The BMW is the most expensive car here, and you can tell as soon as you get into it. The interior is very much in the mold of the current 5-series, but the materials actually seem richer. Current 3-series owners could pick some nits about switches here or there being cheapened, but the 330i certainly had the nicest cabin of the three cars.
The fifth-generation 3-series has grown by 2.2 inches in length and three inches in width. The rear seat is now adult-rated, with only foot room still a bit tight. The cabin feels much wider than the G35's, and the driving position is superb. The Sport package now includes power-adjustable side bolsters; apply the squeeze, and the seat holds you in place during even the wildest driving.
Our 330i was free from the curse of iDrive, which is present only if you order navigation. The controls are a joy to use, with the exception of BMW's idiotic electronic turn-signal switch.
The engine note is very subdued, but the sound is pure music. The new 3.0-liter straight six gets Valvetronic, as well as ample magnesium content that saves 50 pounds. Its 255 horses aren't enough to catch the Infiniti, despite carrying the least amount of weight. (The new car has gained less than 100 pounds.) BMW offers a six-speed Steptronic and a six-speed SMG, but we had the new six-speed manual. It's from the 5-series and has the same silken action as the old stick but with shorter throws. Clutch take-up that is perfectly natural completes the picture.
The steering is heavy but feels good. Active steering is available, but we don't see the need; save your $1250 for something worthwhile, such as lottery tickets. Charging down the bobbing and heaving back roads through the hills of Ohio and West Virginia, the BMW's steering precision inspired confidence, as did its iron-clad body control and the tremendous grip from the Bridgestone Potenzas, which are aided by the well-balanced chassis.
Back at the track, we were a little surprised to find the 330i a more resolute understeerer than the other two. Mostly, it just hangs on, but when you want to kick the tail out, it's less willing to play than either the Caddy or the Infiniti. But the BMW's superior grip helped it deliver the fastest lap times despite the Infiniti's clear power advantage. Whether on the track or on the road, the 330i was the most composed and the easiest to drive fast.
You can sense the attention to detail here. The feel of the controls and the composure of the chassis is unmatched. The 330i is, overall, simply the most rewarding car to drive.
There are some tests in which the outcome is surprising--and then there's this one. The Americans have come late to the party, but they're catching up fast. The Japanese offer the best bargain, the winner by the numbers. The Germans deliver the best driving experience. The 3-series is the finest iteration of the sport sedan, and although the historically strong resale value and the free scheduled maintenance lessen the pain, it's definitely the most expensive. You get what you pay for.
Price (base/as tested): $36,750/$42,865
Engine: 3.0 L I-6, 255 hp, 220 lb-ft
0-60: 6.1 sec
Price (base/as tested): $33,135/$37,950
Engine: 3.6 L V-6, 255 hp, 252 lb-ft
0-60: 6.5 sec
Price (base/as tested): $30,750/$34,360
Engine: 3.5 L V-6, 298 hp, 260 lb-ft
0-60: 5.8 sec