The BMW 3 Series has long been considered the driving enthusiast’s benchmark sport sedan, even if the passenger accommodations historically have been cramped. The competition should be considered warned: the all-new 2006 BMW 325i and 330i are even better to drive, and the redesign addresses the size issue. Confusingly, both the 325i and the 330i are motivated by a new 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, which makes more power in the costlier 330i. Three different six-speed transmissions are available, and the all-new suspension makes extensive use of aluminum components to save weight. In fact, although the new cars are appreciably bigger, they gained less than 100 pounds over the equivalent outgoing cars.
The fifth-generation 3 Series may be the most successful evocation of the new BMW design philosophy, which has caused controversy ever since it debuted on the current 7 Series. Body creases give the sheetmetal definition and a modern, computer-design feel, while the combination of curving and planar surfaces create a very solid impression. This new car looks sharper and more modern than the outgoing model, especially when outfitted with the 18-inch wheels and tires and lowered suspension that are part of the 330i sport package. (The 325i sport package has 17-inch wheels and tires.) For ’06, the wheelbase has grown 1.4 inches, and the new sedan measures 2.2 inches longer and three inches wider overall.
The most significant aspect of the interior is that it’s much bigger than the old car’s, to the extent that it is comparable to that of the old BMW 5 Series. There’s 0.8 inches more rear-seat legroom, 0.4 inches more front-seat headroom, and an inch more front shoulder room. It’s still compact, but now livable for full-size adults.
The new cabin features high-quality materials and a very modern design, although some of the controls don’t seem as nicely wrought as those in the outgoing cars. The engine is now started via a button. If you choose the optional navigation system, the dashboard features a central monitor, accessed via BMW’s confusing iDrive controller. BMW navigation systems are among the least intuitive, and we don’t recommend them.
The 325i and 330i have standard leatherette seating, with true leather as an option. The standard trim material is a dark burl walnut, with lighter poplar wood or aluminum trim as no cost options. While the genuine wood trim imbues old-world charm, the aluminum is more in keeping with the modern interior design. Six-way manual seats are standard in the 325i, with eight-way power seats optional on that model and standard on the 330i. Seats with power-operated side bolsters that adjust to hold you in place while cornering are standard with the sport package.
All manner of luxury features are available in the new 3 Series. An active cruise-control system, a power rear-window sunshade, a steering wheel with multi-function controls, keyless ignition, and a navigation system are all on the options list.
BMW makes great play about the safety features on the new 3 Series, and rightly so. A good deal of attention was paid to the structure’s crash worthiness, and BMW added a panoply of airbags as standard equipment: a full-length curtain-type airbag, seat-mounted front side airbags, and front driver and passenger airbags. Anti-lock brakes with wet-weather brake drying are standard, as are electronic stability and traction control systems.
The new 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine has a magnesium/aluminum composite construction to save weight-22 pounds in fact, compared with the outgoing unit. It also produces more horsepower while being more fuel-efficient. The 3.0-liter engine in the 330i makes 255 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of torque versus the 225 horsepower and 214 lb-ft of the old engine. A simpler intake manifold and different engine software and exhaust explain why the 3.0-liter engine in the 325i makes less power (215 hp and 185 lb-ft). A new six-speed manual transmission is standard on both models, while a six-speed “manu-matic” appears on the options list. In the fall of 2005, a clutchless six-speed sequential manual gearbox (SMG) will become available.
Behind the Wheel
The new 330i is a superb car: BMW has managed to improve upon the marque’s sport-sedan legacy at a time when Infiniti, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz are all aggressively targeting the 3 Series. The driving position is excellent, and the seats are both comfortable and supportive. The new spring-back turn signals can be confusing at first, and the trendy start button is ultimately pointless, but this is otherwise an exemplary driving environment.
The six-cylinder engines are faultless. They sound terrific, rev hard, and offer lots of passing performance, while the six-speed manual transmission features short, slick actions and is allied with a fluid, well-weighted clutch. The six-speed automatic is excellent, too, with nicely spaced ratios.
The front/rear disc brakes are excellent, and the handling is still the best in class-with or without the sport package.
However you outfit it, the car rides better than a sport sedan has any right to do. The optional active steering isn’t recommended, however. It slows down the steering at high speeds for stability and also countersteers under braking, should one set of tires have less grip than the others, but unfortunately, it also feels artificial, whereas the regular steering is precise and communicative. Although some competitors like the Infiniti G35 have matched the 3 Series for by-the-numbers performance, it only takes a brief stint behind the wheel of a “3” to realize the heightened agility, composure, and refinement the extra money buys.
BMW offers a four-year/50,000-mile warranty, as well as a full maintenance program, which means BMW pays for all servicing over the same period. (Mercedes-Benz recently dropped its similar plan.) BMW Assist, essentially breakdown notification service, is offered as part of the Premium Package or as a stand-alone option.
New and improved, the redesigned 3 Series is a premium reward for discerning driving enthusiasts.
- What’s Hot Superb handlingMore room and featuresWonderful six-cylinder engines What’s Not iDrive controller is confusingStill tight out back for big adultsExpensive with optional equipment
Essentially, everything is new for 2006. The car is bigger, safer, and faster. The two engines are new, as are the suspension, braking systems, and transmissions. And there are new safety features, more standard equipment, and a host of advanced options.
Key optionsThe 325i is a great car, but the more powerful engine in the 330i is worth the money, if you can afford it. BMW offers three main options packages for the new 3 Series. A premium package includes power front seats on the 325i and leather seats and power folding mirrors on both models. A cold-weather package includes a headlamp-cleaning system, heated front seats, and split-folding rear seats. The desirable sport package makes both models even more athletic, thanks to bigger wheels and tires and a lowered sport suspension. These models can hit 155 mph, whereas the standard 330i and 325i are speed-limited to 130 mph. But take note: The sport package comes with tires unsuitable for freezing climes, so a second set is essential for those in the Snow Belt. Although the synthetic standard upholstery is perfectly nice and more durable than organic choices, the available leather smells good enough to warrant the cash outlay.
Others to consider
Audi A4Infiniti G35Mercedes-Benz C350