There's a good reason for that. The 3 Series is superb. Whether it's the standard 325i or the high-performance M3, they are driver's cars. Dynamically, each is outstanding: a highly refined machine that corners, accelerates, and stops swiftly. The 3 Series puts drivers in touch with the road instead of isolating them. Driving the sedan, coupe, convertible or sport wagon is a joy. They blend luxury and sport with high levels of quality, making living with them joyful as well. Their interiors are well equipped and comfortable.
Other automakers are envious of the 3 Series for another reason: It exemplifies consistency in product character and values. BMW's 3 Series cars have been the benchmark for entry luxury cars for some time, and we do not see this changing soon.
The competition may be gaining, but BMW is hardly sitting still. For 2004, the 3 Series gets an extensive array of updates. The coupe and convertible are mildy restyled, front and rear, and there's more of just about everything: More technology, more standard equipment, more wheel design choices. 330 models now come standard with a 6-speed manual transmission, and BMW's trick Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) is offered on all rear-drive models. There's a new Performance Package for the 330i sedan that makes it a virtual four-door M3. All 3 Series are offered with a BMW Assist telematics package that no longer requires the optional navigation system.
The coupe and convertible prices increase several hundred dollars, but all 3 Series cars come with the same full-maintenance included for the duration of the four- year, 50,000-mile warranty. For entry luxury market shoppers who put a premium on driving satisfaction, the BMW 3 Series remains the place to start.
Two engines are available in the standard 3 Series line, with a new variant of one of them for 2004. Both are inline six-cylinder engines. As the 3 Series nomenclature indicates, 325 models get a 2.5-liter engine, while 330 models get a 3.0-liter engine. The sedan, coupe, and convertible are available with either engine; wagons are only available with the 2.5-liter engine.
The 325i sedan ($27,800), 325i sport wagon ($30,400), 325Ci coupe ($30,100) and 325Ci convertible ($37,300) are powered by the 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine. The higher price of coupes and convertibles includes a slightly higher level of standard luxury equipment than the sedans and wagons.
The 330i sedan ($34,600), 330Ci coupe ($35,600), and 330Ci convertible ($42,900) benefit from the 225-horsepower 3.0-liter engine. In addition to the increased power, 330 models come with more standard equipment and mechanical upgrades. Two examples: V-rated tires in place of the 325's standard H-rated tires, and larger brakes. A new Performance Package ($3,900) for the 330i sedan increases horsepower by 10 and adds a host of performance upgrades, including a short-throw shifter, M sport suspension tuning, Z-rated tires and appearance tweaks inside and out.
The four-door and wagon are also available with all-wheel-drive. The 325xi ($29,550) and 330xi ($36,350) sedans and the 325xi sport wagon ($32,150) offer much better traction and control in slippery conditions. They come equipped with Hill Descent Control, which could prove helpful descending a steep, slippery driveway or back road.
The 3 Series variants powered by the 2.5-liter engine come standard with a 5-speed manual transmission; those powered by the 3.0-liter engine are upgraded to a 6-speed manual for 2004. A superb ZF-built 5-speed Steptronic automatic ($1,275) is optional on all models, while the 6-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox ($1,500) developed for and launched in the M3, is offered on all rear-drive 3 Series models. Run-flat tires with tire pressure monitoring ($300) are an option on 330 models.
Most 3 Series models come with a Premium Package ($1,200-$3,300, depending on the model), which includes an auto dimming rearview mirror, a moonroof, Myrtle wood trim, front seat memory and drivers lumbar support, leather upholstery, a multi-function trip computer, and the BMW Assist system. BMW Assist provides telematic collision notification, an SOS button, roadside assistance, locator and concierge services. After the first year, you'll pay for the subscription ($240 annually).
Stand-alone options include the moonroof ($1,050), 18-inch wheels ($925) and a GPS navigation system ($1,800). In short, the 3 Series is available with nearly all the convenience features offered on BMW's larger sedans, which is one reason prices can approach $60,000 for the M cars.
Smart front and front side-impact airbags come standard. Also standard (on all but the convertibles) are head-protection airbags that deploy from the headliner along the length of both sides of the cabin. Rear side-impact airbags are optional ($385). Bi-xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps ($700) offer much better visibility on stormy nights and now aim around corners, but they sometimes annoy other drivers. BMW's Park Distance Control ($350) works great, beeping to warn the driver of objects behind the car during parking maneuvers.
Closely related to the standard 3 Series are the M3 coupe ($46,500) and M3 convertible ($54,900), which boast much higher levels of performance and handling. Part of that comes via the 3.2-liter engine rated at 333 horsepower. These cars approach the Corvette or Porsche 911 in performance, in a more practical package that seats five.
The current-generation 3 Series debuted in 1999. Each model is classic BMW: elegant and refined, but purposeful. The roofline is long and gracefully integrated into the short rear deck. The wheels fill the fenders wells to the flares and the body work seems wrapped tight, like it's stretched over muscle. If there was a picture in the dictionary of a sports sedan it would be a BMW 330i.
The quad headlamps are enclosed in aerodynamic covers. The optional bi-xenon lights include low and high beams; the outer lamps provide high-intensity discharge illumination on low and high beams, while the inner lamps augment the high beams with halogen lighting. Auto-leveling of the bi-xenon lamps is included, and for 2004 they actually turn into a curve as the car tracks through.
The sedan was the first of this latest generation 3 Series to be launched. It shares its styling and most of its bodywork with the sport wagon. Subtle changes to the design of the 3 Series sedans and wagons freshened their appearance in 2002 with redesigned front fascias, front and rear bumpers, grilles, headlamps, tail lamps, hoods, and fenders. Similar to the theme set by the new 7 Series, the headlamps now tilt up at the trailing edges of the wraparounds, rather than tilting down as they have traditionally. BMW also redesigned the shape of the cutouts below the headlamps. The front fascia now looks more like a true air dam, with round integrated fog lamps instead of small, thin rectangular lights. Character lines on the hood and front fenders were modified, and BMW's trademark dual-kidney grilles were widened. Bumpers, front and rear, have a simpler, cleaner look and redesigned taillights offer greater illuminated area.
Coupe and convertible models were introduced for 2000, and for 2004 they benefit from a freshening similar to that undertaken on the sedan two years ago. The headlights now sweep upward as they wrap around the sides of the car. The grilles are wider, and the contours of the hood, fenders and wheel flares are more prominent.
M3 models are distinguished by their hunkered stance, a deep front air dam, massive low-profile Michelin Pilot Sport tires tucked into aggressive fender flares, a bulging hood to accommodate the engine and unique horizontal air gills just below the windshield pillars. Even in a color as basic as white, the M3 attracts a lot of attention, particularly from enthusiasts who know that the special styling cues only hint at the car's performance potential. For 2004, the 330i Performance Package adds many of the same cues, creating the look of an M3 sedan (but without the M3 engine).
All 3 Series variants have well-designed exterior door handles that are easy to grab. The trunk lift grips have been widened for 2004. All variants are equipped with a new technology BMW calls adaptive brake lights. Introduced on the 7 Series, these illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the driver applies the brakes full-lock, or when the ABS operates. The idea is to inform drivers in cars following the 3 Series that it's stopping hard (and assumes the driver following knows how to decipher the signals).
The front bucket seats provide good support without feeling hard, and come standard with six adjustments. The manual controls work well, though they are best used when the car is stationary. Power adjustments come standard on all models except 325i sedans. The 10-way power seats that come with some of the option packages are superb, adding more side bolstering for winding roads, and slide-out thigh support.
The leather-covered steering wheel tilts and telescopes for optimum adjustment. The rim is thick enough, and grippy, while the slim design of the hub is a benefit of the latest in compact airbag packaging. Audio and speed controls on the steering wheel work well and add convenience. Three different steering wheels are used depending on body style, model and options. The Performance Package for the 330i adds a suede-like Alcantara covering around the steering wheel similar to what's sometimes found on a contemporary race car. The M3 comes with a fat three-spoke steering wheel that mounts buttons for cruise control, the audio system, and a factory-installed phone, which makes it bulkier and less racy than the Audi TT steering wheel.
The dashboard and door panels are rich in appearance, and appealing to the eye. In recent years, some of the most noticeable 3 Series improvements have come in the quality of the hard and soft plastics inside. A titanium-finished plastic trim is used around the instrument panel, console, and doors. Genuine Myrtle wood or real aluminum inserts are optional. The instruments feature soft orange lighting, which helps reduce glare at night. Some people find orange backlighting easier on the eyes than other colors.
Most switches fall intuitively to the driver's fingertips, but the 3 Series interior is not without its faults. The window controls are located on the center console, allowing both front occupants to operate all windows, and presumably saving the cost of the switch typically installed on the passenger door. But the center switches require a glance down to open or close windows. The more common driver-door mounted window switches are usually easier to use. Fortunately, one-touch open/close operation is available for all windows and the sunroof, which is a nice feature.
Automatic climate control and a microfilter ventilation system are standard. Automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers are standard on 2004 models. The standard in-dash single-CD player is easy to operate; a cassette deck remains as a no-cost option. The Harman Kardon stereo upgrade ($695) with 12 speakers is one of the best-sounding radios BMW has offered. The steering wheel audio controls work well and add convenience.
We're not in love with the center console, which doesn't hold much and harkens back to a day of cheapish-looking 3 Series interiors. The flip-down armrest, standard since 2003, can get in the way when shifting. Shallow, unattractive cup holders in the console seem like an afterthought.
The back seat in the sedans is roomy enough for two adults during a night on the town, but it's not as roomy as some of the other cars in this class. The person in the middle needs to be a kid for any chance at comfort. The transmission tunnel rises nearly to the height of the seat, and the short-straw passenger in the center sits with legs straddled in the outside passengers' space. Practically speaking, the coupes fit between a two-plus-two sports car and a sports sedan. The rear windows in the coupe are power operated, but they only open by flaring out a few inches at the back, as if to let stale air out rather than fresh air in.
The 3 Series cars lag behind the class when it comes to moving cargo. The trunk is small, and the trunk opening is even smaller. However, the Cold Weather Package ($1000) adds split fold-down rear seats with a ski boot and armrest, plus other features, allowing more maximum hauling area. The convertible is the worst on this score, offering little in the way of trunk space.
The 3 Series sport wagons are a good solution for enthusiast drivers who need some cargo capacity. The sport wagon offers more than twice the 10.7 cubic feet of cargo the sedan can handle. With the dog fence in place, the 325i sport wagon can carry 25.7 cubic feet of cargo and four passengers. And it's a decent dog hauler, though Irish wolfhounds find the roof height low. The wagon is a good choice for runs to the airport, though it still doesn't have the cargo capacity of an SUV or minivan. For more cargo space, it's easy to fold the wagon's rear seats down, and there's no need to remove the headrests to do so. This provides a nearly flat cargo floor, with enough room for two people and many outdoor activities. Ski racks, bike racks and other accessories can be attached to the wagon's beefy roof-rack rails. Gaining access to cargo is easy. When the car is unlocked, the rear hatch can be opened by touching the electric release above the license plate; just the rear glass can be opened by pressing a button under the rear wiper. That's a form of luxury: not having to use the key or hit a separate release to open a trunk lid. The rear cargo cover is nicely designed with a vinyl panel that easily slides out and hooks into place to hide valuables. Alternatively, a net slides up and hooks onto the ceiling to allow cargo to be piled to the headliner.
If price is an issue, don't hesitate to choose the 325i. For a price less than the typical mid-size SUV, and nearly $7,000 less than the 330i, you get a true European sports sedan. You may never miss the extra power of the 330i, and you certainly won't miss the increase in monthly payments. The 2.5-liter engine doesn't develop the urgent thrust of the 3.0-liter, but it has plenty of power and it's delivered in smooth, linear fashion with no significant dead spots or rushes. Just strong, steady propulsion. It's so smooth that it's easy to rev past the redline to where the rev limiter cuts back on the throttle.
BMW uses inline six-cylinder engines instead of V6s. Though it takes up more space, an inline-6 is has its strengths in terms of operational performance. Indeed, BMW believes that six pistons lined up in a row run more smoothly than two banks of three pistons arranged in a V, and we agree. Both 3 Series engines feature the latest high-output technology, including fully electronic throttle control and a dual-resonance intake system. The throttle feels light, responsive and linear in its power delivery. BMW's double VANOS variable-valve timing helps both engines provide plenty of torque (the force that makes a car jump when you hit the gas) throughout the rev range. Both engine meet new ULEV2 emissions standards in California and the Northeast.
The 330i's 3.0-liter engine delivers most of its gusto at the top of the rev range, yet is surprisingly strong at lower engine speeds, too. BMW claims a 0-60 mph time of 6.4 seconds for the 330s with the manual transmission, versus 7.1 seconds for the 325i. Both top out at an electronically limited 128 mph, unless you order the Performance Package.
The new Performance Package for the 330i sedan adds 10 horsepower and 8 pounds-feet of torque to the 3.0-liter engine. Moreover, it includes an integrated package of performance upgrades, including a sport suspension tuned by BMW's elite M division, and a manual shifter that reduces shift throws 0.4 inch (the Performance Package is also offered with the automatic transmission). So equipped, the 330i sedan goes like a virtual four-door M3, with a similarly aggressive appearance for at least $7,000 less than the M3 coupe. This package trims another second from the 330i's 0-60 times: 5.4 seconds is fast for any sedan, much less one with a six-cylinder engine. The top speed extends to 155 mph, which is the voluntary limit adopted by most German automakers. We should note that this increase in speed is not solely because of the engine. The performance package includes Z-rated tires that are certified to operate safely at 155 mph. (That doesn't mean the driver will operate safely at this speed, however.)
Shifting in the 3 Series is a smooth, satisfying operation, even with the base five-speed manual in the 325 models. The shifter uses longer throws than that in a sports car, but its movement befits a world-class sports sedan. The six-speed in the 330 models adds more flexibility with six gears to choose from and reduces engine revs at cruising speeds. The short-throw shifter with the Performance Package is more like that of a sports car; it shortens lever movement between gears and snicks impressively from one slot to the next.
The automatic transmission works superbly, always keeping the engine in the optimal power range. All automatics are five-speed Steptronics. Pulling the lever to the left allows auto-manual downshifting and upshifting. In 2003, BMW switched shifting directions: Now, tip the shift lever forward to downshift, pull it rearward to upshift. Steptronic can be useful and entertaining, but the real benefit of these transmissions is how well they work in the automatic mode. Shifting is smooth and precise and the driver almost always feels the transmission is working as part of the team, rather than fighting against driver and engine.
For 2004, BMW offers the Sequential Manual Gearbox previously reserved for the M3 in all rear-drive 3 Series variants. We've tested the SMG extensively in the M3, and you'll either love it or hate it. At first, I hated it, but after a few days I loved it. It's important to understand that this is not an automatic transmission per se. If you want a smooth-shifting automatic, this isn't it. While the Steptronic is an automatic with a manual feature, the SMG is a manual with an automatic feature. Like a Formula 1 car or a Ferrari 360 Modena, the SMG has a clutch, but no clutch pedal. In automatic mode, it shifts like some robot is working the clutch for you. When I first climbed into the M3, it was set in the slow mode, which, to me, feels like someone who hasn't mastered smoothly coordinating the gas and clutch pedals is doing the shifting. The car slows down, the shift is made, and the gas comes back on. Dial this up to the fastest setting and it shifts quickly, but very abruptly, more like an F1 machine. Advanced engine electronics interrupt the engine's power for just milliseconds, the control unit disengages the clutch, the transmission changes gears electro-hydraulically, and the clutch is engaged. You can also set it for manual shifting, and this is where I began to love the SMG. The sequential gearbox is shifted manually either with the shift lever or with butterfly paddles on the steering wheel (one paddle to upshift, one to downshift). The stick has a great feel and it responds like a manual with similar or better performance. Downshifting is really cool as it blips the engine, double-clutching to change down. Switching between manual and automatic modes is quick and easy once you get the hang of it. If there's a better sport coupe than the M3 with the SMG, we don't know what it is.
All 3 Series cars are extremely stable at speed. I found it difficult to obey the 55 mph speed limit while driving a 325i sedan around Washington's Capitol Beltway, and nearly impossible to stay within the law on Maryland's back roads. The 330i is so smooth and stable that I needed to trail-brake the first time I came into a favorite sweeping turn, realizing that I was heading into it a little hotter than usual. Yet even hard braking in the middle of a curve (a maneuver that will quickly demonstrate the weaknesses in lesser machines) doesn't fluster the 3 Series cars.
The suspensions are tight on these cars, giving them the feel of finely engineered machinery. They put the driver in touch with the road. You hear and feel what's going on, though the outside world is muted well enough to ensure comfort. It's this balance of impressive handling and ride quality that BMW masters, and it's a characteristic that defines the brand. The stiff 3 Series chassis structure allows the suspension to dampen irritating road vibration, reducing the chance of squeaks and rattles inside the car. The M3 is the tautest of the bunch.
Steering response is more like that of a sports car than a luxury sedan. There's little play in the steering and the feeling is direct. This car goes exactly where you point it. Unlike the over-boosted power steering found on many luxury sedans, the 3 Series provides good feedback, though the steering feels surprisingly light. These cars handle curves with aplomb, gripping tenaciously during aggressive cornering maneuvers. When the tires finally let go, the resulting slide is still fairly easy to manage. It requires a bit more skill than in a front-wheel-drive car, but at the same time allows the driver more control. The M3 generates incredible grip, and by incredible we mean more than some premier sports cars like the Porsche 911.
While front-wheel drive has merits, pure race cars use rear-wheel drive. Enthusiasts prefer rear-wheel drive because they can actually steer the car with throttle inputs. The payback for this added element of control can be a skittish rear end, particularly on slick surfaces, and a condition known as oversteer. Indeed, the BMW 3 Series has never been the easiest car to drive in the snow. Yet BMW's sophisticated multilink rear suspension is so well sorted that the rear tires almost always stay firmly planted in normal road driving, even on very bumpy roads. Rear-wheel drive offers other benefits, even at a modest pace. The steering, handling and general feel are noticeably different even when driving around the block. The steering is pure because it's never influenced by torque steer, a movement of the steering wheel as engine power is transferred to the front wheels. Bottom line: The 3 Series feels much more sophisticated than most front-drive sedans from Japan that are asking the front wheels to do two jobs: Steer the car and propel it forward at the same time.
All 3 Series models come with Dynamic Stability Control, which enhances driver control and safety in emergency maneuvers. DSC helps stabilize the vehicle in severe cornering maneuvers by judiciously applying the brakes to individual wheels. In other words, it helps the driver maintain control when the tires begin to lose grip. Electronic stability control systems, such as BMW's DSC, can save your life by helping you keep the car on the road. But DSC also enhances handling on winding roads, smoothing out minor errors, making adjustments when you hit a patch of sand in the middle of a tight corner. The system kicked in for me in one tight corner, while I kept the throttle to the floor. The rear tires lost grip, but DSC seamlessly reduced power and applied a little braking force to one of the front wheels, as smoothly as the most talented race drivers on the planet. This is extremely beneficial on a rear-drive car in slippery conditions, but it's also useful on dry pavement. A switch allows the driver to turn DSC off when it isn't wanted, if you want to light up the rear tires, for example. By pressing the DSC button briefly, the engine intervention feature is turned off, leaving only brake intervention functional at low speeds. As speed increases, however, the engine intervention gradually comes back into play. Hold the DSC button down and it shuts off everything except anti-lock braking, useful if you get the opportunity to fling the 3 Series around a race track or autocross course.
Brakes are even more important to going fast than horsepower, and the 3 Series provides excellent stopping power. The 330i's massive rear discs can be easily seen through the spokes of the wheels. On a familiar twisting, bumpy, gnarly road, I slammed on the brakes both in a straight line and while turning, the latter a driving faux pas. Either way, the 3 Series sedan brought me to a quick, uneventful stop. The anti-lock system is seldom needed on dry pavement due to excellent grip and a taut suspension, the latter keeping the car stable and minimizing nosedive so that the rear tires can contribute to the effort. As a result, this car stops very quickly, and it's easy to control in a panic braking situation. Repeated, high-speed stops beyond anything a driver will undertake on the road, stops that would literally leave the brakes on many sedans smoking, have no significant impact the braking performance of the 3 Series, reassuring when descending a winding mountain road.
All-wheel drive adds the grip of the 3 Series cars and is particularly beneficial on snow and ice. The 325xi sport wagon we drove felt like it was on rails on dry pavement. The all-wheel-drive system on 325xi and 330xi models uses a planetary center differential to split drive torque 38/62 percent front/rear, preserving the rear-wheel-drive feel that BMW enthusiasts demand. All-Season Traction Control (AST) and a specially calibrated version of the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC-X) enhance foul-weather safety.
Hill Descent Control, which comes standard on 325xi and 330xi models, helps the driver maintain speed and stability on steep downhill runs. The driver need only press a dedicated HDC button on the console to activate it; Hill Descent Control then takes over, gently applying the brakes as necessary to help keep the speed to a brisk walking pace. Just keep your feet off the pedals and let it walk you down the grade.
Other cars in this price range surpass the 3 Series in significant areas. The Lexus ES 330 is smoother and far quieter, and the Acura TL provides a roomier rear seat and more features for less cash. But those are near-luxury cars, while the BMW is a true sports sedan. If driving satisfaction is top priority, one of the 3 Series models should top your shopping list.
Which model? The 325i sedan is a terrific car. It's four doors and usable rear seat are practical, and you may never miss the power of the 330i. The sport wagons add space and versatility, and the only way we could tell we weren't driving a sedan was to glance into the rear view mirror. The coupes add sports appeal with their two-door styling, and their split rear seats provide some versatility. The convertible, well, do you have to ask? The 330 models add a lot of performance to the equation. All-wheel drive offers winter capability to a car not noted for that. The M3 is the best, earthly priced high-performance car on the market with a real back seat. Order mine with the Sequential Manual Gearbox. The 330i sedan with the new Performance Package may offer the best balance of all 12 variants measured by price, performance and practicality.
Concerned about maintenance costs? Free scheduled maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles comes standard with all 2004 BMW 3 Series models.
Depending on equipment, the 3 Series can be pricey, measured by objective values of space, features and horsepower for the money. Subjectively, there is nothing better in the class. There's no mystery why the 3 Series remains the benchmark for moderately priced sports sedans. It's been that way since the late 1970s, and we don't see it changing.
Model as tested
BMW 330i sedan ($34,800)
4 years/50,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
Performance Package ($3900) includes high-flow dual exhaust, M sport suspension and appearance package, sport shifter, 18-inch wheels with Z-rated tires, sport seats, Aluminum Black Cube interior trim and 155-mph speed-limiter; Premium Package ($3200) includes power glass moonroof , power front seats with driver memory and lumbar adjustment, leather upholstery and BMW Assist telematics; bi-xenon headlamps ($700)
Model Line Overview
BMW 325i sedan ($27,800); 330i sedan ($34,600); 325Ci coupe ($30,100); 330Ci coupe ($36,300); 325i sport wagon ($30,400); 325Ci convertible ($37,300); 330Ci convertible ($43,600); 325xi sedan ($29,550); 330xi sedan ($36,550); 325xi sport wagon ($32,150); M3 coupe ($46,500); M3 convertible ($54,900)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual airbags with two-stage deployment, front side-impact airbags, full-cabin head protection airbags, optional rear side-impact airbags ($385), tire-pressure monitoring system, traction control, dynamic stability control, differential lock on all-wheel-drive models
Safety equipment (optional)
3.0-liter double overhead cam 24v inline-6 with variable valve timing
Specifications as Tested
ABS, Dynamic Stability Control, All Season Traction control, power windows, remote keyless entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt/telescoping steering column; automatic climate control with micro filter; cruise control; rain-sensing variable-speed wipers; automatic headlights; foglights; 330i adds Harman-Kardon audio upgrade with 12 speakers, headlight washers and V-rated tires
Engine & Transmission
3.0-liter double overhead cam 24v inline-6 with variable valve timing
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
235 @ 5900
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
multi-link, independent multi-link, coil springs, tube shocks, anti-roll bar
independent MacPherson struts, control arms, anti-roll bar
225/40ZR18 / 255/35ZR18
multi-link, independent multi-link, coil springs, tube shocks, anti-roll bar
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear