2006 BMW 3-Series
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
BMW fans can only be thankful that BMW didn't botch the styling of its new, early 2006 3-Series sedan by tacking on a bulky rear end and adding bizarre styling touches that it has given new-generation models in the past few years.
The compact, iconic 3-Series 4-door replaces the 1999-2005 version. The 3-Series long has been the automaker's top seller and is widely considered the standard for small sporty sedans, although models such as the new Audi A3 are a definite threat.
BMW sold 450,000 3-Series cars last year, worldwide. Nearly 107,000 were sent to America, and they beat rivals from Acura, Audi, Cadillac, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. The next most popular BMW here was the costlier, midsize 5-Series, which captured 45,584 buyers.
Fifth Generation Model
The heritage of the 3-Series goes back to the small, sporty 1600 and 2002 four-seaters that arrived here in the late 1960s. The first 3-Series was sent to America in 1977, and when it comes to sportiness or prestige, nothing has been able to touch a 3-Series sedan.
The 3-Series currently is sold only as a rear-wheel-drive sedan. A station wagon version arrives this fall with all-wheel drive—a feature that also will be offered for the sedan. Coupe and convertible 3-Series versions debut next year as 2007 models and carry their current design until then. A sizzling hot rod M3 version will be offered in 2007.
Larger and Roomier
The redesigned model is more tightly built than its predecessor, which was pretty good in that regard. The main benefit of the 2006 upsizing is more rear leg room. Two tall adults fit comfortably in back, which was never the case with earlier 3-Series cars. However, the center of the rear seat is stiff, so it's best to fold down the center rear armrest and use the cupholders that pop from its leading edge.
The front seat area offers decent room for tall occupants, but there isn't much space to spare up there. Front doors have storage pockets, but the glove compartment is a joke and the center console cargo bin doesn't hold much.
Rear seatbacks flip forward and lay flat to enlarge the cargo area if one orders the $1,000 Cold Weather package, which also contains heated front seats. BMW dealers in the northern part of the country should consider that package a slam-dunk feature in winter.
The new sedan is fast with either engine, which delivers an estimated 20-21 mpg in the city and 29-30 on the highway. There's no compelling reason to pay the extra $6,000 for the 330i unless a driver wants to be a hard charger—and lives in areas where hard charging won't get a net thrown over him.
Besides its added power, the 330i adds such items as power front seats ($995 for the 325i) and an upgraded sound system.
As with other German automakers, BMW is prone to giving its cars technically advanced items that, after all, aren't really necessary—and often turn out to be annoying.
Superfluous Start-Stop Button
Why not just start and stop the engine by turning a regular ignition key? If memory serves, you started the engines of really old Fords with a dashboard button.
The standard transmission is a slick 6-speed manual, which allows the most driving fun—or at least the most driving involvement.
However, the responsive $1,275 6-speed automatic transmission—up from a 5-speed unit—with manual shift capability is a tempting alternative, especially if you do lots of driving is in heavy traffic.
Offered for the 330i is a $1,500 6-speed sequential shift manual transmission, which basically is a clutchless manual gearbox worked by a console lever or steering wheel paddles. You can't get it without ordering the $1,600 Sport Package, which has sports seats and a sport suspension with 17-inch run-flat tires for the 325i and 18-inch run-flat tires for the 330i.
My test 325i had the 6-speed automatic transmission and standard suspension with 16-inch tires. The new car has nearly perfect 50-50 weight distribution and was a kick to drive even without the manual gearbox. All that thanks to a superb chassis and BMW's legendary intuitive steering which was rather heavy, but not objectionably so.
BMW's $1,250 Active Steering system reduces steering wheel movements for parking, but isn't really needed.
Occasional Choppy Ride
Leave the Sport Package to hardcore car buffs that want slightly sharper handling and don't mind a less comfortable ride.
Touchy Brake Pedal
Front bucket seats embrace occupants. They initially seem hard, but provide long-haul comfort. Instruments can be easily read, and controls are well placed. The turn signal calls for only a slight nudge to operate.
Complicated iDrive System
The new 3-Series sedan is clearly better than its predecessor. It continues to provide one of the best small sedan driving experiences, but no longer has a stranglehold on the small sports sedan market.