Reviews

2011 BMW 3 Series Walk Around

For 2011, all 3 Series models get some minor styling changes.

2011 3 Series coupes and convertibles are an inch longer in than the 2010 versions due to revisions to the front bumper and lower fascia. The twin-kidney grille is wider, the headlights add the LED corona rings we become accustomed to seeing on the 5 Series and other BMWs, and there are now LED brows above the headlights.

2011 3 Series sedans and wagons get a bolder front end with a larger air intake, sharper lines on the hood, and more prominent side character lines. The headlights are reshaped for 2011. Models with xenon high-intensity discharge headlights now use the round corona rings as daytime running lights. At the rear, LEDs now adorn the redesigned taillights. The 3 Series sedan has a new trunk shape for 2011, and the track is 0.6 inch wider.

The new BMW 335is features a modified front end without fog lights to allow more air intake. Along the sides, it gets lower aero skirts. The rear features a unique bumper, black chrome exhaust tips, additional air ducting, and a black lower diffuser. The diffuser's shape helps air flow over the rear axle.

The 3 Series sedan, wagon, coupe, and convertible all look different from one another, but they have a family appearance and are immediately recognizable as BMWs.

The model line's high-tech theme is visible from the outside. Many models come with adaptive bi-xenon headlights that turn with the steering wheel to aim into a curve. All feature BMW's adaptive brake lights, which are based on the idea that drivers in the cars following a 3 Series will know when the 3 is braking hard: The LED lights illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the driver applies the brakes full-lock or when the ABS operates.

All 3 Series body styles ride a 108.7-inch wheelbase, and by every exterior dimension, they're all within two inches of each other. In general, these are the largest 3 Series cars ever. Most of the extra width and length translates into more interior space compared to previous generations, particularly in the back seat.

The sedan is the best seller, and perhaps most familiar to the motoring public. The coupe is a bit longer and lower than the sedan, and not as wide. With standard xenon headlamps, its front light clusters are smaller. The coupe's hood looks longer, and it's fashioned with a subtle dome that suggests a powerful engine underneath. The windshield flows into a roofline that's long and curved in a continuous arc, and lower than that on the sedan. With extensive use of plastic composite materials for parts such as the front fenders, the coupes are also the lightest cars in the line, even though they carry more standard equipment.

In profile or front three-quarter view, the 3 Series Convertible closely resembles the coupe. Its front end and the arc of its roofline are nearly identical to those of the coupe. The difference, of course, is the convertible's retractable metal hardtop, which opens or closes at the touch of a button in just 22 seconds. The top folds in three pieces and stows itself under the trunk lid. That lid is hinged both front and rear, so it can open toward the back to swallow the folding top, and from the back to load the trunk. Thanks to the weight of the top's operating mechanism, as well as body reinforcements intended to maintain structural integrity when the top is open, the convertibles are heavier than the lightest 3 Series cars by some 400 pounds.

The 3 Series Sport Wagon is identical to the sedan from the center roof pillar forward. Rearward, its roofline tapers slightly all the way to the rear of the car, while the bottom line of the rear windows tapers upward slightly, creating a teardrop shape. Roof rails are standard on the wagon, and its rear gate opens electrically, with a switch on the key fob or dashboard. The rear glass opens separately, which is convenient for quickly loading lightweight items.

Interior

The BMW 3 Series cabin takes the best of several ideas first applied in the larger 5 Series and 7 Series models, synthesizes them for a smaller car and improves them in the process. We aren't completely enamored with everything inside the 3 Series, but we have few serious gripes.

There are subtle interior differences in the models across the 3 Series lineup. The coupe, for example, has different instrument script and a third wood trim option not offered in the sedan (dark-stained poplar). But the essentials, including dashboard, console and front seats, are the same across the four body styles.

The soft vinyl and plastics improve on previous generations in both appearance and feel, and they rival the best in class. All models offer a choice of real aluminum or various wood trims, and there's a lot of it on the dash and doors. BMW's Leatherette vinyl is not the least bit tacky, while the optional leather is soft and thick. The 3 Series follows BMW's tradition of soft orange backlighting for the instruments. Some will like it, some won't.

The dashboard has a pronounced horizontal format, with more community and less driver orientation than previous 3 Series cars. There are actually two dash designs. The standard setup has a single bubble, or hood, over the gauge cluster, while the optional navigation system is installed in a dash that accommodates it with a second hood in the center.

The 3 Series has no keyed ignition switch, relying instead on a slot-type key fob and a starter button. We do not like this system, and we are not sold on the benefit it has over a conventional key. The fob slides into a slot next to the steering column, and you push the button to fire up.

The Comfort Access option makes everything automatic, and the thinking here is more obvious. With fob in pocket, the doors unlock automatically as the driver approaches, and the seats are waiting in their proper position. The driver just pushes the start button, and pushes it again when it's time to get out. But you have to pull it back out to lock the doors when you get out. We do not like keyless system. We've seen instances where keyless fobs get misplaced, causing confusion and stress. Also, it can sometimes be harder to discern whether the car is switched on or off with a keyless pushbutton system, which can lead to dead batteries and increased profits for tow truck operators.

Seats have long been a 3 Series strength. The standard front buckets provide excellent support without feeling too hard. The manual adjustments work great, though we recommend using them only when the car is parked. The 335 models get power adjustments with three memory positions. The power seats that come with the Sport Package are outstanding, though the additional back and bottom bolstering make them harder to slide into. As passengers we might like them less, but as drivers we love them.

The audio controls could be higher in the center stack for easier access, and the buttons for station presets and assorted functions demand more concentration than they should. Switching between AM, FM and other modes can be distracting while driving. The orange readout on the stereo is almost invisible when wearing polarized sunglasses on a sunny day, even though similar readouts for climate control are perfectly legible.

The automatic climate control features separate temperature adjustments for driver and front passenger. A mist sensor measures moisture on the windshield and automatically adjusts the defroster, while a heat-at-rest feature keeps the cabin heated for a time after the car is turned off.

The single-CD stereo sounds good, with 10 speakers and separate subwoofers under the front seats. The 335 models come with an audio upgrade called Logic 7. It adds wattage and three speakers, with the latest digital sound processing and surround technology. Audio controls on the steering wheel work well, once they're mastered.

BMW's multi-layer, mouse-style iDrive interface is optional in the 3 Series, but if you want the navigation system, you'll have to take iDrive. The 3 Series has the fourth-generation of iDrive, which comes with several buttons around the central controller a large, sharp, 8.8-inch control screen. It also has programmable preset buttons that look like radio presets but can be used to store anything from common navigation destinations to audio balance. We'd forgo the navigation system so we could avoid the iDrive. We found simple tasks like calling up a map or pre-setting radio stations a challenge. On a positive note, the navigation system comes with a hard drive the can store up to eight gigabytes of music, or about as much as the typical iPod.

In other respects, the 3 Series cabin is more user-friendly than ever. The coupe, for example, has seatbelt presenters, or motorized arms that emerge from little doors built into the rear side panels. It used to be that the driver and front-seat passenger had to reach way back to find their shoulder belts. Now occupants just sit down and close the doors, and the belts come to them.

There are plenty of storage pockets and nooks, including large pockets in the doors. The center console is climate controlled, and there is a large storage tray in the center console, near the auxiliary audio input connector, which provides place to lay an MP3 player or other audio source. That's notable because German cars are notorious for not having cubby storage.

The new 2011 BMW 335is gets a few interior style changes. It features the thick M Sport steering wheel, gray gauge faces with 335is logos, sport bucket seats, an anthracite headliner, stainless steel-trimmed pedals, and additional badging. The look is a bit sportier, which is appropriate.

Rear-seat accommodations are adequate in all 3 Series models. The rear air vents can be separately adjusted for temperature and air volume. Remember: this is a compact car, and rear passengers with long torsos will feel their hair rubbing on the headliner. The sedan and wagon seat five but the center position in the back seat is best left to children.

The coupes are limited to four passengers, the center space in back is replaced by a console, which includes individual storage boxes, additional air vents and footwell lights. The rear accommodations are actually a little better in the coupe in terms of roominess, though access is more difficult in the absence of rear doors. There's decent legroom and more shoulder room. It's almost like sitting in a little limousine. There are even buttons on the outside of each front seat, so those in back can reach up and power the front seat forward to ease exit from the rear of the car.

Trunk space is small for the class, with 12 cubic feet in the sedan, 11 cubic feet in the coupe. A split-folding rear seatback is standard on the coupe, optional on the sedan. A separate compartment under the trunk mat, measuring 1.7 cubic feet, adds space for small items that won't slide around.

The Sport Wagon is easily the best choice in the 3 Series line for cargo hauling. From the handling, accelerating or braking standpoints, it gives up nothing to the 328i sedan, and it adds a dimension of utility. Cargo volume increases to 24.8 cubic feet, floor to ceiling, behind the rear seat. With the rear seat folded forward, the 3 Series wagon can swallow nearly 61 cubic feet of stuff, more than some small SUVs. The wagon's load area is flat, too, which is good for dogs and cargo. It's fully lined with thick, soft carpet, and it's full of convenient features, including separate enclosed bins, cargo straps, bag holders, a power point, a cargo cover at seat height and a roll-out cargo net. The wagon is available with all-wheel drive, giving it winter-weather capability.

The Convertible offers the least cargo space. There's a maximum 9.0 cubic feet when the top is up. Lower the top, and cargo space reduces dramatically. With the top down, count on maybe a medium-sized duffel bag, and make sure the top is closed before stowing anything.

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