The BMW 3 Series cars are the quintessential BMWs. They accelerate, turn and stop with remarkable agility and balance, without seriously compromising comfort or common sense. The 3 Series sedans define the term sports sedan and remain an aspirational target for every luxury automaker, from Acura to Volvo.
The 3 Series comprises a range of sedans, coupes, convertibles and wagons, with different engines, and a wide variety of options. All models share mechanical components and similarly compact exterior dimensions. Differences lie in body style or exterior design, though the coupe and convertible seat four passengers while the sedan and wagon seat five. We like the top models, but we also recommend the less-expensive 328i models. They have as much power as most drivers will ever need, and they deliver the same inherent goodness and most of the key features as the 335 models.
For 2011, all 3 Series body styles get minor design changes.
For 2011, BMW 335i features a single turbo instead of a twin turbo, and a new performance tuned twin-turbo model called the 335is has been added. The 2011 BMW 335is is available with BMW's dual-clutch automated manual transmission (DCT), which was previously only offered on the M3.
The BMW 335d features a new-age diesel engine that's as clean as any of its gasoline counterparts. Despite its improved fuel economy, it retains the sporting character that has long defined the 3 Series line. The diesel generates a whopping 425 pound-feet of torque, and at 23 City/36 Highway, it delivers the highest EPA mileage ratings of any 3 Series model. It reportedly qualifies for a federal tax credit of about $900.
The 3 Series cars are based on a rear-wheel-drive layout. All-wheel drive is available, however, for improved traction in wintry conditions. BMW sells more manual transmissions in this class than any manufacturer, and that says something about the type of drivers choosing the 3 Series. Even the optional automatic transmission is tuned for crisp, sporty shifting. Handling response is sharp and precise, and braking capability is best in class.
BMW 328i models come with BMW's trademark 3.0-liter straight six, and we found it's more than powerful enough for brisk acceleration and a sinfully good time. The upgrade turbo six in the 335i is one of the most viscerally satisfying engines in production.
Exterior dimensions for all 3 Series models are relatively compact, making them good cars for crowded city centers. All models are distinctively styled and clearly recognizable as BMWs.
The four-door sedan is the most familiar of the 3 Series body styles, and among the most passenger friendly. The Sports Wagon adds substantial cargo space and utility. It's great for couples or families who often bring the dog, though it isn't available with the turbocharged engine. The 328i and 335i Convertibles might be the sexiest 3s, with a fully automatic, one-button folding metal hardtop. The convertible seats four, but it's not offered with all-wheel drive.
The 3 Series coupes are the sportiest. The firmer sport suspension, optional with other body styles, comes standard on the coupe, and these are the lightest cars in the line. The shapely two-door coupe offers more sports appeal than the four-door sedan but still has a two-place back seat and a trunk only slightly smaller than that of the sedan.
Few cars in this class can match the 3 Series for its overall balance of technology, rationality, performance and driving pleasure. Some competitors offer more room, more power, better mileage or maybe better interiors for less money.
Aside from subjective price-value analysis, we think the most noteworthy hitch in the 3 Series is the downside of its many electronic gizmos. We think our favorite Bimmer is getting mucked up with too much annoying stuff.
The 2011 BMW 3 Series models come standard with automatic climate control, a climate-controlled center console, a choice of aluminum or different wood interior trims, heated windshield washer nozzles, rain-sensing wipers, a power moonroof, 10-speaker AM/FM/CD, and Dynamic Cruise Control. Vinyl upholstery is standard with leather optional.
The BMW 328i sedan ($33,150) is powered by a 230-hp 3.0-liter inline-6. The 328i xDrive sedan ($35,150) adds xDrive permanent all-wheel drive. A 6-speed manual comes standard, and most models are offered with a 6-speed Steptronic automatic ($1,375). (All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
The BMW 335i sedan ($40,600) and 335i xDrive sedan ($42,600) feature a turbocharged version of the 3.0-liter inline-6, delivering 300 horsepower. The 335i models come with power front seats with memory and Logic 7 audio.
The BMW 335d sedan ($43,950) is powered by a 3.0-liter turbodiesel six in the same inline configuration.
The 3 Series wagons come in 328i Sport Wagon ($35,700) and 328i xDrive Sports Wagon ($37,700) models.
The 3 Series coupe comes in five versions: 328i ($36,200), 328i xDrive ($38,100), 335i ($42,650), 335i xDrive ($44,550), and 335is ($49,650). Model designations are consistent across the body styles and standard equipment is similar, though coupes and convertibles include a few more features in the base price.
The 3 Series Convertible features a retracting metal hard top that opens and closes with the touch of a button and comes in 328i ($45,000), 335i ($51,200) and 335is ($58,200) versions.
The 335is coupe and convertible have a twin-turbo engine that makes 320 horsepower. The 335is models have equipment otherwise offered in the M Sport package, including the BMW M Sport steering wheel, M Sport seats, an anthracite headliner, 18-inch wheels, and stiffer engine mounts. The 335is comes standard with the 6-speed manual and is available with a double-clutch 7-speed automated manual transmission ($1,575).
Options include Dakota leather upholstery ($1,450); navigation system ($2,100), Sirius satellite radio hardware ($350), Logic 7 stereo upgrade ($875), Active Steering ($1,550), smartphone integration ($150). The Cold Weather Package adds heated seats, heated steering wheel, headlight washers, ski sack, and in the sedan, a split-folding rear seat. The Sport Package includes sporting suspension calibrations tuned by BMW's M performance division for the sedan, wagon and convertible, more heavily bolstered sport seats, sport steering wheel, Shadowline exterior trim, increased top-speed limiter, and a wheel-performance tire upgrade.
Safety features include front-impact airbags that deploy at different rates depending on the severity of impact, front passenger side-impact airbags and full-cabin, curtain-type head protection airbags. The convertibles add knee airbags that help keep front passengers from sliding under the seat belts. Active safety features, designed to help the driver avoid collisions, include Dynamic Stability Control and the latest generation antilock brakes. The ABS preloads the brake pedal when the driver suddenly lifts off the gas pedal, and includes a feature that lightly sweeps the brake discs dry every 1.5 seconds when it's raining.