or two features stand out—the mark of a very accomplished car.

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
The new $33,990 330i, which formerly was called the 328i, has a larger, more-powerful 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder engine that generates 225 horsepower. That compares with last year's 2.8-liter 6-cylinder, which had 193 horsepower. The 330i also has larger brakes, wheels and tires, along with some premium exterior trim.

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
New for 2001 is a $1,750 all-wheel-drive option for the 325i sedan and wagon and 330i sedan. Add all-wheel drive and they become the 325xi and 330xi models.

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
At this writing, I hadn't tested the 3-Series M models, but the 330i sedan I drove was impressive, showing again that BMW is a master at making smooth, quiet, potent inline 6-cylnder engines. Most Americans are familiar with 6-cylinder engines that have a "V" configuration, but an inline layout allows more smoothness. That's one reason why General Motors' new sport-utility vehicles have an inline 6-cylinder.

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
Optional is a $1,275 5-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted like a clutchless manual. It works well, but the manual allows the most driving kicks. After all these are sports models, as opposed to "sporty" ones.

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 ride with that package generally is supple, but it sometimes causes the ride to become choppy. The standard suspension and tires should be fine for most people, although some car buffs say BMW is making the 3-Series too "soft" to expand its number of buyers.

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.

Roomy Sedan
The sedan is classified as a 5-seater and has decent room for four 6-footers in the quiet interior, which has high-quality materials and a no-nonsense design. The 4-seat coupe's rear room is a little tighter, and the 4-seat convertible has less rear legroom than the coupe. It's also trickier getting in and out of the back seat of the coupe and convertible.

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
Outside door handles are easily gripped for quick entry. But tiny controls on the key fob can easily cause a driver to accidentally open the trunk when he or she just wants to unlock the doors—a small but annoying fault.

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.

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BB05 - 4/20/2014 4:59:19 PM