The 2013 BMW 3-Series is safe, fuel-efficient, and well-connected, yet it delivers the class-leading performance and handling that enthusiasts have come to expect.
The BMW 3-Series cars have grown as complex as the hardware wrapped in their sheetmetal bodies. BMW juggles a coupe, a convertible, and a sedan under the nameplate—though the sedan this year is a new model, while the two-doors ride under a last-generation architecture. There's some resolution next year when the 3-Series entails only sedans, wagons, and hatchbacks—and the new BMW 4-Series reigns over coupes and convertibles.
But today, the 2013 BMW 3-Series soldiers on as a paragon of the mid-size luxury class, a leader in handling and prestige, and a follower in infotainment. The four-doors continue to be a benchmark for performance across the board, though Cadillac's new ATS has intruded on that territory in a huge, deep way. The coupes and convertibles? They're still more status symbols than anything. As such, we'll focus here on the new sedan. (You can read our previous reviews of the 2011 BMW 3-Series for more on the two-door models.)
The 3-Series grew last year and added a host of tech features cribbed from the 5- and 7-Series. The smaller 3-Series keeps its list of powertrains, great agility and balance, and driver-centric feel that made it popular in the first place.
The sedans have an all turbo lineup now, with a turbo-4 or turbo-6 underhood. Most models can be equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission and deliver plenty of power down low in the range to ensure that there's no bad pick in the bunch.
The M3 continues to generate lusty thoughts from true driving enthusiasts with its special performance package, M Sport suspension, and upgraded brakes, plus a 414-hp, 4.0-liter V-8 engine and seven-speed double-clutch (or six-speed manual) transmission. Both the M3, as well as all the 2013 3-Series Coupe and Convertible models, are carried over in the previous-generation layout for the Coupe and Convertible (they won't follow the sedan until next year), so in those forms the 328i includes a 230-horsepower, 3.0-liter naturally aspirated six.
Most models of the 3-Series include driver-selectable modes for how the sedan, hatchback, or wagon behaves. Toggling between Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ can alter the car's behavior, including throttle response, transmission shifts, and stability control. The 3-Series moved to an electric power assist rack for the current generation, that respectably replaces the great hydraulic setup from yesteryear in most circumstances. In any case, the 3er's electric power steering system doesn't disappoint—it loads and unloads nicely—while the eight-speed automatic transmission is quick to respond and covers a wide range for good highway fuel economy (up to 34 mpg on the highway with the 328i). Coupe and Convertible models make do just fine with a six-speed automatic. And as a breath of fresh air—and one you really expect from BMW—nearly all the models can be had with a manual gearbox. And xDrive all-wheel-drive versions have been added to the lineup this year.
The newer sedans are instantly recognizable as more contemporary with their larger greenhouse, more actively sculpted flanks, and wider front-end look. They're nearly four inches longer than the previous models, with two inches of extra wheelbase; about an inch of that goes to increased rear legroom, and that extra bit goes a long way. With better seat contouring and that added inch or two, it's now possible to fit adults in back, although taller occupants will still be splaying their knees and you won't want to subject adults to vast distances in the back seat. Front-seat riders have the best seats in the 3-Series thanks to comfortable seats that hold nearly every body type, thanks to a wide range of adjustability.
Across the lineup, you get the latest version of iDrive, which requires you to use a multi-way controller down on the center console to navigate menus for non-essential functions. It's much easier to intuit than earlier versions of the system, and we don't seeing it as a deal-breaker, yet you'll want to spend some time getting a tutorial at the dealership. BMW Apps integration lets you use your data connection to tap into some well integrated streaming music services—but it requires a $250 smartphone holder, and it's only compatible with versions of the iPhone.
The 3-Series has a long options sheet that can add luxury or high-tech features, for a price. The cold-weather package may be the most practical for northern state shoppers by adding heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and headlight washers. A head-up display relays useful information to the driver via the windshield. A parking assistance package adds a rearview and surround-view camera system for better maneuverability around the mall parking lot, and advanced safety features such as blind-spot monitors and lane-departure warning can add peace of mind. The available navigation system adds excellent 3-D maps.