Automobile of the Year 2006: BMW 3-series

Mark Gillies
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Charlie Magee

The latest version of BMW's superior sport sedan walks off with Automobile Magazine's top award.

When we first drove the new 3-series, our reaction was simply: "How on earth does BMW keep doing this?" How does it keep building the best compact sport sedan in the world, a car that continues to get better and better with each evolution, when it would be so easy to, ahem, screw it up?

In the process of not screwing it up, BMW has produced a car that is the gold standard for its class, something that all other automakers feel they have to measure up to. Yet, no matter how hard they try, they always come up short.

Lexus, for instance, recently introduced its all-new IS350. On paper, it was a competitor: good looking and beautifully made, with a lovely interior and lots of power. Just like the Infiniti G35, however, it doesn't have the 3-series' sheer depth of ability. Nothing in this class does. One reason is that when rival makers benchmark the 3-series (which they do ad nauseam), they are aiming at a moving target--because by the time their car appears, it's likely that there will be a new 3-series, too, which will have raised the bar even higher.

Naysayers can criticize the new 3's styling, both inside and out--the materials aren't quite as good as the old car's, and the design has lost the classic beauty of old--but this is still a car that enthusiast drivers can (and do) aspire to. It also hits the sweet spot in the market, because it's just the right size and has the right performance and the right amount of prestige for the right price. A base 325i is a truly great car for slightly more than $31,000, an automobile that can make the humdrum run to school special and can turn any drive into an event.

The 3-series is also a testament to BMW's commitment to excellence and to the company's long-term thinking. The current 3-series traces its lineage back to the 2002 sedan of 1968. Successive 3-series models have become bigger, heavier, and faster, but they always have had the soul of a sports car in a sedan package. The philosophy of the chassis engineers has remained constant through the years, because BMW 3-series cars have consistently ridden beautifully and handled sharply, a seemingly Faustian trade-off that most of its rivals have been unable to achieve.

Usually, the most focused car in any auto-maker's lineup is not its highest-volume model--it's more likely to be a sports car, say, or a luxury sedan. At Audi, we would argue it's the A8; at GM, the Corvette; at Mercedes-Benz, the S-class; and at Chrysler, the Jeep Wrangler. The 3-series, though, is both BMW's volume seller and its most focused car. No one at BMW has lost sight of why the car is so important and why people love driving it.

Over the past fourteen years, the 3-series has been a perennial winner of our All-Star award, but it has garnered Automobile of the Year honors only once, in 1995, as the M3. In all that time, the 3-series sedan has been the bridesmaid for AoY honors. Now, finally, the 3-series sedan gets to walk down the aisle as our 2006 Automobile of the Year.

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