2006 BMW 330i Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2006 BMW 330i

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for BMW

It's good to be the king, but when you're the king, someone is always out to get you. And when you're the benchmark in the compact sports-luxury class, it's no different. The BMW 3-Series has held that enviable position since the advent of the 320i in 1978, when it added luxury to the performance equation developed by the BMW 2002. The 3-Series has been the target of every small sports, sports-luxury, luxury-sports, and luxury sedan that has come off the production line in the past quarter century, and has yet to be dethroned.

That's not from lack of trying. And the competitors are not shy about mentioning the 3-Series in product presentations, or even advertising, and comparing their products to it. But, somehow, BMW always manages to stay a step ahead by combining performance and luxury, comfort, and handling, in just the right amounts. And they've just made life more difficult for the competition with the recent introduction of the fifth-generation 3-Series.

Not much carries over from the previous 3 to the new. It's a little larger, but still retains its compact dimensions, and the all-new styling is not as revolutionary as that of the larger BMWs. It has nearly all of the luxury, comfort, and performance features found in its larger, more expensive relative either standard or available, and adds a few of its own.

At the moment, two models are available, both sedans. The 325i and 330i nameplates will be familiar. Contrary to BMW's long-standing convention, though, they both use the same engine, kind of. It's a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder, an engine type that has been associated with BMW since before World War II. But it owes nothing to any previous BMW six in its design and construction, with innovative composite magnesium and aluminum alloy crankcase and block construction for light weight. The 325's engine develops 215 horsepower; the 330, with additional performance-enhancing features, makes 255 horsepower. As ever, that is sent to the rear wheels, and all transmissions, be they the standard manual or optional automatic, are six-speed designs, to further enhance performance and fuel economy. The chassis design and suspension are also new, all wrapped in bodywork that, while also completely restyled, is definably BMW 3-Series. There is more interior space, with lower noise levels and a greater feeling of luxury.

I've just finished a week with a 2006 330i that, with the automatic, Premium Package, and navigation system, illustrates the luxury car side of the new 3-Series. It was as smooth, quiet, and solid-feeling as a luxury car is supposed to be, with all of the expected amenities and then some. Sports sedan fans shouldn't feel disappointed - the six-speed manual and Sport Package of upgraded suspension, wheels, and tires ought to batter the competition on that side. And, if you can wait until Fall, a six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) like that found in the M3 is supposed to be available. With the sports suspension and SMG, the new 3-Series looks to be M3 lite.

APPEARANCE: Recent BMW styling, as introduced on the 2002 7-Series and further developed on the 5-Series sedans, 6-Series coupes and convertibles, and Z4 roadster, has been, to put it mildly, controversial. But it's been influential, too, as some BMW competitors are none-too-subtly copying it. The new 3-Series, while continuing the angular look, is more conservative than the other recent Bimmers. No sheet metal directly interchanges, but the shape is very similar to the previous 3-Series, with a moderately-long hood, long, arched passenger cabin, and short, high rear deck. Sharp, angular character lines in the hood and at the beltline give it definition as a contemporary BMW, without being over-styled. The chrome-trimmed twin-kidney grille and quad round headlights under glass (ok, plastic) are familiar, but updated. The chin treatment below the grille sure says ``M3.'' The sides are relatively plain, with only moderate fender flares. and the wheels and tires fill the wheel arches well. Rear quarters and the rear panel show 7- and 5-Series influence.

COMFORT: Inside, the new 3 is less familiar than outside. In the choice and style of materials it will be familiar, but the overall design is very different from previous generations, particularly if the optional navigation system is specified. Then, the hood over the instruments is joined by another, in the center of the dash, shading the LCD nav system screen. It does an excellent job - the screen display is easily visible in all light, even for people wearing polarized sunglasses. Control is by the latest generation of BMW's iDrive system, which has been simplified since its inception in the 7-Series a few years ago and is generally pleasant and logical to use. As always, instrumentation and controls are arranged for serious driving, and the standard seats are firm but offer very good comfort and support. Dimensionally, the new 3 is ever so slightly larger than before, but still on the compact side, especially in the rear. A split-folding rear seat is part of the Cold Weather Package, which, with the large trunk for the car's size, adds convenience. Since all new 3-Series sedans use run-flat tires, the space beneath the trunk floor otherwise used for a spare tire is a useful storage compartment.

SAFETY: For active safety, the 3-Series' has responsive handling and quick steering to stay out of trouble, enhanced by very good four-wheel vented disc brakes that are larger than in earlier versions and feature four-piston front calipers. The standard Dynamic Stability Control System includes the usual anti-lock, traction control, stability enhancement, and brake control functions, and can compensate for the effects of brake fade and water on the discs. Dual front, front side, and front and rear head curtain airbags are standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The new chassis/body structure is stronger and more rigid than that of the fourth-generation 3-Series, and features significantly-revised fully-independent front and rear suspensions for improved ride and handling characteristics. Which is saying something, as the old 3-Series was just fine in those categories. At the front is now found a double-pivot strut design similar to that used in the larger BMW sedans and sports-activity vehicles. It makes extensive use of aluminum, to reduce unsprung weight and so improve suspension response, and is anchored to an aluminum subframe to isolate road noise and reduce sprung weight. A new five-link system is used at the rear; it also is anchored to a subframe to reduce noise and vibration, and improve crash safety. The springs and shocks are tuned for a soft but well-controlled ride, which, in the European fashion, not only allows but encourages spirited driving. There is a little stiffness noticeable over small road irregularities, caused by the stiff sidewalls of the standard run-flat tires. Such is the penalty of run-flats.

PERFORMANCE: Under the hood of both 2006 3-Series models is a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine. That's not unusual for a BMW, nor is its dual overhead cam, 24-valve specification. But this engine, codenamed N52, breaks new ground. Its construction is highly unusual. The cylinder and water jacket assembly is cast from aluminum-silicon alloy, and the die cast magnesium alloy upper crankcase assembly is shrunken onto that. The lower part of the crankcase, called the bedplate, is also cast from ultra-light magnesium alloy. Timing of both camshafts is controlled by BMW's VANOS variable valve-timing system as in most other current models, but lift of the intake valves is controlled by the latest version of the Valvetronic system introduced in the 7-Series V12. Many other innovative and weight-saving devices and techniques are used, and the result is smooth, linear power. The main difference between the 325 and the 330? The 330 engine gets a three-stage variable intake manifold instead of two-stage, and has different engine-management software. Although the 330i engine is perfectly happy to run to its 7000-rpm redline, and its 255 horsepower maximum is developed at a high 6600 rpm, Valvetronic and VANOS help it to also make maximum torque - 220 lb-ft - at a low 2750 rpm. As a result, it works well with the optional automatic, which brings out its luxury car side. The sport side should be well taken car of by the manual gearbox, as it boasts new ratios and improved shift linkage.

CONCLUSIONS: BMW stays a step ahead of the competition, yet again, with the all-new 2006 3-Series.

Article Continues PAGE 2

Complete specifications on the 2006 BMW 3 Series Sedan 330i and other vehicles are available at the New Car Buyers Guide!

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