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.