While BMWs chief stylist, Chris Bangle did get his hands on the new 3 Series, it was not before he had them slapped raw by BMW enthusiasts for his previous attempts at giving the product line more, shall we say, flare. In the case of the 3 Series for 2006, the new design direction was executed more tastefully, giving the car a distinct stylish look that it lacked in previous renditions. It may not be quite as pure as previous BMW designs, but I think that it works quite well. At any rate, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and you don't need me to tell you what looks good or bad. My job is to tell you how it drives and fits your needs, so let's get on with it.
This is a driver's car, pure and simple. A person who appreciates a fine handling car will simply love the way this car follows a driver's every whim, seemingly reading his or her mind. Because of this single-minded approach, some of the comforts normally associated with a passenger sedan are not always there. For one thing, the ride is quite firm and the seats are designed to hold you in place during aggressive cornering, so they are firm as well. No soft easy chairs here, so if you have a passenger with you who doesn't care a bit about cars except for the transportation they provide, the only thing that passenger may find to appreciate is the sturdy grab handle as you pretend to be in a hurry to get where you are going.
The steering feels heavy during parking and other close quarter maneuvering, but quickly comes alive as you start driving down the road. Throttle response is equally alive and responsive, giving the driver an exhilarating feel of power and control. Everything comes together in a symphony of driver and machine that is akin to watching Olympic athletes give a gold medal performance. No lost motion, just perfect harmony.
Since this is a driver's car, lets hop into the driver's seat and take a look around. The first thing you notice is that BMW is still pushing the iDrive to control the secondary systems like sound, climate control, communications and navigation. Don't want the iDrive? Then you have to leave the navigation option unchecked on the order form. That will give you a conventional dash layout with more familiar controls for the sound system and air conditioning.
What is iDrive? It is a system that allows the driver to control everything from the sound system, to the climate controls, to the GPS navigation, to the telephone functions through a single rotary knob on the console. This knob can be nudged forward, back, left or right in order to select the feature (radio, climate, navigation or phone) that is desired. It then can be rotated to cycle through the various controls in that section. These controls are represented as pictures of buttons on the wide-screen display in the center of the dash. Once you have reached the feature, you would push the knob down to activate that control. A nice feature is the fact that the knob has a force feedback system depending on the control selected. For instance, if you select the sound system balance control, you will feel a detent in the center position and increased resistance as you rotate the knob to either end of the range. Switch to the pre-set radio station selects and you will feel a notch at each preset station. This technology can simulate many different kinds of controls with a distinctive touch for each, allowing you to perform tasks by feel while keeping your eyes on the road.
You need to allow a week or two to learn the system and become comfortable with it. After that, it should be second nature to do whatever you need to do. This may be why a number of auto writers dislike the system. Before they can become comfortable with it, they have to return the car.
As I mentioned earlier, the optional Sport Seats in our 330i tester were firm and hold you in place during spirited cornering, but they are quite comfortable as well. There is a manual cushion extender for the driver to improve thigh support for people with long legs. The sports seats also allow the driver to adjust the width of the seatback bolsters. Press a button and the seatback sides close in to hold you snugly in place
Rear seats are a bit tight as far as legroom is concerned, but is somewhat better than previous models. The trunk is a reasonable size and can be extended if you fold the rear seatbacks down. Since all 2006 BMW 3 series cars come with the run-flat tires, there is an additional compartment under the trunk floor where the spare tire used to be.
Because BMW appeals to people who appreciate fine machinery, I will get a bit more technical than I normally do on these reviews. Let's start with the completely redesigned engine.
The BMW 6-cylinder engine, one of the smoothest sixes in the business, has been completely reengineered for 2006. The new engines are still a straight six design and are still turbine smooth as before. For the U.S. market, there are two 6 cylinder engine offerings for the new 3 series. Both are 3.0 liters. The 325i has a 215 horsepower engine and utilizes a single-stage induction system while the 330i "high-output" engine uses a 3 stage induction among other things to push out 255 ponies.
Both engines have an electric coolant pump instead of the more common belt-driven one. A computer controlled electric coolant pump uses 10 times less energy to keep the engine cool. Also, it does not circulate coolant when the engine is warming up, so warm-up is faster. These engines also have a volume-controlled oil pump which is also more efficient and avoids excessive temperatures and oil foaming.
But the big news is the ValveTronic system. This is the first application of Valvetronic on a 6 cylinder engine. This system made its first appearance on the 7 Series V8 engine. Valvetronic is a system that works with the VANOS Variable Valve Timing, which is responsible for regulating valve timing independently on both the intake and exhaust valves. What Valvetronic is responsible for is the amount of valve lift. In fact, it has such fine control of the valves, it can control engine speed by how much the valves open. Because of this, there is no need for a throttle plate. When the engine is running, the intake system is wide open, which means there is no vacuum in the intake manifold. What this translates into is throttle response that is virtually instantaneous. Normally, when you step on the gas pedal, you move the throttle plate to allow more air into the engine. You then wait a fraction of a second for the air and fuel mixture to reach the cylinders before you feel the car respond. With ValveTronic, that delay is history. Tap the go pedal and you are treated with instant response and a satisfying feeling of control.
Transmission choices are a pair of six-speed units, one manual and one automatic. The 6 speed manual uses lifetime transmission oil which never needs to be changed. The shifter, as always, is about as good as it gets with short, solid throws and positive engagement. The Steptronic automatic is now a 6 speed unit, up from 5 on the previous model. The automatic was on our test car and always seemed to be in the exact gear that I would have chosen if it were a stick.
As good as the previous 3 Series handled, BMW still chose to completely reengineer the chassis and suspension system. Body rigidity has been increased, which helps the suspension work better. When you begin with a solid platform, the springs can be stiffer for better handling without affecting ride quality.
The front suspension moves to a double-pivot strut-type system, previously only available on the higher end Beemers like the 5, 6 and 7 series cars. This system usestwo lower arms that worktogether with the strut assembly to place the tire footprint exactly where it needs to be for the best control and steering feel. Couple that with a high caster angle for great straight-line tracking and steering return and you have... well, a BMW.
There is a new 5-link rear suspension system that is equally sophisticated as well as larger disc brakes that are ventilated both front and rear. All tire offerings on the new 3 Series are run-flats, so there is no spare tire to add weight and take up trunk space.
Optional on rear-wheel drive models is Active Steering. This system can vary the steering ratio according to vehicle speed and other factors. What this means is that you have to crank the wheel less turns while parking. The ratio increases at speed so the car does not feel overly sensitive.
A new-generation Dynamic Stability Control is standard on all 3-Series cars and offers a host of features to improve overall security and safety. Aside from its normal duty of keeping the car on its intended course under high-speed or slippery conditions, it provides a number of new braking functions such as:
Brake Fade Compensation -- As brakes heat up, they require additional foot pressure. This system compensates by adding pressure and reducing pedal force.
Brake Standby -- If the driver lifts off the gas pedal abruptly, the system snugs the pads against the rotor to reduce reaction time and stopping distance.
Brake Drying -- responds to the rain sensor (rain sensing windshield wipers are standard) by periodically moving the pads closer to the rotors to wipe them dry during wet conditions.
Comfort Stop -- eases brake pressure as you come to a stop to eliminate that jerking feel when the car comes to rest.
Start-off Assistant -- when facing uphill, this feature will hold brake pressure when you release the brake pedal to keep you from rolling back until you step on the gas.
Several options are available that, up to now, were only available on the more upscale models. These options include:
Active Cruise Control -- Uses radar to keep a preset following distance between you and the car ahead.
Active Steering -- Changes the steering ratio based on speed.
GPS Navigation System -- Controlled by i-Drive so that you only have a single knob to control functions of Navigation, Communications, climate control and Entertainment
When my week with this car came to an end, I think that I went through some withdrawal when the next test car replaced it in my driveway (no, I'm not going to tell you what that car was). Suffice it to say that the slogan BMW uses, "The Ultimate Driving Machine" is as true today as it ever was.
17 x 8.0 alloy wheels, 225/45HR-17 H-rated, run-flat all-season tires
Xenon Adaptive headlights with luminous rings & auto-leveling
8-way power front seats
Memory system for drivers seat & exterior mirrors
Auto tilt-down of right-hand exterior mirror forbacking up
Logic7 audio system w/13 speakers, Digital Sound Processing & Surround Sound simulation; includes subwoofers, upgraded componentry throughout & all features of 10-speaker system
Major Available Options Depending on model. Some options are only available as part of a package. See your BMW dealer for details
6-speed Steptronic automatic transmission
Premium Package Includes: Leather Upholstery, Power folding mirrors Auto-Dimming Exterior and Interior Mirrors, Digital Compass, Dual Power Seats, Driver Memory System, BMW Assist & BMW Universal Transceiver
Sport Package Includes: Sport Suspension, Sport Steering Wheel, Sport Seats with Adjustable Side Bolsters, Performance Tires (extends speed limiter to 155 mph)
Heated Front Seats
Fold Down Rear Seats
Power Front Seats with Driver Memory
Power Rear Sunshade with Rear Manual Side Window Shades
Park Distance Control (Rear Only)
Xenon Adaptive Headlights
Active Cruise Control
On-board Navigation System with Voice Recognition
For more information on the 3-Series, visit bmwusa.com
Copyright 2013, SmartTrac Computer Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.