Three’s a charm
I do not bring a lot of sympathy to any BMW. I think the cars are a bit overpriced and, because of how the option packages are structured, getting your Bimmer kitted to your liking can add thousands more. Steam gently wafts from my ears every time I use the company’s iDrive system -- the magic knob interface for the navigation, audio, communications and climate menus. BMW’s recent “flame surfacing” styling exertions, on cars such as the Z4 and 5-series, leave me colder than the 10th planet.
Lastly, there are just too many of them in Los Angeles. BMWs swarm this city like Bavarian roaches.
So it’s with no small cognitive dissonance that I report that the new 3-series, redesigned for model year 2006, is a spectacular car: lean and perfectly balanced, ineffably masculine and refined, and built with a futuristic precision that makes me wish the company made space shuttles.
Car watchers held their breath waiting to see whether the redesigned 3-series -- BMW’s bedrock product, accounting for more than half its 1.2-million sales worldwide -- would carry on with the widely derided flame surfacing. When the new car appeared, critics declared it “conservative,” and so, perforce, a rebuke of BMW Group design chief Chris Bangle. I’m not so sure. The wick has been turned down, certainly, but the 3-series still has sagging ventral accents along the rocker panel and a loose concavity in the car’s flanks below the beltline. The headlight assemblies have the swept-amber canthus of the Z4, and the hood rises in a second tier over the front fenders like the 7-series. Looks pretty Bangle-esque to me.
In any event, the 3-series sculpting will race no pulses, and maybe that’s just the point. Life begins in earnest once your butt lands in the driver’s seat.
A couple of notes from the cockpit: Burl walnut wood trim is standard equipment on the 330i, and it looks terrific. This may be the most cabinet-worthy lumber in any car south of $70,000. Other above-the-call standard equipment includes a cooling compartment in the center armrest; a 13-speaker Logic7 surround-sound audio system; automatic, road-following Xenon headlights and rain-sensing wipers, and plenty more for the car’s base price of $36,995, delivered. Buyers will still have to pony up for leather upholstery ($1,450), heated seats ($500) and the navigation system ($2,000); even so, the 330i seems like a lot more car for the money than its predecessor.
The car’s interior design is spare and self-assured. There are no grand, sweeping consoles, amoebic climate outlets or Art Nouveau dash contours. Models with the iDrive do have a second, humped binnacle in the dash to house the LCD screen -- like the 5-series cars -- and this continues to strike me as odd placement. Otherwise, you couldn’t ask for a more businesslike environment.
As always, BMWs have a great sense of touch. The 3-series’ wands behind the steering wheel (turn signals, wipers and cruise control) have heavy springs inside them and move through their range of motion on heavy cams. The detents of the switches, from the steering wheel to the window and audio controls, require exactly the same inch-ounce of pressure to activate. The parking brake ratchets up with a stiff, smooth burr. When people talk in broad terms about a car’s sense of refinement, this is the stuff they are talking about.
Anyone wanting to tease out what makes a BMW so much fun to drive could start with the steering wheel. Slightly smaller than others in rim-to-rim diameter, thick in cross-section and densely padded under the leather skin, the BMW wheel feels like a precision instrument. The padding is important to prevent fatigue, since so much fine vibration from the tires is allowed back in the form of road feedback.
That steering wheel is connected to some of the best hardware in the business: The front-end steering geometry gives the cars their excellent compromise between self-centering and road feel. The 3-series feels instinctive, incisive, composed and utterly predictable when driven hard. I flogged a car equipped with the sport package -- high-bolstered seats and 18-inch tires -- from Los Angeles to Monterey and back a couple of weeks ago, and the car stuck to the road like DOT paint.
Up front, the 2006 model has forged aluminum lower control arms, aluminum steering rack and sub-frame, and revised McPherson struts. In back, a five-link rear suspension replaces the familiar four-link setup. BMW’s Active Steering system -- which kicks in counter-steering if the stability system detects a skid or even a strong crosswind -- is also available.
The stability system also integrates a number of new smart-brake functions, including “Comfort Stop,” which smoothes out the braking forces in the last few feet before a stop; and “Start-off Assistant,” which is supposed to resist the car rolling back on a hill before a forward gear is engaged. No sense leaving your back bumper on the streets of San Francisco.
Currently, the 3-series comes in two flavors, both powered by the same 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine featuring variable-valve timing, BMW’s Valvetronic valve-lift control (eliminating the need for a butterfly throttle) and lightweight magnesium-aluminum engine construction. The 325i ($30,995, delivered) produces 215 horsepower; the 330i, equipped with a trick three-stage induction system, freer breathing exhaust and more aggressive software, puts out 255 hp. The latter motor could teach Bordeaux butter a thing or two about smoothness. It’s not the most potent engine in this segment, but thanks to its highly orchestrated valve-works, it produces peak torque (220 pound-feet) at 2,750 rpm and keeps pulling like that until nearly 6,000 rpm, all with an exhaust note that sounds like a mechanized hummingbird.
Our test car was equipped with the six-speed manual transmission -- the new car’s clutch has a smoother uptake than the old, and the gear action feels less rubbery. This powertrain delivers respectable mileage and acceleration, something like 0-60 mph in 6 seconds. The company’s six-speed automatic is optional.
In its well-grooved way, BMW will eventually bring out a coupe, a station wagon and an M3 variant of the car. The 3-series is not so much a car but a boutique.
With this latest generation, I’m running out of reasons not to like this car. It’s still a bit of an automotive cliche, especially in L.A., but you can hardly fault the car or company for that. The new 3-series is that rarest thing in Hollywood: a worthy sequel.
2006 BMW 330i
Base price: $36,300 ($695 destination and delivery)
Price, as tested: $42,365
Powertrain: 3.0-liter, 24-valve inline 6, dual-overhead cam, with variable-valve timing and lift; six-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 255 at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 220 pound-feet at 2,750 rpm
Curb weight: 3,417 pounds
0-60 mph: 6 seconds
Wheelbase: 108.7 inches
Overall length: 178.2 inches
EPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Voted most popular; letters in track
Automotive critic Dan Neil
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.