- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

BMW calls its 3-series the “quintessential sport sedan,” and in past generations this description has proven quite appropriate. Drivers enjoy the car’s superb balance and handling, while status seekers like the conspicuous blue-and-white badge on the hood. In house, the 3-series could also be called the quintessential moneymaker, as about 60 percent of BMW vehicles sold each year are 3-Series models. Now in its fifth generation, the newest iteration has undergone the progressive design transformation — a la designer Chris Bangle — that the larger 5- and 7-series already have experienced.

First a few hard facts. The newest-model 3-series, internally coded E90, has grown in length (by 2.2 inches), wheelbase (1.4 inches), and width (3 inches) over its E46 predecessor. Curb weight is up by about 150 pounds, but the new BMW maintains its 50/50 weight distribution, so crucial to its handling.

Badging on the new 3-series can be a bit confusing, especially when using the old BMW method of deciphering. In the past, 325i meant the 3-series model with a 2.5-liter engine. A 540i was a 5-series sedan with a 4.0-liter engine. Now, both the 325i and 330i displace the same amount — 3.0 liters — but differ in their induction method and computer-controlled engine mapping. Both are inline six-cylinder units with dual overhead cams, double VANOS variable valve timing, and Valvetronic throttle technology. The powerplant outfitted for the 325i yields 215 horsepower and 185 foot-pounds of torque, while the more potent 330i version delivers 255 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds of torque. Three-stage air induction (compared with the 325i’s one-stage intake) plus revised engine mapping causes the rise in output. Both shift via a standard six-speed manual transmission, while a six-gear automatic with Steptronic manual control arrives optionally.

Underneath, the new 3-series models have benefited from extensive recalibrating. The same MacPherson-type front suspension and multilink rear setup has been preserved, but the front features double-pivot strut movement, with dual lower arms forged from aluminum. All around, this lightweight and stiff material is used to reduce weight, notably in the subframe, steering rack, brake calipers and brake shields. At the rear, the new five-link setup gets aluminum upper transverse arms. All 3-series models ride on run-flat tires capable of driving 150 miles at 50 mph, without air. Standard rubber on the 325i and 330i measures 205/55R16 and 225/45R17, respectively. Adding the Sport package to either version increases wheel and tire size, by one inch, while also stiffening the suspension.

Four-wheel disc brakes, with ABS and rotor venting, team with BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control to perform some nifty tasks. Dynamic Stability Control includes traction control and can be operated at three levels — full intrusion, mild intervention, or no support. Turning the system completely off does not happen by accident, as the DSC button requires a prolonged press to fully disengage. Finally, Active Steering is offered, varying the ratio from a parking-lot-fast 10.8:1 to a highway-stable degree of 18.0:1.

BMW’s general approach to styling may be the most subjectively criticized in the industry, partly because BMW depends on in its loyal, affluent and often harshly demanding clientele. Some may automatically discard the new 3 because of the styling, while others will appreciate its progression. We say that BMW was smart to restyle this model last, as this German automaker first ingrained the “Bangle design formula” into the public’s perception with the larger 5-series and 7-series sedans and speciality 6-series, Z4 and X3 vehicles, and then gently introduced the 3.

The car is not that different in overall appearance — the kidney grilles are still prominent, the headlights follow those of the X3, and the sides are tightly sculpted and highlighted by character lines. The rear end is odd, especially when parked beside the beautiful backside of the E46. That said, this new 325i looks great, from the front, beside the last 325i, and this newest 3 exposes the subtle progression that BMW had been applying to the E46 throughout its lifespan (from 1999 to 2005). Those changes included streamlining the headlights, enlarging the grille and revising the front fascia. And, the E46 M3 is a stunning piece of machinery that the E90 will be hard-pressed to match.

Inside BMW has maintained the neutral, no-nonsense approach to design. The largest change is that the dash no longer centers on the driver, and instead is flat like the current 5- and 7-series. Customers have the option of IDrive with navigation, but the technology is not a standard feature, to the delight of many. Another interesting detail is the push-button starter, a first for the 3-series. Safety features include front air bags, front-seat side-impact seat-mounted air bags, and curtain air bags for both rows. No rear side-impact units are offered, as BMW says the curtains provide ample protection. Options include Sirius satellite radio, a power rear window sunshade and manual side rear shades, and Comfort Access keyless entry that allows the key fob to remain in the driver’s purse or pocket.

Not surprisingly, modern-day improvements and the host of standard features for the new 3-series have increased prices. The base 325i starts at $30,995, while a 330i fully loaded Sport model runs in the high 40s, which not too long ago was M3 coupe territory. But then again, this is Bemmer’s money machine, and many are thrilled to pay the price of entry to own one.

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