THE DRIVER'S SEAT
By JEFF SABATINI
BMW Recharges a Favorite
December 22, 2006; Page W11C
Ask anyone who makes a living reviewing cars to choose a daily driver, and chances are good that a BMW 3-Series will be their pick. For going on two decades, BMW's best-selling model has been a favorite of driving enthusiasts, taking up residence on Car and Driver magazine's "10 Best" list back in 1992 and remaining there ever since.
It's unsurprising, then, that the redesigned 2007 BMW 3-Series coupe sticks to the same basic recipe. But its exhilarating power, exceptional handling and classy sheet metal make it the best of its ilk since Bill Clinton lived on Pennsylvania Avenue. The new coupe plays to its core supporters as predictably as a presidential fund-raiser, yet some of its most notable changes hint at a new constituency: the import "tuner" crowd.
BMW's new 335i adds touches that may draw the speed-minded 'tuner' crowd.
Yes, that would be those youthful drivers who think the only thing sweeter than a buzzing 4-inch exhaust tip is the sound of a chattering turbocharger, whose Honda Civics sport wings larger than a HondaJet airplane.
If the thought of these punks rolling along in Bimmers seems odd, consider that according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, which represents makers of auto add-ons, the tuner crowd generated $5.04 billion in U.S. retail sales last year. Clearly, these kids merit their reputation for sinking every last bit of disposable income into their cars. But it's been over a decade since the tuner scene got its start in Southern California, so many of them are now well into their 30s and hold down jobs that pay more than delivering pizzas.
BMW may not admit to actively courting this market, but it can't pretend it isn't aware of the import tuners. No one in the car business underestimates them as style mavens or doubts their influence on automotive trends. (It wasn't an auto maker that decided that big, 18-inch wheels look cool.) And even if the Germans didn't hold a marketing clinic for tuners to ponder the direction of the new 3-Series coupe, the results speak for themselves.
Exhibit A is that the top-of-the-line 3-Series now has a turbocharged engine. Tuners like turbos because they can dramatically boost horsepower, and the 335i has not just one but two of them. They help launch the car like a weapon snapped from a catapult. The 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine puts out an impressive 300 horsepower, but what's really amazing is its peak torque output of 300 pound-feet occurs when the engine is revving as low as 1,400 rpm. This makes for brutal acceleration at any speed, and rewards a medieval driving style in which every car on the road is fair game for passing.
For all its potential energy, however, the 3-Series coupe looks best standing still. The car has graceful lines and a skin that seems elegantly draped over its structure, the simplest and most stunning BMW design in years. The coupe's curves are more traditional than the controversial and cacophonous blend of convex and concave shapes that have come to be associated with Chris Bangle, BMW's oft-criticized design director. Parked next to a 3-Series sedan or wagon, the two-door version is even easier to appreciate. Long and sleek, the coupe appears to ride much lower to the ground than its misshapen siblings, an illusion that is helped by its optional 18-inch wheels and low-profile tires. The kids might call it "pre-slammed."
They should also appreciate what BMW calls the belt feeder, a pair of arms that automatically pop out from behind the front seats to push the seatbelts forward, in true Pimp My Ride fashion. This is a novel, if unnecessary, feature, however, and it grows tiring to have to wait for the belt to be delivered each time you hop in the car.
Warm and Inviting
But other new features on the 3-Series coupe represent actual advances, including what seems to be the quickest-shifting conventional automatic transmission extant. This new optional six-speed unit is available with de rigueur steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The interior in the 3-Series is warm and inviting, and puts the cold austerity of BMW's more expensive coupe, the $74,000 650i, to shame. BMW's infernal iDrive interface -- a multifunction knob and menu system for the radio, climate control and other accessories that many customers have found difficult to master -- is optional rather than standard, another major selling point.
Japanese manufacturers are going after the same market as BMW -- and would like to hold on to the tuner crowd if they move up to luxury brands. When the time comes to trade in that clapped-out Honda Prelude there are certainly some reasonable options, starting with Honda's Acura TSX and TL. Nissan took its own very strong shot at BMW with the 2007 Infiniti G35 sedan; a redesigned coupe version of the G will be arriving next year. Toyota has been trying to clone the 3-Series sedan itself for the past six years, through two generations of its Lexus IS. Even Toyota's Scion tC begs to be considered a half-price, imitation 3-Series coupe.
These are all good cars, but BMW's cachet comes in large part from the fact it offers no mainstream products to taint its bloodline. Younger car enthusiasts may be brash, but they're not ignorant. They know the 3-Series is authentic, and no matter how close the competition matches the BMW in performance or beats it on price, the Japanese are still the imitators.
Write to Jeff Sabatini at email@example.com