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.