- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

In some ways, German automaker BMW can’t win.

Despite steadily climbing sales and a continually enhanced image as the producer of the ultimate driving machines, BMW had been harshly criticized in some corners for being seemingly incapable of breaking out of its traditional design scheme, as handsome as it is. Critics charged BMW’s models were nothing more than small (3 Series), medium (5 Series) and large (7 Series) versions of the same basic styling.

It was against that backdrop that Milwaukee-born Chris Bangle became BMW’s top designer. His mission was to make the models of varying sizes and prices resemble each other as family, but not be identical twins, or triplets.

His first stab at the effort was the top-of-the-line 7 Series introduced four years ago. And if BMW thought the early criticism was harsh — well, it hadn’t seen anything like the arrows that would be slung at the styling of its new flagship sedan.

Critics hated the 7 Series’ new look, especially its hind end. Even more despised was the 7 Series’ complicated iDrive system, a single, video-game-like knob that controlled virtually all of the comfort and convenience functions, like the audio, climate control and navigation systems.

Following the 7 Series’ introduction, a “Stop Chris Bangle” Web site was established by critics. It asks visitors to petition BMW to fire him. Mr. Bangle will not be fired. In fact, he clearly has BMW’s blessing as he has been promoted to be in charge of design of two other classics, Mini and Rolls-Royce, now owned by BMW.

Nevertheless, word from Bavaria is that some inside BMW regret the 7 Series’ radical styling. While sales of the new 7 Series have been strong, profits have softened, as it hasn’t sold at full sticker price in some markets. Further, some insiders worry the damage to public perception may be long-lasting.

A revised 7 Series is reportedly a toned-down design, especially on the back side. And word is the iDrive will be simplified for a second time.

At the same time, BMW played it safe with its upcoming 3 Series, its high-volume model that is considered the gold standard of entry-luxury cars. The first version of the 3 Series will be introduced alongside the face-lifted 7 Series at the Geneva Motor Show in March and goes on sale shortly thereafter. Other versions, including a sedan, convertible and station wagon, will be introduced at subsequent auto shows and go on sale after those debuts.

BMW says the fifth-generation 3 Series design maintains the classic BMW shape. Its rear, instead of resembling the love-or-hate 7 Series, mimics the 5 Series, which has been far less criticized. Hints of the X3 sport utility and smaller 1 Series can be seen in its face. The controversial iDrive will be offered, but as an option.

The new 3 Series is longer and wider than the one it replaces, providing more interior space. It will feature a push-button starter that only requires the transmitter (which replaces the key) be somewhere in the car. The memory part of it sets the driver’s preferences for power seat position, mirrors, automatic climate control and, if equipped with optional iDrive, the radio station presets.

The 3 Series will be offered with a choice of two inline, six-cylinder engines. A new 258-horsepower 3.0-liter powers the 330i. The 325i comes with a 210-horsepower six-cylinder. All models will be offered with a choice of a standard six-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission that can be manually shifted without a clutch.

Incorporated into the new 3 Series is BMW’s latest version of Dynamic Stability Control. A new brake-drying feature improves braking in wet weather; it uses the rain sensor and/or wipers to detect wet brakes and gently rubs the brake pads on the rotors to help keep the pad surface dry. A new Brake Standby feature reduces braking response time by preparing the brakes for application when the driver abruptly lifts off the accelerator pedal. The new Starting Assistant feature is designed to prevent rollback when starting off on a grade without having to use the brake pedal or handbrake.

BMW further boasts the 3 Series will be the first in its entry-luxury class to offer active steering, which is offered on its bigger sibling, the 5 Series.

The 3 Series can be equipped with two-stage adaptive brake lights that increase the brake-light area in hard braking or whenever ABS is activated. Xenon Adaptive Headlights, which turn when the front wheels turn, are optional for greater illumination around corners and bends.

Run-flat tires are standard.

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