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Series changes subtly for '04

BMW 3

August 01, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Crowned the best of the best - year after year - and a car that the rest of the industry scrambles to match, the BMW 3 Series is already considered the pinnacle of European style and performance prowess.

Now what?

For 2004, BMW will continue its don't-mess-with-perfection approach, almost daring anyone to spot the subtle changes to its coupe and convertible versions.

When contemplating alterations to the company's most popular model, tweaking, trimming and incorporating mild body revisions is as far as the designers dared to go. Perhaps that's as much as its loyal group of contented buyers - about 150,000 strong in 2002 - are prepared to accept.

In fact, for about the past dozen years, the 3 Series line has steadily, yet almost imperceptibly evolved. At the same time, the variety of body styles has grown to encompass nearly every automotive category. Aside from sedan and coupe, the line includes a wagon, several all-wheel-drive variants as well as the high-performance M (for Motorsports) offshoot. Next year, a 3 Series-derived sport-utility vehicle will be added to this burgeoning fleet.

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For now, the 325Ci and 330Ci coupes and convertibles have been selected for updating and are being released for 2004 well ahead of the traditional fall launch window. The rear- and all-wheel-drive '04 sedans should follow in a few months while the future of the wagon remains uncertain.

Exterior upgrades are limited to a new front and rear fascia, more bulge in the fender flares plus the availability of Xenon headlights that automatically pivot in the direction of a turn. In addition, the taillights have an adaptive feature that increases their brightness under heavy braking or whenever the standard anti-lock system is on the job.

As a final flourish - and a way for true BMW loyalists to spot 3 Series model years apart- the standard 16- and optional 17- and 18-inch alloy wheels have been redesigned.

On the inside, the climate-control panel on the dash has been revised and the previously optional rain-sensing windshield wipers have become standard.

Those expecting major changes under the hood might be disappointed, although it's tough to find fault with either the carryover base 2.5-liter (in the 325Ci) or the optional 3.0-liter (standard in the 330Ci) six-cylinder powerplants. More power would be always be welcome, but the engines still dish out 2003's 184 and 225 horsepower ratings. These all-aluminum DOHC motors are equipped with BMW's variable intake and exhaust valve timing and are controlled through an electronic drive-by-wire (no mechanical link between the gas pedal and the induction system) throttle.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the 325Ci while an all-new six-speed gearbox is included on the 330Ci. Optional with both is a shift-for-yourself five-speed Steptronic automatic.

According to BMW, the 325Ci coupe will nail down 60 m.p.h. in about seven seconds while the 330Ci shaves a half-second of that time. Due to their extra weight, the convertibles are a tick slower. All versions are limited to a top speed of 128 m.p.h.

While a full load of comfort, convenience and safety features is the order of the day for the 3 Series, the 330Ci benefits from a premium audio system and an eight-way power driver's seat (coupe only).

Among the lengthy list of options is a sport package that provides larger specially designed wheels, sport seats and white turn-signal indicators. As well, a premium package adds a moonroof (coupes), leather upholstery and an auto-dimming mirror.

Even though the 3-Series changes for 2004 are subtle, it's all BMW believes it needs - for now, anyway - to stay in the hearts of buyers and in the sights of the competition.

Copyright 2003, Wheelbase Communications.

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