- Stellar six-cylinder engine
- Interior comfort, function, aesthetics
- Suite of passive and active safety features
- Intuitive driving demeanor
- Surprising efficiency
- Pricey options
- Somewhat tricky clutch on manual
- Optional iDrive is fussy, complex
The 2009 BMW 3-Series is an enthusiast's dream, yet not-quite-perfect safety ratings, smallish rear seats, and some fussy controls might wrinkle potential buyers' noses.
The 3-Series was completely redesigned for 2007, but given some mild styling changes for 2009, the 3-Series continues to dominate the segment with an uncanny mix of luxury, sportiness, driving pleasure, and laudable attention to detail. The line includes coupes, sedans, and wagons, though variants share the same powertrains.
Either inline-six in the 2009 BMW 3-Series delivers excellent power and notable smoothness; the base engine is surprisingly frugal. Styling is elegant and graceful both inside and out. The base 3-Series represents good value for the money, but options and the uplevel 335i quickly send prices skyward.
BMW's 3-Series has thankfully been spared the styling excesses of the recently departed Chris Bangle. Retaining a graceful, athletic stance, the sedan is handsome and the coupe beautiful from nose to tail. Bits of Bangle's flame-surfacing add interest and flair, but here they are restrained and fitting with the 3-Series' mission. The interior in the 2009 BMW 3-Series is traditional BMW: elegant, purposeful, and luxurious in purity and restraint. Too bad the rightfully maligned iDrive ends up on many editions; the base edition's unbroken dash and simpler operation keep it focused on devouring every foot of tarmac it traverses. BMW claims to have made iDrive a bit easier with shortcut menu buttons surrounding the controller, but it's only a modest improvement.
BMW's 3-Series doesn't have that big a backseat, especially in the coupe version, where the rear is best reserved for short hops. Clever seatbelt extenders eliminate the awkward reach in the coupe, and despite admirable solidity, the long doors avoid being too heavy or unwieldy.
The base and optional sixes in the 2009 BMW 3-Series, both 3.0 liters large, continue BMW's steadfast allegiance to the inherently balanced inline cylinder layout. The base engine yields 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque; it feels far more powerful than those ratings suggest. The uplevel twin-turbo, at an even 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, melds turbine-like smoothness with blistering acceleration.
The base 2009 BMW 328i model is no slouch, combining a 6.2-second sprint to 60 mph and impressive EPA ratings of 18/28 mpg with the manual (6.8 seconds, 19/28 mpg with the auto). The 335i isn't hugely quicker, at 5.3 seconds to 60 with the manual, 5.5 seconds with the auto, but the 300 lb-ft of torque—available nearly all the time, due to a quick-spooling twin-turbo setup—means there is never any waiting for copious power. Passing maneuvers in the turbo are breathtaking. And EPA numbers only drop to 17/26 mpg with either the manual or the automatic. All-wheel drive (xDrive in BMW parlance) is available with both engines and transmissions, but it adds weight, loses some of the nimble feel, and reduces mileage; this option is best reserved for icy climes.
Ride and handling are perhaps the 3-Series' most outstanding features. The steering is telepathic regardless of speed, surface, and all but the worst pavement irregularities. The ride is plush, planted, and secure, and it's difficult to fluster in corners. Active steering is an expensive option on some models, but we advise against tampering with perfection; some have criticized the system as feeling occasionally strange and artificial.
The 10-speaker sound system includes two subwoofers and is as crisp, usable, and powerful as everything else on this vehicle. Alas, only an auxiliary input jack comes standard; if you want the radio to interface with and charge your iPod, you need to pony up an extra $400 for the USB option. A host of options in the electronics department ramps up the price of the 2009 BMW 3-Series models quickly and doesn't add to the car's driving excellence, but buyers in this segment appreciate and often buy such items as active cruise control ($2,400), the cursed iDrive navigation/infotainment system ($2,100), power front seats ($995), and Logic7 Surround Sound ($875).
The most compelling options for the 2009 BMW 3-Series are the aforementioned USB/iPod interface and the $750 BMW Assist with Bluetooth. A Sport Package, at $1,450, ups wheel size to 18 inches and includes grippy run-flat tires and well-bolstered sport seats; this is a good pick for the serious driver. The Premium Package, a pricey $3,350, doesn't represent a great value (auto-dimming mirrors, digital compass, Bluetooth, power seats, lumbar support, universal garage door opener) unless you simply must have all those features.
Good, but not stellar, showings in crash tests from the federal government and the insurance industry sully the 3-Series' reputation for being on top. The 2009 BMW 3-Series was rated four out of five stars in the federal frontal test and five stars in the side test, and a sedan was given the top "good" rating in frontal offset and side tests but "acceptable" in rear impact.