2006 BMW 3-SeriesClick to enlarge picture

The fifth generation of the BMW 3-Series features new styling as well as more power and features.

BMW3-Series

Since that time the 3 has become the core of BMW's lineup with more than 10 million units sold worldwide (including the 2002), making it the company's most successful product.

In calendar 2002 BMW began redesigning its entire vehicle line, starting with the 7-Series that year and moving on to the 5-Series and 6-Series in 2004. For the 2006 model year, an all-new 3-Series rejoins the family with a new look, more powerful engines, more room and a host of improvements and added features.

Larger 3-Series

The 2006 3-Series has grown in almost every dimension. The wheelbase increases by 1.4 inches, the overall length stretches 2.2 inches, and the car has widened 3 inches. This growth results in a slightly roomier cabin and an additional 1.3 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk.

Front seats are supportive, with side bolsters that fit snugly but not uncomfortably. Up front occupants find plenty of legroom; however, the center console does not have a lot of storage space. Cupholders are positioned in the dash, sliding out near the front passenger. The right-side cupholder has very sharp corners, which were discovered the hard way—without going into details, let's just say one journalist we know has a painful memory of a jammed knee.

Unfortunately the increased size did not add any legroom in the rear seat where it was needed. Thus it remains a bit cramped back there, especially if you have more than two rear passengers or have plans for a long drive. The bump up in trunk space mentioned earlier is largely due to new, standard run-flat tires, so the spare tire and jack have gone away.

Although the 3-Series has grown in size, its weight has remained almost the same as its predecessor. With an automatic transmission, the 325i bulks up by just 44 pounds, while the 330i gains 88 pounds. Weight distribution front to back is almost exactly 50/50.

More Power

Both the 325i and the 330i get fresh engines for 2006: a new-generation 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder. Designated N52, this smooth I6 has different output for the 325i and the 330i.

In the 325i, horsepower is rated at 215 (vs. 184 in the previous generation), while the top-of-the-line 330i makes 255 horsepower (vs. 225 in the previous generation). Torque also increases and the engine now redlines at 7000 rpm—500 rpm higher than before.

The engine block is hewn from an innovative magnesium/aluminum composite, reducing weight by 22 lbs. In addition, the N52 features BMW's Valvetronic variable valve lift. Valvetronic has been featured in BMW V8s and V12s, but this is its first use in a BMW 6-cylinder engine. Valvetronic provides quicker engine response, better fuel economy, more power and a wider torque curve.

Fuel economy ratings have not been announced; however, while driving the 330i we observed an impressive average fuel economy in the mid-20s while driving quite aggressively. Projections for freeway economy could safely be in the 30 mpg range.

Both the 325i and 330i come with a standard 6-speed manual transmission; a 6-speed STEPTRONIC automatic transmission is optional. A 6-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) will be available on the 330i later this year.

We didn't get a chance to try the automatic, but the 6-speed manual is very slick, with short shifts and smooth operation. BMW claims a 0-60 mph time of just 6.1 seconds, which may be conservative based on our driving experience. Surprisingly, cars equipped with the automatic transmission are only a few tenths slower.

Better Handling

One of the most noteworthy qualities about a BMW is the way it handles. Many sports sedans on the market sacrifice a comfortable ride to achieve better stability. The new 3-Series avoids this sacrifice, providing a smooth ride as well as impressive handling.

Improvements in the 3-Series that help make this happen include a new 5-link rear suspension, a double-pivot front suspension, a more rigid body and chassis, and extensive use of aluminum components to reduce unsprung weight.

The now-standard run-flat tires did not intrude on the driving experience, which says a lot. Typically run-flats can provide a harsh, uncomfortable ride, but the suspension in the new 3 works so well with run-flats that there is no detectable difference between them and standard pneumatic tires.

The engine-speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering system continues essentially unchanged; however, the new suspension and sub-frame have actually sharpened the new 3's reaction to steering inputs. Steering feels very precise, with good feedback from the road. BMW's Active Steering is available for the first time on the 3-Series. With Active Steering, the steering ratio varies depending on speed and steering input.

New Look Inside and Out

Although immediately recognizable as a BMW 3-Series, the new car is quite a change from the outgoing generation. However, the change is not as extreme as it was with the new-generation 5-Series—a styling statement that many BMW loyalists still have not readily accepted.

The front of the 3 is much bolder, with larger headlights better integrated into the overall design. BMW's Xenon Adaptive Headlights (optional on the 325i, standard on the 330i) feature distinctive light rings integrated into the headlights, which actually swivel to illuminate in the direction the car is turning.

No longer part of the hood, the grille of the 3-Series also increases in size. Chrome slats differentiate the 330 from the 325, which has black slats.

The side view features a crease that intersects the door handles, creating a line angling down towards the headlights. This runs parallel to the beltline (at the base of the windows), which flows from the taillights all the way forward to the front of the car, giving the 3-Series a crisp, angled style and a feeling of forward motion. At the rear, taillights have the familiar L-shape, with Adaptive Brake Lights lighting an additional segment under heavy braking.

The interior features a new steering wheel, instrument panel and seats. Following the latest trend, a pushbutton starts the car rather than a key. However, at least for the time being, the key must be in the ignition. Eventually, BMW will offer "Keyless Go," which will recognize the proximity of the key to activate the start button.

Sirius Satellite radio is now available on the 3-Series line, as is the widely known, but not widely accepted, I-Drive. BMW's unique interface system uses a single knob to access navigation, communication, entertainment and other car settings. Previous versions have been quite complicated, resulting in mixed reviews. Standard in the 7-Series and 5-Series, the new 3-Series will be the first to offer I-Drive as an option. It is part of the $2,000 Navigation System package, and BMW reps expect about eight to ten percent of buyers to opt for this feature.

Added Safety

The new 3 receives the latest advancements in safety technology. A new Head Protection System is standard, protecting both front- and rear-seat occupants. Front-seat side airbags are standard; however, BMW is no longer offering side airbags for rear passengers.

To quote from BMW's press materials, "With the new 3-Series, advances in side-impact safety are such that it is no longer necessary to offer rear side airbags. Those riding in the rear are appropriately separated from side impacts . . . ."

The next-generation of BMW's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) is offered, as well as a number of new brake features.

Most unusual is the Brake Drying System. When the rain sensor (used for the automatic wipers) determines it is raining, the brake pads periodically move close to the rotors—just close enough to eliminate any film of water on the rotors without actually applying the brakes.

Another unique feature is the Brake Standby System, which moves the pads closer to the rotors when the accelerator gets released suddenly. This action is often followed by hard braking, so having the pads closer to the rotors allows the brakes to activate quicker in the event of an emergency stop.

On the Road (and Track)

The predecessor to the new 3-Series (the fourth generation) was a great car, and there are those who think it's the best 3-Series ever. Handling, power and comfort were all outstanding. But after spending a day in the new fifth-generation 3-Series, we were convinced that the best can get even better.

Our group of journalists drove on a wide variety of roads, from highway miles to twisting roads with less-than-ideal surfaces. We also spent a bit of time on the track at the new BeaveRun Motorsports complex in western Pennsylvania. What impressives most about this car is its ability to handle all situations with aplomb.

On the highway, the new 3 accelerates strongly when needed, but is very comfortable and stable cruising at 75 mph. On winding roads it digs in and sticks to the pavement, even when the surface is less than ideal. The ride gets a bit bumpy, but never jarring. When many cars would skip across the road while cornering on uneven road surfaces, the new 3-Series just stays planted exactly where you expect it and goes exactly where you point it.

At the track this same car's limits are even more impressive. The 3-Series is extremely easy to control at high speeds, remaining stable even as the speedometer reaches triple digits.

Pricing

Pricing has been kept at similar levels to last year's 3-Series. The 325i will start at $30,995; however, most will come in around $35,000. The 330i is priced at $36,995, with most of these ending up around $40,000.

As in the past, BMW will come to market first with these two sedans, which are now on sale. The coupe and convertible will likely follow sometime next year, with the next-generation M3 arriving shortly after that.

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