In the past decade, the BMW 3 Series has been the benchmark against which all other entry-level luxury cars have arguably been designed to compete with and/or beat. To date, a scant few have been able to accomplish the latter. And even when that happens, this Bavarian classic has consistently retaken its crown. Last year saw the addition of a very potent twin-turbo engine and the arrival of fully up-to-date coupe and convertible models. The 2008 BMW 3 Series carries over mostly unchanged and despite fierce competition, retains its benchmark status.
If you're in the market for an entry-level luxury car, chances are there's a 3 Series to consider. There are four body styles, two engines, two transmissions and a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive. Also, a variety of luxury and performance-oriented options allow you to equip the 3 as luxuriously and/or as sporty as you see fit. Regardless of configuration, this BMW lives up to its "ultimate driving machine" tag line with an unparalleled mix of driving ease and proficiency. Even the convertible model manages to retain much of the 3's handling pedigree, despite its added weight and loss of structural rigidity.
In several comparison tests Edmunds.com conducted over the past year, the 3 Series proved over and over again that it's the top dog in the pound -- especially the 335 and its spectacular turbocharged inline-6. We placed the Infiniti G35 Sport above the 335i sedan in one test, but that was due to the substantial price premium commanded by the Bimmer. In fact, the 3 Series' price is its only significant detriment -- a fully loaded 335i sedan can reach $50,000, while the convertible touches 60 large. "Entry level" it ain't.
If price or getting the latest electronic goodies is more important to you, competitors like the Infiniti G35/G37, Cadillac CTS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4 and Volvo C70 are very attractive competitors. Even when discussing driving enjoyment, most deliver at a level that many consumers will find extremely rewarding and downright fun. Still, the 2008 BMW 3 Series remains the benchmark. As always, it provides a tremendous mix of handling, ride quality, performance, luxury and styling. Heck, it's even pretty fuel efficient. For an entry-level luxury car, this is our top choice.
BMW 3 Series models
A compact entry-level luxury car, the 2008 BMW 3 Series is available in sedan, coupe, hardtop convertible and wagon body styles. All come in a rear-wheel-drive 328i trim level, while the coupe, sedan and wagon also come in all-wheel-drive 328xi trim. In addition, the convertible, coupe and sedan are available as the rear-drive 335i, and the sedan and coupe are available as the all-wheel-drive 335xi.
Standard equipment on the 328 models includes 16-inch alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, a sunroof, leatherette upholstery, real walnut wood trim, automatic climate control and a 10-speaker CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack. Coupe and convertible versions of the 328 come with slightly more equipment. The coupe also has a sport-tuned suspension while the convertible has a power-retractable hardtop. In addition to its more powerful engine, the 335 model has power front seats and a premium Harman Kardon Logic 7 sound system.
Most 3 Series cars you encounter on dealer lots will be equipped with the Premium Package, and many will have both the Premium and Sport Packages. The Premium Package provides leather upholstery (heat-reflective in the convertible), a full set of auto-dimming mirrors, Bluetooth, BMW Assist telematics, and on 328 models, power seats. The Sport Package specifies a firmer suspension on convertibles, sedans and wagons, along with larger wheels, performance tires, sport seats and a higher top-speed limiter.
Stand-alone extras include an iDrive-based navigation system with real-time traffic updates, active steering, adaptive cruise control, keyless startup (known as Comfort Access), heated front seats and satellite radio. Paddle shifters can be added to models equipped with the automatic transmission and the Sport Package. You can also replace the standard walnut interior accents with either light poplar or aluminum trim at no additional cost.
Having introduced two all-new body styles last year, the 3 Series undergoes few changes for 2008. Most notable is the addition of the 335xi coupe, which adds all-wheel drive to the turbocharged 3 Series two-door. Sedans and wagons equipped with the six-speed automatic and Sport Package can now be upgraded with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The convertible carries over unchanged.
Performance & mpg
The 2008 BMW 328i and 328xi are powered by a 3.0-liter inline-6 rated at 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. The 335i and 335xi are powered by a heavily modified, twin-turbocharged version of the same 3.0-liter engine that produces an impressive 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is the standard gearbox and a six-speed automatic is optional. In performance testing, the turbocharged 3 Series sedan and coupe raced up to 60 mph in fewer than 5 seconds -- about the same as the last M3. The heavier 335xi and convertible 335i are a tad slower. Expect the 328i to be in the mid-6-second range, which is hardly pokey.
Despite its potent power plants, the 3 Series remains fuel efficient. The 328 gets about 17-18 mpg in the city and 25-28 mpg on the highway, depending on the body style, transmission and drivetrain. A rear-drive 335i has a 17/26 mpg rating regardless of transmission.
Standard safety equipment on the 2008 BMW 3 Series includes antilock disc brakes, dynamic brake control, stability control, run-flat tires, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. The convertible lacks the side curtains, but the regular front side airbags extend up to head level and there are also pop-up rollover hoops. The stability control system integrates several features designed to improve braking performance, such as periodically wiping the brake rotors when the windshield wipers are in use (wet brakes don't stop so well) and snugging the pads to the rotors when the driver abruptly lifts off the throttle, which quickens brake responsiveness.
In government crash tests, the sedan and wagon received four out of five stars for frontal collision protection and five stars for side protection. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset crash testing, both the sedan and convertible received the highest rating of "Good." In the IIHS side crash test, the sedan received a "Good," while the convertible received a third-best "Marginal" rating.
There's no going wrong with either of the engines available in the 2008 BMW 3 Series. The standard, normally aspirated engine is a little light on low-end torque, but it moves the car around smartly and provides slightly better mileage. Meanwhile, the twin-turbo engine provides the kind of acceleration formerly associated with the high-performance M3.
No matter which model you choose, the 3 Series' world-class suspension, steering and brakes will provide hours of entertainment on twisty two-lane highways. Beyond simply feeling rock-solid when hustled around turns, this car communicates with the driver in a manner that inspires confidence no matter what kind of driving you're doing. At the same time, the 3 Series is an ideal long-distance cruiser, delivering both a comfortably controlled ride and a quiet cabin environment.
The 3 Series interiors provide a restrained show of luxury. Though a tad plain, the emphasis, through items such as supportive seats and clean analog gauges, is on driver comfort and involvement. Materials are high in quality and build quality is exceptional; indeed, even the standard leatherette (vinyl) upholstery looks and feels better than one would expect. The convertible's available industry-first heat-reflective leather does a wonderful job of keeping occupants' posteriors cool. We'd steer clear of the optional navigation system, though, as its accompanying iDrive interface is very unintuitive.
The front seats have enough firm support to ward off fatigue during a day's worth of driving, while the rear seats are adequately roomy for adults on shorter trips and plenty accommodating for children. Trunk space is average in sedans and coupes, while the wagon offers a maximum cargo capacity of 61 cubic feet. The convertible offers a reasonable cargo hold when the hardtop is up, but it shrinks considerably when the top is lowered.