The BMW 3-Series is an icon, much like the Porsche 911, the Chevrolet Corvette, the Subaru Impreza WRX, and the Mazda Miata. Although it’s a reasonably affordable and practical sedan, it’s a car that enthusiasts around the world aspire to own, to drive, and to enjoy.
The worry with iconic cars, of course, is that their builder is going to screw the next one up. And with the 3-series, that fear has been exacerbated for a couple of reasons. First, while the outgoing 3-series is a great-looking car, the aim of the new BMW design paradigm is seemingly to shock and surprise without necessarily making cars that are good-looking. Second, and perhaps more significant, there’s some debate about BMWs becoming more capable but less involving. We thought that was the case with the outgoing E46 3-series compared with its predecessor, and that’s definitely our reaction to the current 5-series.
It wasn’t likely that BMW would shock us with the styling of the new 3-series, however, because each year it sells about 450,000 of them worldwide-making it one of the biggest single car lines from any carmaker, which is especially remarkable for a premium vehicle. “We cannot afford to take a risk with this car, because it is too important,” says BMW’s R&D chief Burkhard Gschel. “If you look at the Z4 as the extreme, as avant-garde, this is in the middle between safe and avant-garde.”
For all its sharp edges, this is the most harmonious of recent BMWs, a car that manages to look both cutting-edge and handsome. Like all Bangle-era BMWs, its appearance is very sensitive to color and wheel size, so we prefer the car on the eighteen-inch wheels and tires that are part of the U.S.-market Sport package. The standard seventeen-inch wheels look fine, but the bigger footwear gives the car a more muscular stance.
In terms of size, the 3-series isn’t such a baby Bimmer anymore. Bigger in both external and internal dimensions, it almost matches the old 5-series in cabin space. Despite the increased size (see chart on page 54), new 3-series models are between 44 and 132 pounds heavier than comparable outgoing versions. There is more rear knee room, but our suspicion that the sloped roofline impedes rear headroom was confirmed by the numbers: there is 0.3 inch less than before. Trunk space has improved, too, from 10.7 to 12.0 cubic feet, enough for three golf bags if you’re into spoiling a good walk.
The new body structure is 25 percent stiffer than the old E46 3-series, the main goal being to enhance crash performance, particularly in the new federal 50-mph, rear-end offset crash and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety side-impact test. All U.S. 3-series models come with front, front-seat side, and full-length curtain air bags, but not with rear-seat side-impact air bags, because BMW claims that “advances in side-impact safety are such that it is no longer necessary to offer rear side bags.”
The running gear is mainly new, too. The most significant change is the new in-line six-cylinder engine family (see sidebar on page 56). With Valvetronic variable valve lift, VANOS variable valve timing, and a three-stage intake manifold, the 3.0-liter engine in the 330i makes 255 hp at 6600 rpm, with 220 lb-ft of torque at just 2750 rpm, up from 225 hp and 214 lb-ft in the outgoing 330i. Confusingly, the U.S.-market 325i is fitted not with a 2.5-liter engine but with a 3.0-liter that makes 215 hp and 185 lb-ft. A single-stage intake manifold, a revised exhaust, and different engine software account for the reduced power. Both models are available with six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, but only the 330i will be offered with a new six-speed sequential-manual gearbox. This arrives in the fall and features three modes, as well as launch control to impress your friends at stoplights.
Like the old car, the new 3-series has a multilink rear and a strut front suspension, but they have been thoroughly reworked. The front end now has two lower control links in place of a single control arm, and they are forged in aluminum to save weight. Aluminum is also used for the forged knuckles and cast front subframe. The new five-link rear suspension is essentially an upper and lower control-arm layout, with an additional toe-control link on each side. Engine-speed-sensitive, variable-power-assist rack-and-pinion steering is standard, but BMW also offers Active Steering, first seen on the new 5-series, as a stand-alone option. The available Sport package features firmer springs, dampers, and antiroll bars; a 0.6-inch-lower ride height; larger wheels and tires (225/40WR-18 front and 255/35WR-18 rear on the 330i); and a 155-mph speed limiter in place of the stock 130-mph cutoff. (The European 330i, which we drove, has W-rated seventeen-inch tires and no speed limiter.)
Ventilated disc brakes are fitted front and rear, with aluminum front calipers. The 325i’s rear rotors have increased from 11.6 to 11.8 inches in diameter, while the 330i gets 13.0-inch front and 13.2-inch rear discs (up from 12.8 and 12.6 inches, respectively). All models get an improved version of DSC skid control that features a number of brake-related functions, such as snugging the pads to the rotors when you lift off the throttle, wiping the pads in the wet (based on rain-sensor inputs), and helping to bring the car to a smooth stop. BMW recognizes that we’re all grown-ups, so you can switch the traction and skid police off.
In addition to all this new hardware, the 3-series interior is completely changed, but not necessarily for the better. The appearance is terrific, but the switchgear and the materials seem cheaper than the old car’s: the climate-control buttons, for instance, are no-where near as good as a VW Jetta’s. As with the 7-series, you have to insert the key into a slot and then hit a button to start and stop the car. Call me a Luddite, but what’s wrong with turning the key? Nice interior touches include brushed-metal accents on the gauge surrounds, the door handles, and the shift lever, as well as soft-touch plastic everywhere, including the lower door panels.
Manual seats are standard on the 325i; 330i models have power seats. Seats with adjustable backrest width are part of the sport package. Leather is included in a Premium package or as a stand-alone option. Our test car was fitted with the dark wood trim that is standard on U.S. models, but lighter wood or aluminum trim are no-cost options. We’d go with the aluminum rather than the cheesy wood.
If you want navigation, you’ll have to order the dreaded iDrive, which has a neatly integrated monitor in the center of the instrument panel. The system is much improved over the one initially fitted to the 7-series, but it’s still deeply annoying to have to tune the radio manually via iDrive rather than through a simple rotary dial or rocker switch. New features include voice control for the navigation, active cruise control, and so-called comfort access, which is a keyless entry/starting control, available in the fall. When the car goes on sale in May, it likely will cost slightly more than the current 330i’s base price of $36,395, albeit with more standard equipment. A fully equipped car-with navigation, adaptive xenon headlights, the Sport package, and leather-will be pushing $45,000.
Behind the wheel, you can’t fault the driving position or front-seat headroom. The three-spoke steering wheel is perfectly sized, and the gauge cluster is nice and simple, with only a tachometer and a speedometer in front of you. For all the talk of increased interior size, this is still a pretty compact car, as evidenced by the lack of storage space; there’s a lot more in a Mazda RX-8, for instance.
We drove the 330i in Valencia in eastern Spain, where the roads could have been made for it. As we speared inland toward the Albacete racetrack, we encountered long undulating straightaways where we could run the 330i up to an indicated 155 mph, long sweeping bends taken at 80 mph and more, and hairpin corners snaking up valley sides. Then, for good measure, there were unlimited laps around Albacete and a DSC demonstration course on polished concrete.
The first thing you discover is that the engine lives to rev and is as smooth as single malt. There is decent torque from as low as 2500 rpm, but you tend to spend your time higher in the rev range because the 3.0-liter six gets its second wind at about 4500 revs and makes a delicious, creamy growl that wells as you approach the 7000-rpm redline. The engine delivers excellent performance, pushing the 330i from 0 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds. Thirty years ago, that was supercar territory.
The equally slick manual transmission is aided by a typically fluid BMW clutch. Anyone who loves driving won’t need the automatic or the SMG, because there’s a more sensual pleasure to be gained from matching hand and foot movements, particularly with a short-throw, narrow-gated shifter like this one.
One of the reasons we love the 3-series is that it has a road feel that few other cars, regardless of price, can match. Its oneness with the blacktop, as well as its refined damping and superior body control, always have made it special. That’s still the case, because the new 330i lets you know exactly what is going on at the contact patches yet remains unperturbed over mid-corner bumps. Around town, the ride can be choppy, possibly be-cause of the run-flat tires, but at higher velocities, it is composed and poised.
The optional Active Steering has fine feel and feedback at high speed, when the ratio is slower for stability. At lower speeds, though, when the system turns the front wheels to
a greater degree in relation to your inputs, it feels a bit artificial. The upshot is that when you’re driving the car really hard, the steering is communicative and BMW-like, but it lacks involvement when you’re just ambling along.
This is a shame, because the new 3 has a fantastic chassis. Sure, it’s not a quantum leap over the E46, but it is even more capable, has even higher limits, and is even more entertaining. On the track, the 330i with sport suspension took whatever was thrown at it, shrugged its shoulders, and dealt with it. Driven neatly and precisely, it was neat and precise, with mild initial understeer followed by throttle-induced neutrality. If you went into drift king mode, as photographer Mark Bramley did to the dismay of the Pirellis, you could hold it at outrageous angles without any adverse reaction.
On the polished-concrete DSC course, the latest version of BMW’s skid control intervenes early to check a slide. With the traction control off, the electronics allow some slide action before saving you from disaster. On surfaces with a split coefficient of friction-patchy ice or standing water, for instance-DSC and Active Steering will compensate for the steering tug you feel as one set of tires grips harder than the other, which could be a lifesaver. The brakes themselves are excellent-strong and full of feel.
The latest 3-series is a better car than its predecessor in almost every respect. It is bigger, faster, more fuel-efficient, and even more entertaining at the limit; it looks more modern; and it still provides a truly special driving experience. Our only reservation is that it isn’t as involving as the old car at low speed. As German automakers add more technology to their cars, they are increasing capability at the expense of tactility, as the Japanese did with cars like the Nissan 300ZX and the Toyota Supra in the early 1990s. The ZX made great numbers, but a Porsche 944 Turbo or 968 was more pleasing to drive. The danger for BMW is that companies such as Infiniti are catching up, making cars like the G35 coupe that give pleasure at low speed and are great when pushed, too. That said, the next-generation Lexus IS and Infiniti G35 will have to be mighty good to match the new 3-series.