One could fill a page listing the compact luxury sports competitors that have come to market in recent years, all with the BMW 3 Series in their crosshairs. While some approach BMW’s finely honed combination of driving dynamics and brand cache, none have quite been able to match it as a true “driver’s car” that nonetheless carries a bona fide luxury pedigree. Its broad model line encompass virtually all automotive body styles – including an SUV, if you count the BMW X3 crossover – and the 3 Series remains the leader in its market segment.
The 2011 BMW 3-Series coupe and convertible receive minor cosmetic updates with some adjusted option package content. New sporty 335is coupe and convertible variants join the line for 2011 that combine high-performance M3-spec suspension components and a higher-output twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine.
Both the 328 and 335 varieties are available as a coupe, sedan or convertible, with the 328 adding sinfully practical sports wagon versions to the mix. As with a growing number of similar models like the Volkswagen Eos and Volvo C70, the 3 Series convertibles eschew a soft top for a retractable hardtop that affords the protection from the elements, noise insulation and sleek styling of a coupe. Made of lightweight steel, the three-piece roof opens in just 22 seconds at the touch of a button and folds completely into the rear compartment. If the vehicle is equipped with the keyless-start Comfort Access option, the top can be lowered remotely via the key fob.
The 328 models continue with a 3.0-liter six that produces 230 horsepower and 200 pounds-feet of torque. While these ratings may seem low compared to the competition (even the four-cylinder engine in the Audi A4 generates more power at 211 horses), the 3-Series’ base engine runs smoothly and is actually quite lively, making the car feel quicker than it might seem on paper, with a respectable 6.2-second 0-to-60 mph time. Going up a notch, 335 models come with a turbocharged 3.0-liter six that’s rated at 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque for a quicker 5.3-second 60 mph run. Meanwhile, the new 335is models squeeze additional performance out of that engine via twin-turbochargers, producing 320 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, reaching 60 mph in about five seconds flat.
As if that’s not enough, the 335d “clean diesel” sedan maintains the car’s strong performance while saving gas and producing relatively low emissions. Here, a twin-turbo, direct-injection “Blue Performance” 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder diesel engine produces 265 horsepower with a stirring 425 lbs/ft of torque, which BMW says is sufficient to launch the 335d to 60 mph in around six seconds. That’s not too shabby considered it’s rated to attain an impressive 23-mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the open road.
The 328 and 335 models offer a choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, with the automatic being the only version offered with the 335d. The automatic can be optionally fitted with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manual operation. The 335is models instead offer a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission as an alternative to the manual. This is essentially an automated manual transmission that does away with the clutch pedal and shifts quicker and more efficiently than would a conventional automatic; it can operate autonomously or be shifted manually via paddles or the console-mounted lever.
A sophisticated suspension setup, with BMW’s double-pivot strut design up front and a five-link setup at the rear, enables crisp, neutral handling for fun, spirited driving, with a ride that’s on the harsh side, but not painfully so – at least over
moderately uneven surfaces. An optional sport package includes a sport suspension and upgraded wheels and tires (along with heavily bolstered sports seats and a sports steering wheel) and improves the 3 Series’ handling by an incremental amount. The 335is models will again up the ante with suspension components carried over from the high-performance M3 line (reviewed elsewhere) that improve the car’s handling even further, though this comes at the expense of a rougher ride.
The automaker’s Active Steering system is optional and provides additional steering boost during extreme handling maneuvers for quicker handling. While it works as advertised, the active system does introduce an unnatural feel to the steering in the process that we think runs counter to the car’s core performance attributes.
Sedan and coupe versions are available with BMW’s accomplished “xDrive” all-wheel-drive system that enhances both dry road cornering and foul-weather traction. Under normal driving conditions the system sends a bit more power to the rear wheels than the front to help maintain a sporty rear-drive feel. When the wheels slip or the sensors detect an imminent skid, power is automatically and immediately sent to the wheels having the most traction.
Included across the line are Dynamic Slip Control and Dynamic Traction Control for added stability over a wide range of conditions and handling situations. An expanded range of brake functions include Brake Standby (which reacts when the driver suddenly lifts his or her foot off of the accelerator, anticipating hard braking, and snugs the brake pads against the rotors) and Start-Off Assistant (which automatically engages the brakes on an incline to prevent the car from rolling back when the driver lifts his or her foot off of the brake pedal to depress the accelerator), among others.
The 3 Series interiors carry a tastefully understated design, with instruments well positioned and switches within easy reach. There’s plenty of room up front for six-footers to ride in comfort, though back-seat legroom is at a premium, particularly when the front buckets extended all the way rearward.
Standard equipment is reasonably generous, with a long list of convenience features optional, including front and rear Park Distance Control proximity warnings, a heated steering wheel and adaptive headlamps with cornering lights that can pivot slightly in conjunction with the car’s steering angle and direct an angled beam at each front corner to help illuminate the road around curves at night.
The available navigation system comes with a surprisingly functional version of BMW’s iDrive media control system that includes buttons for direct selection of the radio, CD player, navigation and communications menus. It further includes a subscription-based Google Maps feature that motorists can use to search for restaurants, hotels, service stations and other points of interest by keyword, then initiate route guidance and/or place hands-free calls to the selected site via a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone.
The 3 Series remains the leader of the pack in what is a crowded market, particularly among enthusiasts who can appreciate its merits while forgiving its (admittedly few) shortcomings. Those who prefer a flashier, softer-riding or more-opulent
luxury sports sedan are, however, encouraged to look elsewhere, specifically at offerings from Audi, Acura, Lexus, Infiniti or Mercedes-Benz.
BMW 3 Series Quick Facts
Engine: 3.0-liter 6-Cyl, 3.0-liter 6-Cyl Turbo
Horsepower: 230 @ 6,500 rpm, 300 @ 5,800 rpm, 320 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque: 200 @ 2,750 rpm, 300 @ 1,400 rpm, 332 @ 1,500 rpm
City/Highway: MPG 17/25-23/36
Transmission: 6-Spd Manual, 6-Spd Automatic, 7-Spd Auto Manual
Wheelbase: 108.7 in
Overall Length: 181.9 in
Width: 70.2 in
Height: 54.9 in
Curb Weight: 3.362 lbs
MSRP: $33,650 - $58,700
Did You Know?
The 3 Series’ U.S. heritage dates back to 1977 when BMW began importing the two-door 320i as a replacement for the popular 2002 coupe. The automaker’s first two-door car in its home market was the BMW 327 from the 1930’s. A redesign of the 3 Series line is anticipated to launch for 2013. Styling revisions will likely be more evolutionary than revolutionary, with what could be a slightly softer-looking front end retaining the iconic kidney-shaped front grille, with the rest of the bodywork borrowing cues from the current-generation 5-Series and 7-Series models. More drastic revisions will likely come beneath the skin, where weight reduction measures and new engines will help BMW meet stricter mileage and emissions regulations in the U.S. and Europe. To that end the 3-Series will likely see its first four-cylinder engines since 1999, albeit updated with the latest technology like variable valve timing and direct fuel injection, and stop/start technology that automatically depowers the engine while decelerating and at idle to save fuel. The new base-model engine could be a 220-horsepower four-cylinder, with a turbocharged version also offered that might approximate the current twin-turbo six-cylinder’s output of 300 horsepower. While a six-speed manual will likely remain standard, the optional transmission could be upgraded to a fuel-saving eight-speed automatic.