- It's descended from the 1968 BMW 2002, arguably the first sport sedan.
- It's led the category in sales since that time and established BMW in the United States.
- Its competition is greater than ever in the arena it once dominated: overall performance.
- BMW has suffered a maelstrom of criticism over its recent styling direction and its menu-driven, knob-controlled iDrive system.
You can argue that the 3 Series' success has been a product of a healthy head start, German engineering mystique and/or luxury appointments. They've all played a part, but I've long believed that the 3 has been No. 1 because of something the competition just recently figured out: It's a blast to drive.
Maybe not everyone appreciates the attributes of balanced front/rear weight distribution, exemplary roadholding, healthy acceleration, excellent brakes and the availability of manual transmissions, but I think many do. There's no better support for my argument than the success of competitors that have adopted the attributes and/or challenged the performance of BMW's longtime winner. I speak of cars like the Infiniti G35, Cadillac CTS and even the Audi A4. It's possible that a new and rethought Lexus IS 250/IS 350 will join these ranks. It is against this field that I evaluated the 2006 BMW 330i sedan.
BMW took no risks with its bread and butter in terms of exterior styling. It has some of the new flair, but the body isn't as dramatically changed as the company's redesigned 7 Series, 5 Series and Z4 have been a wise move. With the possible exception of the 6 Series, the new models seem in my experience to have garnered far more detractors than fans. It also gets tiresome to hear BMW representatives suggest that the problem is a lack of appreciation on the consumers' part. (Public Relations 101: Don't blame the customer especially when you're wrong.)
Now larger, inside and out, the 3 Series boasts a roomier backseat as one of the notable improvements. The interior remains high in quality overall, but there are no new surprises. With the black or gray interior, the aluminum trim would be more appropriate than my test vehicle's dark wood (or the available light wood). I can see wood with tans or even beiges, but I always thought wood-on-black a poor combination. Of course, what I know about design could fit in a 3 Series cupholder, which is more than I can say for most cups.
Like other recent BMW models, the 3 Series offers a few answers to questions nobody asked. Some of these "improvements" are harmless, others are a hindrance and all are unnecessary. To start the car, you insert the remote transmitter into a dashboard slot and push the start button. OK, cute enough. The turn-signal stalk, on the other hand, is a step backward. It doesn't remain in the up or down position; it springs back to center after activating the signal. The problem is that one can't tell by feel when the signal is on or off. Add a moderately loud stereo and a steering wheel that blocks the instrument panel, and you're unknowingly impersonating the average retiree-driven Buick, signaling for miles a turn that would best be described as an eventual left. Was the old type of signal stalk a problem?
Then there's iDrive, BMW's LCD-screen-based, joyknob-controlled multimedia interface, which the company wisely makes an option on the 3 Series (though the optional navigation system requires it). Much has been said about how hard it is to figure out. That's not the problem. I'm geeky enough that I figured it out without training or a manual. The problem is that even when you do know how to use it, it's a colossal drag to do so every single time. Some form of interface is worthwhile for customizing complex cars to one's liking, but not for controlling features one might want to use while driving. Also, a rotary knob is an awful means of navigating menus. A touchscreen is the only way to go.
In many ways I'm BMW's dream buyer: a young gearhead/chip-head with 10 years' intensive computer and web interface experience. Even I say iDrive is an abomination. And for what? To limit the number of controls on the dashboard? Unlike iDrive, button overload has never in my experience prompted a single complaint. In the case of cars, P.T. Barnum was wrong: There is such a thing as bad publicity, and that's the only thing iDrive has brought BMW.
So, how about that driving experience I mentioned before? It's still terrific. The 330i exhibits, above all, excellent handling and controllability. There's the usual understeer bias, but one can balance things out with the accelerator. A button lets you defeat the traction control alone (good for loose snow) or the electronic stability system entirely. Braking has to be the area where the 3 is the hands-down winner. Where competitors are monkeying with complex electrohydraulic "improvements" that degrade performance, BMW uses conventional power-assisted hydraulic brakes. The four-wheel discs are perfectly linear; they give very fine control and inspire confidence with their stopping power.
Though the 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine is as smooth and musical as ever, its modest torque at low engine speeds is starting to stick out. It's workable, especially with the six-speed-manual transmission, but we now make comparisons to the likes of Infiniti's rather torquey 3.5-liter V-6. The BMW engine might be the autobahn king, but I'd take the Infiniti for boulevard driving. I also prefer the short throws and direct feel of the G35's shifter over the 3 Series' isolationist approach.
All told, the 3 Series probably remains the best sport sedan sold. I must admit, though, that I no longer get that unmatched feeling that I'm driving something exclusive and special. The mighty have by no means fallen, but the meek keep on rising, and they're eyeing that inheritance.
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