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.