The 2014 BMW 3 Series has come a long way from its "ultimate driving machine" roots. Back in the day, the 3 Series was known primarily for its sports-car-like performance -- and if you wanted to join the club, you had to put up with a cramped back seat and Spartan interior appointments. But today's 3 Series is a technological tour de force that's spacious enough to carry four adults with ease. Is it still the driver's choice in this segment? That's up for debate. But there's no disputing the current 3 Series is one of the best cars on the planet at its price point.
What's New for 2014
The big news for the 3 Series this year starts with the introduction of a long-awaited wagon version known as the Sports Wagon (it was announced for 2013 but never showed up on our shores). There's also a new fuel-efficient 328d turbodiesel model, and 2014 marks the first full year for the attractively priced 320i sedan. Additionally, the 3 Series coupe and convertible are no more; look for their replacements -- the 4 Series line -- later in the 2014 model year.
What We Like
Powerful and fuel-efficient engines; spacious interior with top-notch materials; up-to-date cabin technology; confident driving character; available wagon variant
What We Don't
Less sporty than previous 3 Series models; options can get expensive; ActiveHybrid model is a tough sell at $50k-plus
The rear-wheel-drive 320i (sedan only) employs a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that makes 180 horsepower. Paired with the popular 8-speed automatic transmission, this engine returns an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rating of 24 miles per gallon city/36 mpg hwy. There's also a 6-speed manual transmission that checks in at 23 mpg city/36 mpg hwy. The all-wheel-drive 320i xDrive is automatic-only and achieves 23 mpg city/35 mpg hwy.
The 328i models come with either rear-wheel drive (sedan only) or xDrive all-wheel drive (sedan and Sports Wagon). Like the 320i, they feature a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder, but this version has been cranked up to 240 hp. Despite the extra oomph, fuel economy doesn't suffer much: the rear-wheel-drive sedan registers 23 mpg city/33 mpg hwy with the 8-speed automatic and 22 mpg city/34 mpg hwy with the 6-speed manual, while all-wheel-drive 328i xDrive models (including the Sports Wagon) return 22 mpg city/33 mpg hwy.
The new 328d line similarly starts with rear-wheel drive (sedan only) and offers all-wheel drive (sedan and Sports Wagon). It boasts a turbodiesel 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder that makes the same 180 hp as the 320i but a whopping 280 lb-ft of torque (the 320i gives you 200 lb-ft). The only transmission is the 8-speed automatic. EPA estimates were not yet available as of this writing, but BMW is bullish, projecting a highway rating of over 40 mpg.
The 335i (sedan only) features a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder rated at an even 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. Remarkably, the 335i with the 8-speed automatic gets the same 23 mpg city/33 mpg hwy as the 328i, though adding xDrive drops you down to 20 mpg city/30 mpg hwy. Opting for the manual transmission yields 20 mpg city/30 mpg hwy (335i) or 20 mpg city/28 mpg hwy (335i xDrive).
Finally, the ActiveHybrid 3 (sedan only) teams a turbocharged inline 6-cylinder with an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack to produce a robust 335 hp and 330 lb-ft. The hybrid's fuel economy is a head-scratcher, though: At 25 mpg city/33 mpg hwy, it's barely more efficient than its much cheaper siblings. As with the diesel, the 8-speed automatic is compulsory.
Options and Standard Features
The base 320i ($33,475) comes standard with 17-inch wheels, fog lights, push-button ignition, auto stop/start (a fuel-saving feature that can be disabled), Driving Dynamics Control (offering three settings for throttle sensitivity and steering effort), manually adjustable front seats, leatherette upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth, iPod/USB connectivity and the iDrive infotainment system with a 6.5-in screen.
The 328i ($37,775) and similar 328d (pricing TBA) are generally equipped like the 320i but add perks such as an auto-dimming rearview mirror and power seats with driver memory functions.
The 328i xDrive Sports Wagon ($42,375) and similar 328d xDrive Sports Wagon (pricing TBA) boast a panoramic sunroof to go with their station-wagon body style.
The 335i ($44,075) is mostly about the powerful inline 6-cylinder engine, but it also gets nice feature upgrades relative to the 328i sedan, including 18-in wheels, adaptive xenon headlights and a sunroof.
The Active Hybrid 3 ($50,575) includes the 335i's extras and adds that fancy hybrid power system, an 8.8-in iDrive screen and various hybrid-specific gauges and readouts.
Most 3 Series models can be customized with one of three trim packages: Sport Line, Modern Line and Luxury Line. These are comprehensive appearance packages (the Sport also has a lowered sport suspension) that offer unique wheels and interior decor. There's also an M Sport package that adds Shadowline exterior trim, a sport suspension, an M steering wheel, sport seats, a short-shifter kit (manual transmission only) and extensive M badging inside and out.
In typical BMW fashion, the options list is extensive and expensive. The Premium Package varies by model but adds power lumbar support and keyless entry/ignition with a nifty foot-activated trunk-opening feature. The Cold Weather Package brings a heated steering wheel, and heated front and rear seats. Standalone options are limited on the 320i but seemingly limitless on the rest, highlighted by dynamic cruise control, a self-parking system, a Harman Kardon audio system, a navigation system and the larger 8.8-in iDrive display (standard on ActiveHybrid 3). All 3 Series are eligible for the BMW Apps program, which leverages your iPhone to bring social media into the driving experience.
Trunk space in the sedan is a respectable 13 cu ft (figure a few cu ft less with the ActiveHybrid due to its trunk-mounted battery pack), while the wagon can haul up to 64.9 cu ft of cargo -- that's crossover SUV territory.
The 3 Series comes with stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with collision mitigation features and eight airbags (front, front-side, front-knee, full-length side curtain). Other available safety features include BMW Assist (which adds automatic crash notification and roadside assistance) and a lane-departure warning system.
The current 3 Series received a perfect five stars overall in government crash testing, including four stars for frontal impacts and five stars for side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 3 Series its top Good rating in all categories save for the new Small Front Overlap test, in which the 3 Series garnered the second-worst Marginal rating.
Behind the Wheel
The 2014 BMW 3 Series is unmistakably a BMW from the driver seat. Classic round gauges stare back at you with BMW's trademark red illumination, while the central control panel is canted toward the driver as usual. But there's a high-tech vibe now that wasn't present in the previous 3 Series. Most glaringly, that model had an unsightly hump in the middle of its dashboard to accommodate the iDrive display, whereas the current 3 Series features a classy-looking central display that reminds us of a squashed iPad -- especially when the full 8.8-in version is specified. Speaking of that display, its graphics and responsiveness are beyond reproach, and the latest iDrive controller continues to be one of our favorites in the infotainment category.
In terms of accommodations, anyone who's familiar with older 3 Series models will immediately notice how spacious the current model feels. We'd politely call those older models snug, but the new 3 Series is big enough inside that we question whether it's really worth stepping up to the 5 Series. Get the optional front sport seats if you can, as they add back some of that trademark snugness in all the right places.
On the road, there's no doubt that the 2014 BMW 3 Series feels bigger and more substantial than older versions. Although some of the model's trademark playfulness has been lost, there's still an overwhelming sense of confidence and control from the helm. We're also impressed by the smooth, quiet ride, and there's plenty of power on tap -- particularly if you spring for the downright fast 335i or ActiveHybrid 3. Put it this way: If you're looking for a premium driving experience, you won't be disappointed with this BMW.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi A4 - The A4 is one of the oldest cars in this segment, but it continues to satisfy with its nimble handling and upscale interior vibe. If you're looking at the high-performance 335i, check out Audi's rival S4 sport sedan.
Lexus IS - Completely redesigned for 2014, the IS features bold styling, athletic handling and a much-improved interior. It's a contender.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class - The C-Class is another old timer, recent rejuvenation notwithstanding, but it's got Mercedes' trademark sense of solidity. Still a must-drive in this segment.
The new turbodiesel 328d seems to be getting all the press, but our money's still on the gas-powered 328i for its seductive mix of quick acceleration (significantly quicker than the 328d), frugal fuel economy and relative affordability.