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Review and photos by Paul Williams
Valencia, Spain – New vehicle introductions normally don’t consist of 700 journalists from 70 countries converging on Valencia, Spain in multiple waves over four weeks. If that sounds to you like the program for a very important new car, you’d be right.
The BMW 3 Series represents 40% of BMW’s vehicle output. It is, as one BMW executive said, “the core product for the brand.” Not only is it important to BMW economically, but its status as an iconic car is crucial to the company’s image. For many, it’s the car that says, “I’ve made it,” or at least, “I’m on my way.”
The 3 Series represents success for BMW, the consumer, and all those who aspire to get behind the wheel of, arguably, the original and the best entry-level luxury sports sedan on the market. Consequently, BMW has a task on its hands when renewing the object of such affection and loyalty.
Which is why we’re appropriately in Valencia, a city of 1.2-million people, where history is celebrated, but the old blends dramatically with the new. Here, the remains of medieval castles, ancient villas and the tradition of the conquistador form the backdrop for a cityscape that’s being reinvented by local architects such as Santiago Calatrava, designer of some of the most breathtaking and imaginative buildings in Europe.
But what of the new car? Does it celebrate the past as well, or fire off in completely new directions? The good news for those who love the current 3 Series is that they should have nothing to fear – the car of their dreams has not been dramatically reinterpreted, and there is nothing about it that in any way offends the eye. That being said, the 2006 3 Series will quickly date its predecessor, as it is a thorough evolution of the model it replaces.
Visually, the most obvious styling element is the bold swage line that stretches the length of the car. Especially for lighter-coloured vehicles, like silver and grey which are currently so fashionable, this feature catches the light from above and creates shadow below, elongating the car while suggesting its performance potential. It’s a very effective styling element.
The decklid contains the hint of a spoiler, and the rear lights acquire a polygonal, angular shape. While the rear of the car may not look as broad as the outgoing model, it is tidier, more aerodynamic.
Similarly, the front receives a treatment that somewhat softens the aggressive expression of the current 3 Series. The glowering headlamps are not quite so threatening; the grille is a little fuller, a little friendlier.
Slightly bigger in all dimensions, the new 3 Series better accommodates its occupants and their belongings. The extra 49-millimetres of length, 35-mm of wheelbase and 29-mm of track translate to increased shoulder room, rear seat leg room, hip room and trunk space.
In total, the exterior preserves the character and identity of the model, while carefully massaging its current lines into the latest generation. If there’s any criticism at all, it’s that some might like to see the new look taken a little further, pushing the design a little more. But there is a coupe to come, and an M3 to consider (and BMW got an unwanted earful when the latest 7-Series was introduced in 2003 with its radical redesign).
In short, no one that I heard was complaining in Valencia.
In Canada, we’ll receive two 3 Series sedans for a mid-year introduction (early summer). The 325i is powered by a 3.0-litre engine with a new magnesium crankshaft making 215-horsepower and 185 lb.-ft. of torque. Like all BMW six-cylinder engines, it’s an inline cylinder configuration mounted longitudinally.
The 330i (which we drove at the press introduction) is equipped with the same 3.0 litre engine, but with a different intake and computer management system. It makes 255-horsepower and 220 lb.-ft torque.
Both models will be very well equipped. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, with a six-speed automatic available. Anti-lock brakes featuring ventilated front and rear discs and electronic brake force distribution stop the car in short order. Automatic stability control, dynamic stability control (DSC), dynamic traction control and dynamic brake control are included in the DSC.
Xenon headlamps for both low and high beams with luminous rings are standard, but adaptive (turning) headlamps are fitted to the 330i, optional on the 325i. Adaptive brake lights (brighter, depending on severity of braking) are included on both models.
Without enumerating the entire Features and Amenities list, other highlights include, side thorax airbags, advanced head protection system (front and rear), a large button to start the car, multifunction leather steering wheel, climate control, rain sensing windshield wipers, auto dimming rear mirror and power front seats (standard on 330i).
Additional available features include sunroof, Harman/Kardon Logic7 sound system, navigation system, iDrive, voice control, active steering, park distance control and Dakota leather interior (leatherette is standard). Many of these options can be selected as part of the Navigation, Premium and Sport packages.
Standard wheels are 16″ and 17″ for the 325i and 330i respectively. The Sport package includes rims that are one-inch larger for both models.
Not only was Valencia an environment that fittingly contrasted the old and the new, but the surrounding countryside offered hundreds of kilometres of twisting mountain roads, tailor made to show off the 3 Series’ performance attributes. There was also a racetrack nearby, the Circuito Albacete, for dynamic testing and hot laps.
The 2006 3 Series’ combination of rear-wheel drive, chassis, suspension, drivetrain and body creates a supremely balanced car even in the most challenging conditions. Acceleration from the 255-hp engine is satisfying from any speed (0-100 km/h takes 6.3 seconds) and braking is equally rapid and sure. The aluminum suspension uses concepts carried over from the 5 Series and 7 Series, attached to a lightweight front axle and five-arm rear axle.
Steering is fast and precise, and at all times, even in extreme manoeuvres, the driver feels the car will do exactly what is asked of it. The handling and performance of the 330i is nothing short of brilliant, and continues to be the benchmark against which other cars of this type will be judged. In many ways it felt as nimble as a Mini Cooper S, such was its immediate and appropriate response to driver inputs.
An intriguing diversion was the opportunity to drive the 320d, the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel version of this car that makes 163-horsepower and 251 lb.-ft. torque. Not scheduled for Canadian release (but never say never), it needs only 8.3 seconds to reach 100 km/h from a standstill, and has a top speed of 225 km/h. Even on less aggressive tires than the 330i, the 320d offered terrific handling and virtually all the significant attributes of the 330i. It has the added benefit of retuning just over 6.0 L/100km in spirited driving. Engine noise is undetectable at highway speeds, and unlike diesels you may have experienced, even sounded great shifting up and down through the mountain roads.
All that being said, most Canadian 2006 3 Series owners won’t make a habit of jubilantly flinging their car through narrow mountain passes in southern Spain, or hurling it around a racetrack. Most will be driving it to and from work during the week, polishing it on the weekend, and accepting numerous nods of appreciation or expressions of envy from other motorists.
But like owners of luxury SUVs – whose vehicles can step over boulders, climb cliff faces or traverse swollen rivers, but who rarely venture off-road – part of the satisfaction of owning a pedigree vehicle like the 2006 3 Series, is the knowledge that if you wanted to make like a race-car driver in your sensible four-door sedan, you could.
Which explains the continuing fascination with the BMW 3 Series. It’s the genuine article: a unique combination of beauty, brains and brawn that people are going to keep on wanting.
Canadian prices are scheduled to be announced at the Vancouver auto show in March. Current models start at $39,900 (325i) and $47,400 (330i).