However, the coupe, convertible and Compact have now been given the slightest nip and tuck to coincide with the introduction of a six-speed manual gearbox on diesel, 2.5- litre and 3.0-litre models. But the changes are more significant under the skin.
For the coupe and convertible it means a wider grille with a raised 'power dome' on the bonnet and new light clusters to accommodate optional adaptive front headlights. The rear light clusters now incorporate LED brake lights, which are yet to be EU homologated. During emergency braking, an extra circle of lights is illuminated. As soon as the system is homologated, it can be 'switched' on by BMW dealers.
The sequential manual gearbox (SMG) available on 325 Ci, 330 Ci and 325 Ti models, incorporating paddle shifts on the steering wheel, also gets an extra gear giving it six, while dynamic stability control is standard across the range.
BMW GB managing director Jim O'Donnell said: 'The 3-series remains key to BMW's success in the UK. We are certainly not complacent about 3-series and the 2003 model year enhancements will keep the range fresh. It is important to appreciate that the 3-series success is due, in no uncertain terms, to the fact that it is a 'range' of models. We sold record numbers in the UK last year, but less than half were saloon versions.'
Nearly 60% of 3-series sales are to businesses or fleets and the figure does not include single ownership companies as well as professionals such as doctors, vets and dentists.
Graham Grieve, BMW sales director, said: 'We estimate that 75% of 3-series sales are business sales of one type or another. We recognise the corporate market as a critical business area and have increased our resources accordingly. We have doubled our corporate sales staff and plan to market BMW more aggressively in this sector. We have rarely had enough cars to meet demand but are working hard to secure more in 2003.
'Our experience with the 3-series is that not only is the car intrinsically attractive to the end user, but because of the strong residual values it also appeals to the fleet manager.'
Behind the wheel
THE visual changes to the two-door 3-series variants are subtle, but the coupe and convertible are given a more purposeful look at the front.
Valvetronic engines remain, which means fuel consumption is acceptable, even with six-cylinder models, and my first drive was in a 330 Ci convertible with the new six-speed manual transmission.
Convertibles often have a reputation as 'hairdressers' cars' but this is not one that can be levelled at the 3-series. Free from scuttle shake and with a spine-tingling exhaust note, the 330 Ci convertible is at home being hurried along twisty B-roads. With sweet steering that allows millimetre precision in bends and a combination of sharp handling with a reasonably compliant ride, the 3-series is a great entertainer. The gearchange is not as slick as you would expect, but shifts cleanly with a firm and deliberate hand.
Trying the SMG gearbox in a 330 Ci coupe left me with the impression that it was a reasonable alternative to an automatic, once you get used to the gearshift pattern in auto mode. But I would still choose the manual.
THE 3-series range has been freshened up to bring it up to date, and few cars in this class come close to providing such an entertaining drive. It should keep interest strong over the next couple of years.
|3 series fact file|
|Model:||330 Ci coupe||330 Ci convertible|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||228/5,900||228/5,900|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||221/3,500||221/3,500|
|Max speed (mph):||155||153|
|Fuel consumption (mpg)::||31.0||29.4|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||218||229|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||64/14|
|Transmission||6-sp man||(optional 5-sp auto||or 6-sp SMG)|