BMW's best-selling U.S. vehicle line, the 3-series, has been completely updated for 2006, the fifth generation of the car that has been the most-affordable of the Bimmers since the company began selling cars on this continent.
And while I've heard mixed reviews on the styling of this redesigned sedan -- some people love it, some hate it -- I have to say I'm impressed. I believe this is the best-looking 3-series yet, and it certainly is the best-performing model. Generation after generation, these cars just keep getting better.
Driving any BMW, of course, is always fun. These are as billed -- the ultimate driving machines -- and even at the lowest end of the scale where the 3-series sits, these are drivers' vehicles through and through.
As the fifth-generation of the 3-series, this car builds on the success of the fourth generation, which was introduced in 1999. That model was the most popular BMW ever, as far as sales in the United States go, accounting for about 100,000 units sold each year, Tom Purves, BMW's chairman and chief executive for the United States, said while introducing the newest generation at the New York auto show in March.
Although the first car with the 3-series designation appeared for 1975, that car actually was a continuation of the BMW 2002 model that first came to the United States in 1968.
With the introduction of the first 3-series car in 1975, BMW "defined the sport sedan class," Purves said. The 3-series made its debut in the United States for 1977, with a 110-horsepower four-cylinder engine.
The second generation, in 1984, revised and updated the car, making it roomier but shorter and lighter, and giving it four doors for the first time, Purves said. And it marked the introduction of the inline six-cylinder engine in models sold in the United States. In 1992, the third generation arrived, with a larger exterior.
This newest generation went on sale in May, and for now, only two sedan versions are available -- the 325i and 330i. Base price of the 325i is $30,995 (including $695 freight), and the 330i, which we tested for this report, begins at $36,995 (including freight).Coupe and convertible models, as well as perhaps even a wagon, will be added later.
For 2006, the 3-series is 30 pounds lighter, 25 percent stiffer, and more powerful than the 2005 model. Under the hood there are new 3.0-liter magnesium-aluminum inline six-cylinder engines, lighter and stronger than the previous 3-series engines.
In the 330i, the engine is rated at 255 horsepower (up 13 percent) and 220 foot-pounds of torque. The magnesium-aluminum construction makes the engine 7 percent lighter than before, weighing just 355 pounds.
The 325i gets a similar 3.0-liter inline six, rated at 215 horsepower and 185 foot-pounds of torque. BMW has four-cylinder engines available in other markets, but those no longer are offered in the United States.
BMW says the 325i can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds with the standard six-speed manual gearbox, or 7.2 seconds with the optional six-speed Steptronic automatic ($1,275). Those times drop to 6.1 seconds (manual) or 6.3 seconds (automatic) for the 330i model. The manual gearbox is standard on both models, whereas it was offered only in the 330i in the previous generation.
There are some innovations in these vehicles, including active steering and active cruise control. Among other features are dynamic stability control and run-flat tires, which are capable of going 55 mph for up to three hours after losing their air.
With this remake, the 3-series sedan is larger in every dimension, with more rear-seat space than ever.
Our test car had a comfortable back seat even for adults, although you wouldn't want to put three people back there for very long. Two can sit easily for a long cruise, however. The front sport bucket seats are typically good, holding the driver in place very well on tight Hill Country turns.
The car rides on an all-new suspension "that combines the refined road manners of larger, more costly BMWs with the agility of the more compact 3 series," the company said in media materials describing the car's features. The exterior has been completely redesigned, yet the car still looks like a BMW.
Despite the increased size, the car is still considered a compact. Its wheelbase is 1.4 inches longer, overall length has increased by 2.2 inches, it's three inches wider, and it is nearly an inch taller. Cargo and passenger space have increased. Shoulder room, front head room, rear knee room, and EPA passenger compartment (90.9 cubic feet) and trunk volume (10.7 cubic feet) have increased. The car is 176 inches long, 68.5 inches wide, and 55.2 inches high.
Standard features include engines with Valvetronic variable valve lift; double-pivot front suspension with more aluminum components; exterior ground lighting; multifunction remote control with ID sender instead of conventional key, and start/stop button; automatic climate control with separate temperature settings; temperature and air outlets for rear passengers; subwoofers included in the standard audio system, located under front seats; and front and rear head-protection system.
With the remote, the driver can start the car without putting a key in the ignition; the key fob can remain in the driver's pocket. The start button is used to fire up the engine, and works only with a foot on the brake pedal.
Options, other than the automatic transmission, include active steering with speed-sensitive power assist; auto-dimming exterior mirrors, with power-folding mirrors available in a premium package; digital compass mounted in the rearview mirror; sport seats with adjustable backrest; iDrive (with available navigation system); Sirius satellite radio; Logic 7 surround-sound audio system (optional on 325i, standard on 330i); heated front seats; universal garage/gate opener (available in premium package); and a power rear-window sunshade with manual rear side-window sunshades.
The Steptronic automatic transmission is new, and it is the first six-speed to be offered in the 3-series. Compared with the five-speed automatic in the previous 3-series, the new transmission is "10 percent lighter, has a more efficient torque converter, operates with fewer internal clutches, and can reduce fuel consumption, particularly at cruising speeds" when sixth gear is in use, the company said. Steptronic allows the driver to shift manually, without a clutch, of course. It has normal, sport and manual modes.
Coming in September on the 330i will be an optional six-speed "sequential manual" gearbox, the company said. It is described as an "electro-hydraulically shifted, electronically controlled rendition of a six-speed manual transmission, including an automatic clutch -- a wholly different transmission from the Steptronic automatic."
With this one, there is no clutch, either. The driver can manually shift the gearbox with the regular shift lever or with two paddles on the steering wheel. The company said this transmission, while essentially an automatic, gives the same fuel economy of a manual, and allows for either fully automatic shifting, or manual shifting for a sportier driving experience.
Fuel economy is very decent for a car with this much pep. Our 330i with its 255 horsepower is EPA rated 21 miles per gallon city and 29 mpg highway.
Extras on our test car, besides the automatic, included "sparkling metallic graphite" paint ($475); a cold-weather package ($1,000), which added heated front seats and retractable headlight washers; the premium package ($2,200), which tacked on a universal garage/gate opener, auto-dimming mirror with compass, power-folding self-dimming exterior mirrors, BMW assist system with Bluetooth capability, and leather upholstery; and a premium sound system ($595).
Total sticker on our car was $42,540, including freight.
G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. You may contact him at (210) 250-3236; firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a Glance: 2006 BMW 3-series
The package: Premium, compact, rear-wheel drive, inline-six-cylinder powered, five-passenger, four-door sedan.
Highlights: All new for 2006, this is the fifth generation of BMW 3-series, which is the entry-level model for the U.S. market. The car has been completely restyled, and has new 3.0-liter engines and new six-speed manual and automatic transmissions. Already good handling has been improved, and the car is roomier and more comfortable than before.
Negatives: Can get pricey with options.
Engine: 3.0--liter I-6, 3.0-liter I-6.
Transmission: Six-speed manual, six-speed Steptronic automatic.
Power/torque: 215 hp./185 foot-pounds (325i); 255 hp./220 foot-pounds (330i).
Length: 176.0 inches.
Trunk capacity: 12 cubic feet.
Curb weight: 3,123 pounds.
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Fuel capacity/type: 15.9 gallons/unleaded premium recommended.
EPA fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon city/29 highway (330i).
Major competitors: Acura TL, Mercedes-Benz C-class, Audi A4, Lexus IS 300/ES 330, Jaguar X-type, Volvo S60, Saab 9-3, Infiniti G35, Cadillac CTS.
Base price range: $30,300-$36,300 (plus $695 freight).
Prices as tested: $42,540 (330i with automatic transmission and options, including freight).
On the Road rating: ***** (five stars out of five).
Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, discounts and incentives, if any.
Cars.com Expert Reviews
|Joe Wiesenfelder||Cars.com National||June 3, 2005|
|Jim Flammang||Cars.com National||June 22, 2005|
|Dan Neil||Los Angeles Times||August 3, 2005|
|G. Chambers Williams III||Star-Telegram.com||June 29, 2005|
|Warren Brown||washingtonpost.com||June 5, 2005|
|Anita And Paul Lienert||The Detroit Newspapers||May 25, 2005|
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