- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

If you take the best BMW has to offer — spot-on handling, gutsy engines, refined interiors — and distill all of these elements down into one compact package, the result is the 3 Series. Because, in essence, this is the brand’s entry-level offering, it is free of many of the excesses found on larger BMWs, such as the confounding iDrive.

It’s possible, never having been inside a BMW, to actually operate the audio and climate control systems of the 3 Series without burying oneself in the owner’s manual. And the best part, all of that time saved is put to better use behind the wheel enjoying as pure a driving experience as is available no matter pedigree or price.

Given the choice of the 3 or the 7 Series, I’d take the 3 Series every time. For people who love to drive for driving’s sake, the 3 Series isn’t simply fun, it’s joyous.

BMW uses the shotgun approach in marketing the 3 Series. Available in sedan, coupe, wagon and convertible form, it can be enjoyed no matter your specific small, luxury transportation requirements. Some versions even offer all-wheel drive. But because for most of the country the ideal convertible weather fall provides is upon us, the drop-top edition presents a timely and representative profile of the 3 Series.

A $43,975 328i convertible supplied the foundation for this evaluation. It shares convertible duties with the $49,875 335i. Turbo charging and the extra wheel-turning power it delivers are primarily responsible for the price difference. The 335i features a couple of extras such as a Harman Kardon surround-sound audio system in place of the 328i’s 10-speaker setup with CD player and input jack for a personal music device. Both, though, have 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control and a power-retractable convertible hardtop, in addition to a full array of power accessories.

A 3-liter in-line six-cylinder engine fills the hole under the hood. For use in the 328i, it’s normally aspirated and delivers 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. This is more than enough juice to induce jackrabbit starts and effortless cruising. BMW took the same six, added twin turbo chargers and direct injection for the 335i, boosting the ponies to 300 and the torque by a whopping 100 pounds-feet. Does the extra heat and beefed up audio system make the 335i worth an extra 6 large? Well, yeah. In for a penny, in for a pound, we say.

A slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission transfers engine production to the rear wheels. There isn’t a sweeter manual on the planet.

Ante up an extra $1,275, and you can replace the manual transmission with a driver-shiftable six-speed automatic. This doesn’t scrub much of the fun from the driving experience and is better suited for busy-highway morning commutes.

The smidgen of difference in fuel economy between the 328i and 335i isn’t worth noting. When equipped with the automatic, the 328i has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 20 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.

The dialed-in four-wheel independent suspension is tuned for superb handling. Cornering like a roller coaster, its near-perfect balance turns the twisties into an exact science. If things do get a little out of hand, the stability control springs into action to help smooth the wrinkles. Traction control, brake assist and brakeforce distribution are also functions of the four-wheel ventilated-disc antilock brake system.

With 34.6 inches of rear-seat legroom, the interior accommodates four adults. Those relegated to the backseat aren’t going to want to be back there for long, but carrying a foursome to lunch isn’t out of the question.

When the top is up, there is about 12 cubic feet of cargo space. Lowering the top diminishes that number by about 75 percent. Driver and front-seat passenger have plenty of elbow room. The supportive bucket seats snug you in, keeping you upright in the turns; yet offer adequate comfort for long hauls. Qualifying for leather upholstery requires a serious additional investment — $1,550, to be exact — as a stand-alone option or $2,850 as a feature of the Premium Package. The Premium Package also includes auto-dimming rearview and outboard mirrors, power-folding outboard mirrors, compass, lumbar support and provisions for Bluetooth.

Logically arranged, the instrumentation and controls are easy to see, find and operate. BMW reserves the bulk of its high-tech hardware for its larger, more expensive models.

The 3 Series has exactly what is needed for safe, comfortable motoring without all the extras that could leave a space shuttle pilot dazed and confused. Build quality is excellent and the materials used in the cabin are worthy of a luxury contender.

The hardtop is fully automatic, operating rapidly with the push of a button. When raised, it offers the quiet and security of a coupe.

Other than the price tag, there just isn’t anything to grouse about.

If you would be just as happy taking the bus or commuter train into the office in the morning, the 3-Series probably isn’t for you. You will have a tough time justifying the cost to yourself or anyone else. However, if you can appreciate a flawless driving experience with the added benefit of sun-in-your-face fun, the 328i and 335i convertibles will prove to be more than transportation, they will be your reason for getting up in the morning.

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