It’s gotta be a tough assignment, being in charge of remaking the BMW 3-Series. Recognized as the king of the hill in small sports sedans for longer than most of us have been of driving age, there are a lot of expectations to meet here. For 2006, BMW had no choice but to update their class leader, though–so the 3 is all-new again, ready and willing, we hope, to fight off increasingly competent competitors from all sides of the auto industry. Will it be a fair match for once? We’ll see…
First off, it looks good. That in itself is a relief for many bimmer fans, as the redesigned 5- and 7-Series have drawn some pointedly negative remarks for styling by the now-promoted Chris Bangle. So although whether the new, flame-surfaced look is any improvement upon the old model (E46), the faithful can rest easy. At least it’s not a disappointment–in fact, we like the new (E90) taillights and front fascia a lot.
Driving dynamics are the heart of the matter, though, and here the new 3 wins some unqualified praise. Razor-sharp reflexes are simply inherent in the over-engineered chassis. And of course, steering is as accurate and precise as a tactile textbook would define the term; there simply is none better.
(Okay, a *little* qualification here–we did test a 330 with the Active Steering as part of a $1,600 sport package. First exposed to this system on the new 530i, we’re still undecided as to its efficacy. For the uninitiated, the system actively adjusts steering ratio as speed changes. This makes for easy parking-lot maneuvers, with small inputs giving lots of turn; it also makes freeway cruising safer, as the same amount of steering input moves the car much less at speed. However, we find ourselves uncomfortable with the system’s performance in spirited driving on the best twisty roads–as you vary speed at varying-radius turns, the system changes how far the car turns with a given amount of input. Speed up in a turn, in other words, and you need to adjust your line or meet the weeds. This makes for a lot more work steering through the most fun of mountain roads, too; if you’re blasting from 70 mph sweeping-radius gimmes to 10 mph hairpins you never quite know how much input to dial in. For a car with such sporting pretensions, a system that makes decreasing-radius turns and high-speed corner-carving *more* difficult seems out of place.)
Power is improved for 2006 as well. The new 3-liter inline six revs and hums as sweetly as any that came before, but now with 255 horsepower and 220 lb-ft. of torque. A technological whiz of a motor, it features a three-stage induction system and a magnesium/aluminum composite construction. It scoots the sedan to sixty in about six seconds, feeling turbine-smooth in the process. While we hanker for the upcoming, V8-powered M3, the 330i can not be called a compromise. Not blindingly fast, the 330 is supremely fun to drive fast anyway.
There are six gears in the 2006’s smooth-shifting stick as well, and here again, BMW has set the bar that the rest will be reaching for. Clutch action is just about perfect as well; changing gears is so much fun you’ll find yourself shifting when you don’t even need to.
Inside is a bit of a conundrum, though. Dimensions have increased–one to three inches in length, width and wheelbase–but the ’06 feels smaller than ever. The front seats are excellently supportive, with an extendable leg-rest and good bolstering–but there’s just not much space here. It feels tighter inside than the 330i coupe in our personal fleet, to the point where it almost interferes with the driving experience (and your front passenger will never be quite comfortable). Even the steering wheel is tiny; average-size drivers feel like giants in here. It could be said of the Lilliputian dimensions –front room actually increases, according to BMW–that it fits like a glove…but we’re not sure. Try it on for size and see.
In back is a better story; there’s room for two average folks to ride in comfort as well as style. The oversized sunroof benefits all as well, as does the high-quality leather.
Generally, we like the interior. Materials are top-drawer; you feel rich even inside this bottom-rung (for now) bimmer. Everything that moves, moves with an almost sexily damped precision. The new dual-pod dash design on the higher-end model we drove work well–a single pod serves for models without iDrive. Oh, yes–iDrive. Many an automotive scribe has unleashed a torrential rant upon this system–but in truth, it has its benefits. You can control things with it–ventilation settings, electronic delays, even performance settings in some models–that no set of switches could accomplish. And now that BMW has added redundant buttons for oft-used audio controls like volume and forward/reverse, the need to play around with the stationary mouse while driving is greatly reduced. While it still doesn’t work as simply or easily as a touch-screen system might, anyone who can program a VCR would surely become proficient with the system in ownership.
Speaking of higher-end models, perhaps the biggest shock we got when driving ours came when we pulled out the Monroney (window sticker). The as-tested price on our 330i: $46 grand and change. That included a $1,000 cold package, with heated seats, headlamp washers, and a folding rear seat with ski bag; as well as the sport package. Of course, dynamic perfection doesn’t come cheap–but these days, when there are so many other sports sedans out there that are as good as they are, the decision to drop that kind of dough on a Jetta-sized BMW isn’t as easy to make as it once was.
The new BMW 330i is damn good. It’s good-looking and good to drive. Unless you’re in the ultra-rich category–in which case you’d probably be looking at the other end of the dealership–we’d recommend skipping an option or two (Active Steering, anyone? Buy your own aftermarket 18″ rims if you want ’em that bad). Many of the things that made the last generation great are even further improved here–although interior space is not on that list–and that’s good news for 3-Series fans. But with the competition from Germany, Japan and even the good old U S of A heating up, the title fight for the best compact sedan crown is no longer a shoe-in.