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Is there a driver anywhere who doesn't recognize the BMW 3 Series? The 2006 3 Series may require a double-take, at least until we get used to it, because BMW has launched the first all-new 3 Series models in six years.
The 2006 BMW 325i and 330i sedans comprise the fifth-generation of a car that created a concept, or at least cemented that concept indelibly in the buying public's awareness. For 40 years the 3 Series had delivered a special mix of sporting performance, practicality and European luxury in a compact package. It's the car that defines "sport sedan," and the benchmark every luxury car maker from Acura to Volvo aims at when it develops a sport sedan or a smaller luxury sedan. Above all, the 3 Series is a driver's car: accelerating, turning and stopping with remarkable agility and balance, without seriously compromising comfort or common sense. Finally, the 3 Series has embodied consistent product character and values, defining what has become one of the most respected brands among automobile enthusiasts. Given mixed reviews following the launch of BMW's current 5 and 7 Series sedans, anticipation for the 2006 3 Series might be exceeded only by the potential for disappointment.
As consumers we certainly are not disappointed, but as enthusiast drivers we're pensive about the 2006 325i and 330i sedans. At their core these remain true sport sedans, but their sporting heart is a bit more difficult to find.
If we characterized the new 330i with one word, it might be "stuff," even if BMW would prefer "technology." Technology is everywhere in this compact sedan, some of it first-in-class and some not previously applied in any BMW. The 2006 BMW 3 Series offers Active Steering that actually turns the front wheels without driver intervention, not to mention 150-mile run-flat tires, turning bi-xenon headlights and an optional i-Drive interface inside. It's the first car in its class to offer radar-managed active cruise control, and even the standard cruise control will automatically apply the brakes if the 3 picks up too much speed going down a hill.
Technology is not a bad thing, mind you. The 3 Series accounts for 40 percent of BMW's sales worldwide and BMW is a high-tech brand. The car buying public expects technology in its products. Yet after a good test drive we're left to wonder how much technology is appropriate in a 3 Series, and at what point it detracts from the car's original pureness of purpose.
For this year at least, buyers have the unique opportunity of comparing the new with the old. The tires-up overhaul for 2006, including new exterior styling and interiors, more powerful engines, all six-speed transmissions and redesigned suspension, applies only to the 3 Series sedans. Coupes and convertibles are still available, but for now they are built on the previous-generation 3 Series platform, and are more closely related to the 2005 models.
Make no mistake. The 2006 BMW 325i and 330i sedans accelerate more quickly, stop shorter and turn with more lateral grip than the 2005 models. They are roomier, with more standard and optional equipment and more sophisticated electronic controls. For entry-luxury market shoppers who put a premium on driving satisfaction, the BMW 3 Series remains the place to start. We simply recommend that you compare these cars with and without all the new stuff.
In the 325i sedan ($30,995), the new engine generates 225 horsepower, for an increase of 40 over the 2005 model. The 2006 BMW 325i comes well equipped, with automatic climate and headlight control, a climate-controlled center console, headlight washers, rain-sensing wipers, a power moonroof, 12-speaker AM/FM/CD and the trick new self-braking Dynamic Cruise Control. Burr walnut trim is standard, though the standard upholstery is BMW's Leatherette vinyl. Lighter poplar trim and aluminum are available as no-charge options.
The 330i sedan ($36,995) has a more powerful version of the 3.0-liter six, producing 255 horsepower, or an increase of 30 from 2005. The 330i comes with more standard equipment than the 325i, including eight-way power seats with memory, an auto tilt-down feature for the right side mirror when reverse is engaged, xenon adaptive headlights that turn into a curve with the car, and 13-speaker Logic 7 stereo with two subwoofers and surround-style digital sound processing. Vinyl upholstery is standard.
Safety features that come standard include dual stage front-impact airbags that deploy at different rates depending on the severity of impact, front side-impact airbags and full-cabin head protection airbags. BMW no longer offers rear side-impact airbags on the 3 sedan, on the basis that few buyers took the option, and that the protective benefit does not exceed the risk of airbag related injuries.
Active safety features on all 3 Series models include Dynamic Stability Control anti-skid electronics and the latest generation antilock brakes. The ABS preloads the brake pedal when the driver suddenly lifts off the gas pedal, and includes a feature that lightly sweeps the brake discs dry every 1.5 seconds when its raining.
The most popular option will no doubt be the new six-speed automatic transmission ($1,275). There are also three major option groupings. The Premium Package adds Dakota leather upholstery to the 325i ($2,900) and 330i ($2,200) along with other conveniences, including a Bluetooth cellular phone interface, the tilt-down right side mirror on the 325i, power folding side mirrors, a digital compass in the rear-view mirror and hardware for BMW Assist, the telemetric package that provides safety, convenience and concierge services.
The Sport Package ($1,600) includes sporting suspension calibrations tuned by BMW's M performance division, 10-way sports seats (power adjustable in the 330i) and a wheel/tire upgrade: 17-inch alloys with V-rated performance tires for the 325i; 18-inch with W-rated tires for the 330i. The Sport package and BMW's SMG electro hydraulic manual transmission will be available for the 330i ($1,500) in the fall. The Cold Weather Package ($1,000) adds electrically heated seats, high-intensity headlight washers and a split-folding rear seat with ski sack.
BMW's Active Steering system ($1,250) and radar-managed Active Cruise Control ($2,200) are available as stand-alone options for the first time on the 3 Series. Sirius Satellite Radio hardware ($75) and power rear-window and manual side rear-window sunshades ($575) are available as stand-alones, as are most of the individual components of the three packages, including the split-folding rear seat ($475) and
The previous-generation 3 Series sedans, and the current coupes, have a familiar, distinctive, handsome appearance. The 2006 325i and 330i sedans are certainly recognizable as BMWs in an evolutionary way, but they are also substantially different from their predecessors.
For starters, the new sedans are larger. They're more than two inches longer and three inches wider, and wheelbase has increased 1.4 inches. Most of the increased exterior dimensions translate into more interior space, particularly in the back seat. Moreover, BMW claims the new body is stronger, in that it is more resistant to twisting or bending from road shocks. A rigid structure is crucial to its success and performance in virtually every other respect.
Some reviewers have claimed that the new 3 Series has been spared some of the styling excesses in the BMW 5 and 7 Series cars. Certainly the approach with the 3 Series has been more conservative, and it's easy to understand why. This car accounts for nearly half of BMW 's income. Nonetheless, spared is not a word we'd use for the 2006 3 Series sedans.
The predominant theme in front is BMW's traditional double beam headlights, now under clear covers that wrap around the corners and taper to a point to emphasize the car's width. In profile, the sedan's front and rear overhangs seem even shorter than before. The hood line continues past the windshield pillars all the way to the rear, while the roof line is rounder than before.
Design is the most subjective of all automotive traits, and clearly the 325i and 330i retain some basic BMW qualities or character. Yet in certain respects they also look more generic than their predecessors. The sides are basically flat planes with a single crease below the door pulls and above the wheel wells, but the ends of the car are busier, and we've yet to discover cohesion to the design. Particularly in rear view there are lots of lines, and in this aspect the 3 looks as if it might have been designed in Asia rather than Munich. In short, we're not sure we like it, or at least we're still getting used it.
One thing is certain. Larger wheels and tires filling the wheel wells are almost always a good thing for appearance's sake, and we like the new wheel upgrades (to 17-inch on the 325i and 18-inch on the 330i). The 330i can be distinguished from the 325i by more than its wheels. The 330i's windows and grille slats are trimmed with chrome, while slats across its lower front air intakes are body colored rather than black.
Another sure thing: the new sedan's trunk is larger, and it's another sign that BMW has tried to make the 3 Series more consumer friendly, as well as stylish. Volume has increased from 10.3 to 12 cubic feet, giving the 3 Series trunk space that's more competitive. Moreover, the trunk opening is considerably larger, making it easier to get things inside, and the additional trunk volume does not count a new divided storage bin under the load floor (where a spare might have gone, if not for the new run-flat tires). There's also a drawer hanging under the rear interior shelf to take better advantage of what is often useless space. The new 3 series is still available with a split-folding rear seat and ski sack, expanding cargo space into the rear of the cabin.
The new sedan's co-efficient of drag has been improved as well, meaning that it is more slippery as it cuts through the air. Other things being equal, that means more fuel efficiency, because it takes less power to move the 3 Series at a given speed, and there's less wind noise generated around the car.
The high-tech theme that permeates the 2006 3 Series sedans is even visible from the outside. The 330i comes standard with adaptive halogen headlights that turn with the steering wheel to aim into a curve. All models also have BMW's adaptive brake lights, which are based on the idea that drivers in the cars followi
While we aren't completely enamored with everything in the new 3 Series interior, we have very few gripes. The cabin takes the best of several ideas introduced in the larger BMW 5 and 7 Series sedans, synthesizes them for a smaller car and improves them in the process.
The most obvious change is the starter. The 3 Series sedans no longer have a keyed ignition switch, relying instead on a slot-type key fob and a starter button. The fob goes in a slot next to the steering column, and you push the button to fire up. The Comfort Access option ($500) makes everything automatic. With fob in pocket, the doors unlock automatically as the driver approaches and the seats are waiting in their proper position. The driver just pushes the start button, and pushes it again when it's time to get out.
Seats have always been one of this car's strengths, and the new ones are better than ever. Even the standard-trim front buckets provide excellent support without feeling too hard. The manual adjustments work great, though we recommend using them when the car is parked. The 330i gets power adjustments with three memory positions coded to the key. The 10-way power seats that come with the Sport Package are outstanding. Additional back and bottom bolstering make them a bit harder to slide into, but we'd rather have them during a spirited drive.
The new instrument panels have a pronounced horizontal format, with more community and less driver orientation than before. There are actually two: standard, with a single bubble or hood over the instrument cluster, and optional, with the navigation system. The option dash features a "double wave,'' with a second hood above the navigation screen at the top of the center stack.
The front door panels are different, too. The passenger side has a sloped, vertical door pull, while the driver's door lays the door pull horizontally in the arm rest. Moreover, the new doors address one of our biggest gripes with the old 3 Series interior. Window switches are now clustered near the driver's arm rest, where they're easier to locate without glancing, rather than spread around the gear change on the center console.
The soft vinyls and plastics in the new 3 Series sedans are an improvement in both touch and appearance, and they put the car more closely in line with the best cars in this class for materials and workmanship. Burr walnut trim is now standard, and there's a lot of it on the dash and doors. BMW's Leatherette vinyl is not the least bit tacky, though the optional leather is soft, thick and tight. The new 3 follows BMW's tradition of soft orange backlighting for the instruments. Some will like it, some won't.
For the first time, the 3's automatic climate control features separate temperature adjustments for driver and front passenger. There's also a new mist sensor that measures moisture on the windshield and automatically adjusts the defroster, as well as a heat-at-rest feature that keeps the cabin heating for a time after the car is turned off.
The standard in-dash single-CD player is easy to operate and sounds good, with 10 speakers and separate subwoofers under the front seats. We'd have no problem living with it, but the 330i automatically gets an upgrade called Logic 7. This system adds wattage and three speakers, with the latest digital sound processing and surround technology. Audio controls on the steering wheel work well, once they're mastered.
BMW's multi-layer, mouse-style iDrive interface is optional in the new 3 Series sedans, but if you want the DVD-based GPS navigation system, you'll have to take iDrive. We'd probably do without the nav system, and have encountered few people who remotely like iDrive. Yet there is this in BMW's defense: The art of driver-computer interface remains in its infancy, and no one does it very well.
In certain respects the 3 Series cabin is more consumer-friendly
BMW's 3 Series has always been about the driving. It has many of the attributes of a sports car with the practicality of a sedan. It offers rear-wheel drive and manual transmissions in a class increasingly dominated by front-drive and automatics. Driving has never been much better than the 3 Series, or at least not with seating for five, decent mileage and a high level of all-season comfort.
The all-new 2006 BMW 3 Series sedans are true to their predecessors, with a couple of caveats. The typical BMW buyer will likely appreciate the technology built into the new 3, and particularly the electronic stability control wizardry. Purists may pine that some of the 3 Series' original purity has been lost.
The heart of any BMW is its engine, and the one in the new 3 Series is first rate. It remains true to BMW's commitment to inline six-cylinder engines, as other manufacturers have switched almost exclusively to V6s. The straight six presents more packaging challenges, but its unique performance characteristics and smoothness make it a favorite among enthusiast drivers. The 3.0-liter six in both the 325i and 330i sedans has the latest in control and materials technology, including the first mass-production magnesium alloy engine block, to reduce weight. It produces 215 horsepower in the 325i and 255 horsepower in the 330i thanks to different tuning, but in both cases it is substantially more powerful than the engines it replaces. It's the first six cylinder without a conventional throttle. Engine speed, and therefore acceleration, is varied by how far the intake valves open. These engines are lighter, more powerful for their size, and more fuel efficient than those in the coupes and convertibles.
In both the 325i and 330i sedans, the engine is fantastic. No one will feel short-changed on performance if they make the more economical choice. Yet particularly in the 330i, the new engine is a pleasure to operate, and it's stronger than any 3 Series engine before, short of the M3. What's best is its linear quality, or the steady supply of acceleration-producing torque at any speed. There's more torque down low than before, but the new engine pulls like a sprinter all the way to its 6800-rpm redline and never misses a step. Moreover, the joy of a straight-six isn't hidden under the high tech. It sounds great, with an emphasis on clean mechanical noise from the engine bay rather than the tone of the muffler.
The new 3 Series sedans come with a choice of six-speed automatic transmission, six-speed manual or BMW's six-speed electro-hydraulic Sequential Manual Gearbox. The manual transmission works great. The shifter seems to have slightly shorter throws between the gears than before, and its operation is appropriate to a world-class sports sedan. The extra gear adds more flexibility to the power band and lowers engine revs at cruising speeds. The automatic we liked a bit less, but it's hardly disappointing. With six speeds, the same advantages apply here as with the manual. The automatic can be a bit slow to react with an appropriate gear change in Normal mode, but leaving it Sport mode pretty much solves the problem without a significant payback in more abrupt shifting. Then there is Steptronic manual mode, which allows manual gear selection by toggling the shift lever to the left. No problem with shift response when you do it yourself.
BMW's SMG (for sequential manual gearbox) won't be available in the 330i sedan until at least September, but we've used it in other BMWs and know how it works. This is not an automatic transmission per se, and if you put an emphasis on smooth shifts, it should not be your choice. While the Steptronic is an automatic with a manual feature, the SMG is a manual with an automatic feature. It has a clutch but no clutch pedal, and in automatic mode it works as if the machinery is working the clutch for you, which it is. In short, the SMG can be great
Bottom line, the new 3 Series sedans are great performers, impressive cars and techno tours de force. If price is remotely an issue, don't have a second thought about choosing the 325i. It has as much power as most drivers will ever need, and it delivers the same inherent goodness as the 330i, without much less really useful stuff. Indeed, we wouldn't recommend some of the options like Active Steering or Active Cruise Control, except to die-hard fanatics for the absolute latest technology. Remember that through most of calendar 2006, the 3 Series coupes and convertibles will continue as they were for 2005. For the time being, if you want the newest 3 Series technology, you'll have to choose a four-door sedan.
New Car Test Drive correspondent J.P. Vettraino filed this report from Spain.