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BMW 3-Series builds on a strong tradition

June 10, 2005|by RICHARD RUSSELL/Wheelbase Communications

Pity the poor souls tasked with developing this, the fifth generation BMW 3-Series sedan.

This compact sporting machine anchors BMW's lineup providing 60 percent of the company's one million annual sales and the majority of profits and future customers. And, over the last 30 years, it has become a benchmark, the car other manufacturers have in their sights when developing a sports sedan.

Mess this one up and there are serious, industry-wide consequences.

It's a relief to report that under all that pressure, the folks in Bavaria have come up with yet another winner. The icon has grown up, but not old.

The 2006 3-Series, internally known as E90, retains a strong visual link to its predecessor, the E46, yet is refreshingly new. (Although the sedan has been made over, the coupe and convertible continue on with their familiar faces . . . for now.)

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The new 3's style is devoid of the controversial elements associated with the most recent BMW sedan designs. From the significantly altered headlights to a deck lid that flows out of the rear quarter panels, the 3-Series has grown up and developed curves. There is a bolder, more purposeful stance, with fenders both front and rear that bend and twist as they proceed along the flanks through a bold line that connects the two ends.

The new 3 is slightly larger in most dimensions - 2.2 inches in length: 1.4 inches in wheelbase and three inches in width - which translates into slightly more interior space. The rear seat, however, remains relatively snug. The trunk has grown in capacity, but the lid is smaller, somewhat hindering access.

Although the interior has been redesigned, the instrument panel remains a model of legibility and ergonomics. If you opt for the navigation system, you get a simplified iDrive control knob for accessing the vehicle's various systems, but you still need to spend some time with the manual to learn how to control things the BMW way, rather than by simply pressing a button or turning a knob. Extra tech has also been applied to the starting process. As is the case with its big brother 7-Series, you need to insert the "key" into a slot and then push a separate button to start the engine.

The standard-equipment list includes such niceties as side thorax air bags, climate control, rain-sensing wipers and auto-dimming rearview mirror in addition to the expected amenities at this level.

The 3-Series has reached such an elevated state of respect by combining athletics and luxury with utility and practicality. It has always been a car that persuades enthusiasts to take the long way home while still fulfilling family commitments. In this and many other respects, it can be considered a bargain, offering both performance and practicality in one vehicle. This latest version does nothing to harm that reputation.

BMW is all about engineering, in particular, engines. The company is widely held to build the best six-cylinder engines in the world, inline units that are models of civility and smoothness. The new 3-Series gets a new lightweight six . . . two of them, actually. Although it no doubt confuses a world accustomed to identifying the size of the engine in a BMW by the numbers on the deck lid, both the new 325i and 330i use the same all-new 3.0-liter engine. It's rated at 215 horsepower in the 325i and 255 in the 330i. The latter is a significant 30-horse hike over the current model thanks to additional development on the intake and electronic controls systems.

The new 3.0 is the first large-scale production engine to use magnesium, which is a full 30 percent lighter than aluminum. In the 330i, power is up 13 percent and fuel consumption down nine percent.

The fifth-generation of BMW's quintessential sports sedan is quicker, more economical and laden with technology, making a significant contribution to an already impressive gene pool.

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