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.