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.