Fifth Generation Fun
Steve Schaefer, Sun, 20 May 2007 08:00:00 PDT
When you're talking about sport sedans, the BMW 3 Series wrote the book on them. This German compact powerhouse has been pleasing drivers for decades, and for 2006, it gets a complete makeover. Thankfully, it loses none of the qualities that have made it so popular.
Over the last few years, the larger BMW sedans have been restyled using a somewhat radical design concept. Rather than continuing the classic, conservative shapes for which BMW is famous, the bodies and interiors have received more aggressive surfaces, with a carefully managed interplay between convex and concave shapes. This means, for example, that a door surface may start at the window line by curving out, then in, then out, and then in again before it reaches the bottom of the car. This "flaming" of the surfaces is attention-getting and different, but it is also has been a little disturbing to the BMW faithful.
With the 3 Series, BMW's most popular line, the designers took it a little easier. The new sedan retains its familiar proportions, but now features a spear shape along its flanks, with a turn-in on the lower sides. The new nose is more sharply defined, and twin hood creases dip down across the bumper, creating the sense of a long grille shape. The taillights are rounded trapezoids, with a white backup section creating the traditional two-section shape. The roof pillars flow seamlessly into a concave band around the top of the trunk. The interplay of surfaces keeps light sparkling off the body from every angle.
The interior gets new matte finish surfaces blending in the same convex/concave way. Some shapes twist, for example, the right side door pull projects out from the vertical door panel but turns 90 degrees to meet up with the horizontal armrest. In my Titanium Silver test car, the black and silver interior was at once sophisticated and also clean and simple. It's like the body and interior shapes are neither chiseled nor inflated, but spread like cake frosting.
The new 3 Series continues to be meant for driving enjoyment. In the U.S., you can choose from two versions of a new magnesium/aluminum inline six-cylinder engine. My 325i test car had the less powerful version, with 215 horsepower and 185 lb.-ft. of torque at just 2750 rpm. The mightier 330i gets 255 horsepower and 220 lb.-ft. of torque. The lesser engine is no slouch-it feels powerful, and includes many of the high tech features that make the car so desirable. The 3 cruises nearly silently on the freeway.
The new engines are more powerful, lighter, and more compact. They rev higher (7000 rpm) and even get better fuel mileage. My tester was rated at 20 city, 30 highway, and I averaged an honest 24.5 mpg. That's great for a performance automobile. And the new engines even meet U.S. ULEV2 (Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) standards. You don't have to feel guilty for having fun.
BMW's transmissions have always been wonderful, but the new ones are improved, along with the entire car. Six-speed manuals are standard, and have more effective gear spacing, firmer engagement, shorter throws, and a surprisingly light touch. You never have to change the transmission fluid, either. However, if you really don't want to shift for yourself, order the clutchless STEPTRONIC automatic. It offers Normal, Sport, and Manual modes. The Sport setting delays upshifts, while the Manual mode lets you select a particular gear by tipping the lever forward for downshifts or rearward for upshifts.
The new car is a little bigger all around, so there's around an inch more rear legroom, a cubic foot more cargo volume, and such. It's still not a large car--If you want more space, opt for the 5 series.
Although the previous 3 Series handled beautifully, the new one gets a new suspension with double-pivot front design up front and a new five-link arrangement in the rear. The front redesign means better steering effort, more stability while driving, and space for bigger brakes. The new rear system improves handling precision and agility. How much better can it get?
For safety, the 3 gets a new version of the Dynamic Stability Control system and run-flat tires that let you drive safely for miles until you can find a place to change or repair the damaged tire. The Flat Tire Warning system tells you there's trouble before a blowout occurs.
It almost goes without saying that the 3 Series has standard things like power windows, locks, and mirrors. You even get illuminated outside door handles that throw a circle of light near the doorway, for safety and puddle avoidance. The automatic climate control has left and right side controls and activated-charcoal microfilter ventilation. The onboard computer gives you useful fuel consumption information. And the list goes on.
My tester based at $30,300, but by the time the Premium Package ($2,900), Sport Package ($1,600), Sirius satellite radio ($595) and destination charge ($695) were added in, the total came to $36,565.
The new 3 Series continues the legendary BMW performance and style, from Munich with love.