New 2006 330i pure BMW, but is competition catching up?

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

For years BMW has supplied “the ultimate driving machine” to people who live for the simple joy of driving. Few have argued with the German company’s braggadocios description of its vehicles. BMW’s road manners have put truth in advertising.

Fans of the vaunted 3-Series, the poster child for “ultimate driving,” may have lived in fear that the fifth generation 3-Series would perhaps not measure up to its reputation, and that — horrors — it would be saddled with the controversial styling that graces the 7-Series and to a lesser extent the 5-Series.

Well, the fifth generation is here and it is purebred BMW. It handles and performs as a 3-Series is expected to handle and perform. And the styling, while using many of the cues from the 5 and 7, has been toned down into a handsome, muscular package.

We can’t argue with the fun-to-drive nature of the new Bimmer. Horsepower and torque — 255 horses and 238 pound-feet in the 330i — have been upgraded and the sedan features steering so precise it amazes every time you hit the highway.

But the new 3-Series is still expensive starting at $30,995 for the 325i and $36,995 for the 330i, and now — unlike 1999 when the last generation was introduced — the 3-Series has serious competition at more affordable prices.

Worthy competitors with as much or more horsepower, wonderful handling traits and loaded with creature comforts include the Infiniti G35 (298 horsepower), Acura TL (270 horsepower) and Cadillac CTS (255 horsepower). A new and more powerful Lexus IS to be introduced this fall. It promises to be an all-star. All come in at several thousand dollars under the BMW.

So does the extra cash outlay — our 330i test car had a sticker price of $46,115 with options — buy that much more car? The clear answer is no.

Before BMW aficionados suffer apoplexy over this audacious statement, we admit the new Bimmer is a very desirable instrument of motorized pleasure. It’s just that some of the competition has caught up and offers comparable sheetmetal at more affordable prices. Don’t fault the engineers, it’s a marketing problem.

While BMW advanced the 3-Series in several areas, the advancements are in many cases virtually imperceptible when compared to the previous edition and when compared to the offerings from Acura, Infiniti and Lexus.

Probably the biggest advancement — or should we say the biggest change, because some people don’t think it’s an advancement — comes in styling. The 3-Series certainly has moved in a new direction.

We like the new look. It has enough BMW styling cues to make it instantly recognizable as a 3-Series from its twin kidney-shaped grille to its extremely short front overhang and wheelwells that are just big enough for the tires.

The bold crease running the length of the side gives the new Bimmer a muscular look. And thankfully, BMW designers tidied up the rear deck lid, ignoring that gruesome piece that looks tacked onto the 7-Series.

Making one of the smallest cars in its segment larger, and reworking the inline-six cylinder engine using state-of-the-art technology to achieve more horsepower and torque are also noteworthy upgrades.

The wheelbase has been increased 1.4 inches and the length has been stretched 2.2 inches. This translates to more leg and knee room in the back. The quarters are still a bit cramped, but if back-seat passengers can gain some compromise from the front-seat occupants, four adults can ride in harmony.

The trunk, however, is still tight. And without an engineering degree, it is nearly impossible to get two sets of golf clubs into the cargo hold.

BMW has improved the Valvetronic valve lift system and reworked the variable valve timing system in the 3.0-liter inline 6. To reduce weight, the block is made of aluminum and magnesium. The smaller iteration in the 325i makes 215 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. The bigger 330i features 255 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque as noted.

The new engine sings sweet melodies as the rpm roll toward redline. The all-new 6-speed manual transmission is the perfect companion, offering smooth and precise throws. An optional 6-speed automatic is also available.

Perhaps because of a slight weight increase, measured 0 to 60 times are nearly identical to the previous generation. For the 330 published times average out to 6.2 seconds from 0 to 60 and 14.9 seconds at 94 miles per hour in the quarter mile. The 325 will climb to 60 in about 7 seconds. For eight-tenths of a second you can save a lot of money.

The power, together with point-and-shoot steering, is a wonderful combination making the BMW a delight on the rural back road twists and turns. Our test car was endowed with the optional sport suspension; Active Steering and high performance run flat tires. How much difference those items make in the overall handling and cornering attributes of the sedan we don’t know, but we can say our test car exhibited exceptional on-road behavior.

The interior is standard BMW with controls that are intuitive and easy to use, unless you opt for the navigation system, which comes bundled with the infamous iDrive system where most functions are performed with a center-console joystick and are displayed on a screen in the center of the dash.

BMW says it’s a simplified version of the system found in the 7-Series. But for us, it’s a nuisance. That’s a $2,000 option we would gladly forgo, even if we were addicted to navigation.

For example, it takes four separate steps to change a pre-set radio station. You have to get rid of the lawyer’s disclaimer on the screen by hitting “agree.” Then you must toggle down to “entertainment,” then click on the pre-set radio station, and finally toggle over to “play.” What a pain!

The new BMW now has a starter button, like several other models this year. But in BMW’s case, you have to insert a square key to activate the starting process.

There is a fair amount of standard stuff in the 330, but watch your options closely to keep the price around 40 grand. Standard safety features include four-wheel antilock brakes, stability control, dynamic brake control, front side-impact airbags and head curtain airbags for the front and rear. The stability control system includes — believe it or not — a wiper system that dries the brake pads in the rain, and a sensor that snug the brake pads to the rotors when the driver lifts his foot off the throttle to increase brake responsiveness.

Standard features include a wonderful Logic 7 premium sound system, sport suspension, keyless entry, and automatic climate control as well as a power moonroof.

We still count ourselves among the many enthusiasts who love the 3-Series for its dramatic driving demeanor. And the new 3-Series lives up to BMW standards. But for the first time in the 30-year history of the 3-Series, there is formidable competition offering more space and more standard equipment while providing driving excitement for less money.

If you are a BMW enthusiast, you can’t miss with this new car. But if you haven’t formed that allegiance, there is now a wider vista of possibilities.