2006 BMW 3 Series preview

After a serpentine two and a half hour drive I arrive at the Circuito Albacete racetrack. The new 3 Series saloon – as they call sedans in Europe – is already crackling from the heat in its engine, brakes and exhaust, but the best is yet to come. After negotiating a platoon of black-jacketed marshals, it’s out to the track and the truest test of new car’s dynamic qualities.

Hammer out of the pits, grab second gear and keep it matted towards the first corner before jumping on the brakes to slow the car and set it. Mild drift through one and on to two … and so it went, corner after corner, lap after glorious lap. Finally, a marshal waves a red flag to signal the fun is over.

For years, the 3 Series has been held up as the car to catch in the supremely competitive sports saloon segment. Every manufacturer – from Lexus and Infiniti to Cadillac and Lincoln – has the 3 in its crosshairs when designing a new car, and for good reason – it personifies everything a well-tied together car must have to compete successfully. This makes redesigning the accepted benchmark a touchy proposition, especially if it happens to be one that accounts for 44% of your total sales volume – that’s how important the 3 Series is to BMW.

The fifth generation 3 is an appreciably larger car than the out-going model. The good news is that it has blossomed without taking on any ponderous characteristics. It is 78 millimetres wider, 49-mm longer and it now rides on a 2,760-mm wheelbase, which is up 35-mm. This not only imparts some much-needed elbowroom for the front seat riders, it gives the rear passengers some needed legroom.
The other thing the expanded dimensions do is upsize the car’s footprint, which brings more stability. Add to that a body that’s 25% stiffer, a perfect 50/50 weight distribution front-to-rear and a dialed in suspension and, well, you have one seriously athletic automobile. The strut-based front and new 5-link rear suspension is taut, but not too firm, which means the ride is complaint and the inevitable body motion effectively quelled. This means the 3 maintains a flat attitude and cushions the car as it negotiated the vagaries of a potholed road, even when pushed to the limit.
Better yet the feel and feedback afforded by the steering is excellent. In base form it is very good, giving a clear picture of what’s happening at the road. Adding the active steering option transforms it into the best the industry has too offer. On the one hand, it speeds up the steering’s reaction to input at slow speeds, which brings a much faster response and fewer turns lock-to-lock. On the other, it slows down the reaction at higher speeds, which vastly improves straight-line stability.

The brakes follow this lead. Not only is the pedal easily modulated, they scrub off speed very effectively, and without showing any signs of fade. The anti-lock system also stays out of the picture until it is actually needed.
Now, if the driver’s raw ability is not enough to keep the 3 pointed in the right direction, the latest dynamic stability control system is always ready to step to the fore. The latest part improves safety. Using the rain sensor, the system automatically dabs the brakes periodically to squeegee the water off the rotors so they are dry when needed.

This techy stuff is all well and good, but the 3’s real forte is an intangible that nobody seems to be able to nail down – there is something in the way a BMW feels when driven at the limit that few other cars are capable of replicating. I put it down to equally intangible thinking – the sum and integration of the various systems seems to be greater than the sum of the car.

Having the handling down pat, a good sports saloon needs equally good power, and that 330i gets. The new 3.0L inline six, which is started through a new push button, is the latest engine to use BMW’s Valvetronic valve train. In a nutshell, the design dumps the tradition throttle and uses the intake valves to control engine speed. The advantage is that this simple (at least in terms of what it does) extension removes the engine’s biggest impediment to the air flowing into the combustion chamber. The net result is more power (255 horsepower), a free-revving nature and improved fuel economy. The variable valve timing (on both the intake and exhaust cams) then spreads the torque – 220 pound-feet – out over a broad range while delivering it in a very linear fashion.

The power is then relayed to the rear wheels through two six-speed transmissions (a manual and an automatic with a manual shift mode). The best pairing is a subjective thing, as both work with the engine exceptionally well. However, when married to the manual the car feels more alive as it zips through a metric ton in 6.3 seconds. The really likable trait, however, is this team works so well together even when caught in the wrong gear there is still some enough pull to pass a slower moving vehicle.

On a sad note, we will not (at least for the foreseeable future) get the 2.0L turbocharged diesel engine option, and primarily because of the crappy diesel fuel sold in Canada. Anyway, this thing is a torque monster (251 lb-ft at 2,000 rpm!) that delivers stellar performance and a real-world test average of 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres.

Inside, along with the roomier layout, the new 3 Series earns comfortable, form-fitting seats, clean and clear instrumentation, very effective climate controls and a delightful (optional) Logic7 audio package. The other notable option is the navigation system, as it brings with it BMW’s convoluted iDrive system. While it has been dumbed down (stand alone controls for the audio and climate control), it is still too complex for this aging brain. BMW argues it is the way of the future: To me, the past and a few good old-fashioned knobs is still more appealing.
The 3 series has always been the benchmark in the sports sedan category. The new car raises the bar in every meaningful way – so much so it’s almost as though BMW’s roundel is representative of the crosshairs every other manufacturer has trained on the acknowledged leader. Simply stated, the latest version gives the competition an even more elusive target to hit.