Finally, the NYTimes finally their review. Now, just for Dan Neil of the LATimes to weigh in.
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July 24, 2005
2006 BMW 3 Series: The Benchmark Settles Into Comfortable Middle Age
By NORMAN MAYERSOHN
CAR enthusiasts could bicker endlessly over which vehicle was the original sport utility - the Land Rover? the Willys wagon? the military jeep? - or raise their voices in the great debate over whether that pokey microbox from Volkswagen, which arrived long before Chrysler's Caravan and Voyager were gleams in their designer's eye, was actually the mother of all minivans.
But there is little argument about the Adam of sport sedans. Not that anyone in 1968 realized the significance of the BMW 2002 (or its predecessor, the 1600), cars whose advanced powertrains, tucked in unremarkable boxes, were known to goad otherwise responsible citizens into acting like adolescents on public roadways.
By the time the car evolved into the 130-horsepower 2002tii of 1972, a giant killer with tricks up its sleeve - like disc brakes and a fuel-injected overhead-cam engine - BMW was on its way to becoming, as its advertising tag line later boasted, "the ultimate driving machine."
The 2002 was succeeded by the 320i of 1977, offered in the United States only with two doors and a four-cylinder engine. More relevant than its role as a trailblazer, though, is the BMW 3 Series' continuing, and largely uncontested, status as the standard for the class, the benchmark against which all others are measured. Through the years, rivals have produced compact sport sedans that accelerated quicker, stopped shorter or performed better on a skid pad, but as a total package the BMW has never failed to equal, or conquer, all challengers.
After driving a 330i on back roads in western Pennsylvania and using one for a week of daily chores in New Jersey, I have no doubt that the 2006 model remains one of the best-performing compact sport sedans, though it may have to share the podium with several worthy competitors.
The line's position of leadership will carry over when it grows to include station wagon and all-wheel-drive versions (this fall), to be followed by coupes (next summer), convertibles (late 2006) and eventually (in 2007) the almighty high-performance M3.
Long a symbol of achievement for the young and aspiring, the 3's have been given a thorough overhaul, their first since 1999, with new styling, engines and suspensions. The car is slightly bigger all over, though the package is still tidy and efficient. The crisply tailored interior is attractive in an all-business sort of way.
The line's genetic markers have not changed: the 3 Series is still built on a rear-wheel-drive baseline and it still uses in-line six-cylinder engines. (Other markets get four-cylinder versions, too.) The weight distribution remains within a fraction of 50-50, front to rear, for almost perfect balance.
What has changed, though, is the level of comfort and isolation, now raised so much that the car's character is considerably different from that of its predecessors, despite the mechanical similarities.
There is much at stake in designing a new 3 Series: the line accounts for more than 40 percent of BMW's global sales, over 100,000 a year in the United States alone. Even as the company's entry model here - at least for now - it is not cheap. A 325i sedan starts at $30,995 and the 330i opens at $36,995; the one I tested ran $46,115 with options like a navigation system, active steering and both the premium and sport packages. As of Sept. 1, prices rise $300 for the 330i and $600 for the 325i.
Above all, a BMW, especially a 3 Series, is supposed to be a driver's car, so any detailed analysis of features and standard equipment is beside the point. Rest assured that the car can be ordered with a full complement of luxury touches, including wood trim, but its Bavarian engineers remain well behind the curve in dealing with conveniences like cup holders. If that's a big problem, take a look at an Acura.
The 3 Series benefits from features that trickled down from more expensive BMW's. Some of these really are benefits, like the double-pivot front suspension, Valvetronic engine controls and side-protection air bags, while others are of less apparent advantage: when ordered with the $2,000 navigation unit, the iDrive control system is fitted, too.
The screen for the navigation map and iDrive menus sits high on the dashboard, to the right of the gauges under a second eyebrow. The computer interface has been simplified, and by using the remaining separate switches or the voice-activated controls, iDrive can be ignored most of the time.
A lot of the appeal to enthusiasts of the 330i, like that of other BMW's, lies in its superb engine. Defying the usual name protocols, both the 325i and 330i use the same basic 3-liter 6, tuned to 255 horspower in the 330i (an improvement of 30 over the previous model, though the new car is essentially no quicker) and 215 horsepower in the beginner version.
Each will coax 20 miles from a gallon of gas in the city and 30 on the highway in a manual-shift car; the manual 330i races from 0 to 60 miles an hour in 6.1 seconds (6.3 with the automatic); the 325i does it in 6.7 or 7.2 seconds, depending on transmission. A six-speed stick shift is standard and a six-speed automatic is $1,275 extra.
The inherently smooth-running in-line 6 is worth preserving, despite the challenges of making the long and narrow engine fit under the hood. BMW proved its commitment to this layout - one abandoned by most automakers - by engineering an entirely new power plant for this car. A lightweight assembly of magnesium and aluminum, the engine uses a sophisticated variable valve lift system to replace the function of a conventional throttle.
All 3 Series sedans come with run-flat tires, which are often harsh-riding and noisy because of their stiff sidewalls. Yet by using run-flats to tune the suspension, BMW managed to give the car a quiet, compliant ride despite the tires.
For those puzzled by BMW's recent designs, the best part of the new 3 is that it does not borrow the styling tics of the larger 5 and 7 Series sedans, which were mocked for their odd flourishes and lack of restraint - but went on to sell quite smartly, thank you.
Whether styling is a top priority depends on the customer, but there is little about this design that will wave anyone away. Still, it seems to be trying awfully hard, given the multiple character lines on its sides, the suggestion of a grille that dips far below the front bumper and a rear end that is both generic and fussy. Gone is the elegant simplicity of prior models, with the purposeful lines typical of many German products, from coffee grinders to cameras.
My real objection is that the gimmickry was not necessary. BMW's have never had the catchiest styling, yet have been desirable for their competence, always discreetly communicated without garish touches.
Even so, I am willing to give it some space. BMW overhauls models every seven years or so, meaning this one will be in showrooms until 2013. Let's take another look in 2010.
By then, with luck, annoyances like quirky turn signals with a mind of their own, or a starter button that offers no obvious advantage over a conventional ignition key, will have been reconsidered.
Leading-edge technology has always figured into the BMW way of building cars, and the 3 Series gets a full helping.
The brakes, for instance, now have electronic controls to compensate for fade in hard use; a standby mode that poises the brakes to engage instantly if a sudden stop seems likely; a self-drying function to maintain full braking in the rain; and a "soft stop" feature that compensates for jerky drivers. Most useful is the "start-off assistant," which keeps the car from rolling back when starting on a hill.
This overachieving brake system reflects the high-tech path BMW has taken in recent years, and it demonstrates how much these sport sedans have evolved over four decades. No longer a car solely for enthusiasts, the 3's broad portfolio of abilities and accommodations attracts many more buyers than a purist's machine ever could. As my own driving confirmed - both on country roads and a few laps on a racetrack - the new 3 has high limits, and they can be reached without sacrificing comfort.
Measures of acceleration or cornering force do not tell the whole story, especially for a sport sedan. No doubt the brainy brakes will do a much better job than my foot ever could, and options like active steering, which changes the steering ratios according to conditions, make for a safer, even faster, car. But such innovations tend to get between the driver and the road, making the 3 feel just a bit less connected to both the pavement and the brain.
Perhaps the 3 Series has outgrown me. What was once a willing accomplice for back-road rowdiness seems all grown up. It no longer whispers, "Let's go out and risk a moving violation." It is now a perfectly pleasant, responsible companion.
Whether the fifth-generation 3 Series continues to set the class standard depends on how one weights the importance of its attributes. If track performance tops the list, it will do just fine. If value is the criteria, it may not match the Infiniti G35 or the Lexus IS 350, which goes on sale in October. And while no one can accuse the new 3 Series of not being fun to drive, it may no longer hold the clear edge that it once did.
INSIDE TRACK: In this class, the most likely to succeed.