For many driving enthusiasts, the BMW 3-Series is the pinnacle of sports sedans. It is the car that has defined the genre, with roots stretching back to the beloved 2002ti model of the late 1960s and early '70s.

For that reason, it is the model that most automakers try to emulate when making their premium small cars. The competition is coming at BMW not only from Europe, but also from Japan and the United States.

While many competitors come close to matching the 3-Series, when it comes to being a member of the in-crowd, the original is still the greatest.

The 3-Series is the cheapest BMW you can buy and is available in coupe sedan and wagon. Two engines double-overhead-cam, 24-valve in-line 6-cylinder engines are available. All 325 models come with a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter six-cylinder, while the more expensive 330 models come with a 3-liter 225-horsepower six-cylinder.

A five-speed manual transmission and a Steptronic automatic transmission are available. While most 3-series cars are rear wheel drive, the car is available in all-wheel-drive, dubbed xi.

Got all that?

BMW loaned a 330xi with the Steptronic automatic for testing.

It turns out that the 330xi with the Steptronic still has enough sporting manners to keep an enthusiast enthralled. As the car comes alive, its engine snarls like a four-wheeled Bavarian beast.

Power from the engine is smooth and assured and the all-wheel-drive system is unobtrusive while providing tremendous grip. Handling is responsive and precise. The steering is nicely weighted without feeling heavy or stiff. Body lean comes only at the limit. Braking is strong with progressive pedal feel.

The Steptronic is mated nicely to the vehicle's motor, allowing for manual shifting without a clutch. Tip the shifter forward to upshift, backward to downshift. While not as much fun as a manual, it still makes the car much more rewarding to drive.

Opting for an automatic will cost you about a half-second in 0-60 mph performance, while the all-wheel-drive extracts another half-second. 0-60 is still a none too pokey 7.5 seconds.

The usual laundry list of electronic handling aids are standard, including Dynamic Stability Control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brake Proportioning and Dynamic Brake Control. While I could explain in detail how all this functions, let's just say it's designed to prevent you from losing traction and sliding into a ditch. It all works invisibly.

Front bucket seats are firm but comfortable. A seat bottom cushion extension helps to add support for taller drivers. This is a nice touch that other automakers should emulate. Leg room is good as well. The front cabin has decent room, despite its somewhat narrow feel.

Backseat foot room and headroom are good, but knee room is scarce, making the area cramped without some compromises from front seat passengers. It's a reminder that this car is about the same size as a Toyota Corolla.

Trunk space is better than its rated size suggests.

The 3-Series starts at $28,495 for the 325i sedan. The base price of the 330xi is $37,045, yet it's still lacking in some of the luxuries one might expect, including leather trim (which is a $1,450 stand-alone option or available in an option package.)

The test vehicle came equipped with one of three option packages, a $1,200 Sports Package.

The Sports Package adds an aero kit, sports seats and steering wheel, 17'' run-flat tires with special wheels and a tire pressure monitor.

Run-flat tires allow you to continue driving at speed despite a puncture. As is true of other tire-pressure monitoring systems hooked to run-flat tires, when one tire lost a couple pounds of pressure, the system was activated. An idiot light comes on, glaring at the driver to the point of distraction. Yet the tire was fine. The system is a nice uch, but I turned it off.

In addition, buyers can opt for a $2,900 Premium Package, which adds a moonroof, auto-dimming mirror, wood and leather trim, lumbar support, rain sensors and automatic headlamps or a $1,000 cold-weather package (fold-down seats with ski rack, heated seats, headlamp washers and rear armrest.) Other options include parking distance control, high-intensity discharge headlamps, navigation system, rear door-mounted side airbags, and metallic paint.

While the test car lacked most of these options, you'd never miss them. The door locks and headlamps operated manually. The steering wheel adjusted manually for rake and reach.

Instead BMW put the money where it counts: in the performance. That's what enthusiasts crave and that's what the 330xi delivers.

Just try and match it.