In 1974, the world’s economy was not that much different from today with high unemployment and a raging worldwide debate over the impact that the OPEC oil ministers and their price gouging were having on every nation.
A contrived oil shortage had created gas rationing, high oil prices, and an evolving outlook for how certain industries would change in the coming years.
Automakers took a big hit, with depressed sales as most car companies lacked the fuel-efficient, small cars that buyers would suddenly seek. Some industry leaders, however, could see the future better than others. Their impact is still being felt today.
One of these executives was a debonair Swiss businessman who was vice president of sales for a small German luxury automaker named Bavarian Motor Werkes. You may have heard of him before, as Bob Lutz has had a dramatic impact on the auto industry. Initially at GM Europe, Lutz came to BMW just before the 1973 oil embargo and worked on two very significant programs.
First, he helped with the design of a new compact, premium car that would take the place of the well-regarded, yet slow selling, 2002 series. This new model — to be named the 3-series — was a relatively inexpensive premium car with rear drive and three different four-cylinder engines that offered responsive if unexciting acceleration, plus decent fuel economy.
As head of sales, Lutz saw much merit in the new design and thought that the car needed a catchy slogan, especially in America — the largest new car market in the world at the time. In the early 1970s, BMW struggled to sell 15,000 cars in the whole country — all year. That’s about the same number of pickups that Ford sells every 11 days here now.
Lutz thought that the new BMW 3-series was head and shoulders above its Euro-rivals. He worked with a small European ad company to create the longest running automatic ad slogan in history, a moniker that led to the rapid and sustained expansion of BMW in America. “The Ultimate Driving Machine” is still used in BMW’s print and video advertising after 36 years — a pretty good sign that it has staying power.
Like the slogan, the BMW 3-series has staying power. Generally regarded as the benchmark in the compact premium car segment, the 3-series has garnered countless honors and racing trophies on its way to establishing a reputation for superior driving performance and responsive handling, a prowess that has yet to be eclipsed.
The first 3-series appeared in Europe in 1975, two years later in the United States. Initially a two-door sedan only available with four-cylinder engines, the 3-series quickly grew in stature and performance. Now in its fifth edition, the latest 3-series comes in coupe, convertible, sedan, wagon and crossover SUV models with rear or X-drive all-wheel drive.
Like all of its German-bred brethren, the 3-series is an astute road companion. Steering feel, road grip and the car’s ride dynamics all lead to effortless, controlled motoring. The front seats — with manual thigh extenders, power side bolsters and extremely quick seat heaters — coddle and support you like few others. These cars gobble up huge chunks of roadway at one sitting, leaving you refreshed, confident and ready to travel some more.
For years, BMW resisted the trend to go to alternative propulsion modes, eschewing front- or all-wheel drive as heresy to the company’s esteemed handling traditions. AWD also adds weight, which further erodes performance and damages the tight relationship between owner and his “ultimate driving machine.”
Marketing realities have forced BMW to make the leap to optional AWD, yet the 3-series has a very distinct rear-drive handling bias that drivers will find gratifying. Mash the go pedal and the car definitely feels like it is being pushed from the rear, even though some power is being directed to the front wheels. BMW has also masked the added weight of the various clutches, driveshafts, etc., that are needed for AWD, so the real BMW aficionado won’t be disappointed.
From the engine room a 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine utilizes a composite magnesium and aluminum block to minimize weight, as well as Valvetronic Double Vanos variable valve timing to produce 230-hp. Typically, a BMW seems to produce more vivid acceleration than its engine numbers would suggest, but my 328iX sedan seemed to accurately reflect the reality of its 200 pound/feet of peak torque. Passing and merging maneuvers — always a joy in urban Boston traffic — were not as quick as I would have preferred, which is really more of a reflection of my perceptions on BMW’s reputation rather than the car’s actual performance, as this is not a slow car.
Fuel economy with the AWD was consistent. Wailing up and down the interstate, schlepping around town, cruising down Route 1 — the BMW didn’t care. It got 26 mpg each fill-up, one more mile per gallon than the EPA estimates.
Loving how a BMW 3-series drives — as many owners are only to willing to relay this outlook to you — often means that you must overlook some other components of this package.
For me, the 3-series is snug. Head and leg room are ample, but the car seems to envelope me like a close fitting sport coat — a size 42 short when I need a 44 long. The interior design is little changed from generation four models as well; the materials are OK, the detailing is great, but the dash layout is dark, many buttons are small, the base line radio is not an all-star, and BMW still (correctly) thinks that you should be driving not drinking in your car, so beverage slots are an afterthought. There is one slot, a tray that slides out from the dash — on the passenger side.
The 3-series accounts for almost 40 percent of BMW’s worldwide sales, making it far and away the best selling premium small car. Despite the criticism that you earn when you are out front, everyone takes pot shots at the leader, the 3-series still has to be considered one of Bob Lutz’s favorite cars and continues as the Ultimate Driving Machine.
Just the Facts: BMW 328iX
Five-passenger BMW 3-series sedan comes in multiple models. The 328iX starts at around $34,850 with a six-speed manual transmission, about $1,800 more than a rear-drive sedan. Add $1,325 for the StepTronic automatic, $1,650 for the Sport package with 17-inch alloy wheels, $100 for steering wheel paddle shifters and $190 for a heating steering wheel. Tested model listed for $41,040 with rain sensing wipers, headlight washers, Dynamic Cruise, X-drive AWD, push-button ignition, Dynamic traction and stability control and heated leather seats.
The 3-series measures 178.2 inches long on a 108.7-inch wheelbase. Coupe is slightly longer and the wagon model is the same. Compare to Mercedes C-class, Audi A4 and Acura TSX.
EPA mileage estimates for the 328iX are 17/25 mpg. Base sedans with the same engine and only rear drive have EPA estimates of 19/28 mpg.
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