2009 Automobile All-Stars

Charlie Magee

The Perennial Award Winner:  BMW 3-series

Don't stop the presses: the BMW 3-series and M3 get another All-Star award. Ho-hum. Haven't we heard this song and dance before? Like about a million times? (Fourteen, actually.) As always, the competition for the 3-series keeps getting fiercer, and, as usual, critics say the latest, greatest M3 is a bit too refined. But BMW's masterpiece of all-things-to-all-people engineering remains more fun than anything that's more practical and more practical than anything that's more fun.

Now that the shock waves caused by Chris Bangle's original design have dissipated, it's tempting to dismiss the 3-series as a humdrum totem of upper-middle-class pretentiousness. But don't be misled by its conventional shape or its considerable girth. Although the car is large enough to carry grown-ups and their belongings in style and comfort, it magically seems to shrink to sports car dimensions when it's pushed. And pushing it is so easy thanks to the magnificent engines BMW has provided for just this purpose.

The high-line 335i ships with an obscenely torquey twin-turbo powerplant that represents the apotheosis of in-line-six architecture. But BMW engineers realized that they needed to go a step further with the M3. And since they couldn't improve on perfection, they created a brand-new engine for their M-mobile. The result is a 4.0-liter, 8400-rpm V-8 that makes 414 hp and the most exotic noises this side of a racetrack. Those looking for a Nürburgring record can opt for shift paddles and the dual-clutch gearbox.

But even in M3 guise, the 3-series doesn't pretend to be a race car. BMW is all about melding car and driver into a seamless whole, whether the occasion is cruising in the carpool lane or tearing it up during a track-day time trial. The driving experience is always rewarding, never demanding. Because no matter how good you are, the 3-series is always a little better. Which makes it an All-Star in our book.

-Preston Lerner

Base price range: $34,225-$58,325
Engines: 3.0L I-6, 230 hp, 200 lb-ft; 3.0L turbo-diesel I-6, 265 hp, 425 lb-ft; 3.0L twin-turbo I-6, 300 hp, 300 lb-ft; 4.0L V-8, 414 hp, 295 lb-ft

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