Driving a BMW 3 Series on a freeway or in gridlocked traffic misses the point of the car. On a freeway or in traffic, a BMW 3 Series is out of its element, amounting to a rather loud, small, sparsely outfitted automobile. But on a twisty road, a BMW 3 Series becomes an extension of the driver’s nervous system, a finely crafted tool designed to maximize the joy of driving. That’s why, during a one-day road test of the redesigned 2006 BMW 3 Series, we stuck to the twisty two-lane ribbons of asphalt draped atop the hills and lining the valleys of western Pennsylvania, and the sinuous road course at BeaveRun Motorsports Complex in the town of Wampum.
Replacing an icon as successful as the fourth-generation 3 Series, especially at a time when BMW’s now-established design vocabulary has been met with jeers and jabs from the press and consumers alike, could induce heartburn in the heartiest German auto executive. Not to worry. With this new 2006 3 Series, BMW has successfully built upon the strengths of the previous model while resolving some of the few complaints that we had about the outgoing car.
Initially, the 2006 BMW 3 Series will debut as a sedan sold in 325i and 330i trims with option packages that can turn them into luxury cars, sports cars, or both. Choosing one over the other is a question of engine power and price, because there are few differences otherwise. Most of what comes standard on the 330i can be added to a 325i.
Fresh features on the 2006 BMW 325i, which starts at $30,995 including a $695 destination charge, include new six-cylinder engines, a redesigned suspension, significantly upgraded brakes, and run-flat tires. There is no ignition key for 2006. Instead, the driver plugs a multi-function remote into a slot on the dashboard and fires the motor using a Start/Stop button. BMW has also added ground lighting in the door handles, rear ambience lighting, dynamic cruise control, MP3 playing capability, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a cooled center console storage box. Safety is improved through new automatic tensioning and force limiting rear outboard seatbelts, side-curtain airbags that protect both the front and the rear occupants, and seat-mounted side-impact airbags for the front seats.
Paying $6,000 extra for a 330i results in more horsepower, more torque, and unique wheel designs wearing bigger 17-inch tires. The 330i also comes with body color exterior trim, power adjustable front seats, a memory feature for the seats and mirrors, a tilt-down passenger-side mirror when reversing, a 13-speaker Logic 7 audio system, and xenon adaptive headlights with luminous rings and automatic leveling. An optional Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) becomes available on the 330i this fall for $1,500, but only when ordered in conjunction with the $1,600 Sport package. Otherwise, the 325i and the 330i are identical, available with the same standard and optional equipment.
Among the many new optional features for 2006 are a six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission, active steering, 18-inch wheels and tires (330i), iDrive navigation system with voice command control, Sirius satellite radio, and a power rear window sunshade with manual side window screens. Comfort Access keyless locking and ignition, which lets the driver keep the remote fob in a pocket or purse at all times, will be available as an option after the launch of the new 2006 BMW 3 Series.
Coupe, convertible, and station wagon versions of the new Three will follow at staggered intervals within two years. Also, BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system is coming this autumn, just in time for buyers in foul-weather climates. And when the new M3 arrives, it will probably pack a V8 punch for the first time ever.
Nuts and Bolts
Anyone who has planted themselves behind a BMW inline six-cylinder engine knows just how smooth and refined they are, but that didn’t stop the company from adding brand-new, redesigned engines that boast more power and better fuel economy than before.
Each 2006 BMW 3 Series is equipped with a new 3.0-liter, dual overhead cam, inline six-cylinder engine featuring Double VANOS variable valve timing and Valvetronic electronic throttle technology to develop maximum power, optimum efficiency, and meet tough Ultra Low Emission Vehicle-2 (ULEV-2) standards.
The engine installed in the 325i sedan generates 215 horsepower at 6,250 rpm, 31 more than last year. Torque peaks at a low 2,750 rpm, where 185 lb.-ft. of twist is available. More power combined with a lower torque curve brings the 2006 325i’s zero-to-60 acceleration time down to 6.7 seconds with the manual transmission and 7.2 seconds with the automatic, according to BMW.
The engine installed in the 330i might be exactly the same size, but it’s got three-stage induction (rather than single-stage in the 325i) and revised software mapping to generate 255 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 220 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,750 rpm. BMW says that the 2006 330i will run to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds with the manual transmission and 6.3 seconds with the automatic.
In both models, a six-speed manual transmission drives the rear wheels, with a new six-speed Steptronic automatic available as an option. Steptronic includes normal, sport, and manual modes to suit the whims of the driver. Starting in the fall, a Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG – a true manual transmission that does not have a clutch and that can operate in automatic mode if desired) will be offered on the 330i equipped with the Sport package.
Regardless of package purchase, the suspension is completely redesigned, and BMW hasn’t strayed far from the successful formula of front MacPherson struts and a rear multilink setup for the 2006 3 Series. Up front, the new double-pivot strut suspension is composed entirely of aluminum, and the five-link setup in back is brand new. Standard and Sport suspension calibration is offered, and the fast-reacting Active Steering system from the 5 Series is available on cars equipped with the Sport package. Thanks to the use of lightweight materials in the front suspension and engine blocks, BMW has been able to maintain close to an ideal 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution for optimum handling and responsiveness.
Run-flat tires are standard on both the 325i and the 330i, and they’ll go 150 miles at 50 mph before requiring replacement, helping to keep owners from becoming stranded someplace unsafe. Standard equipment for the 325i is a 16-inch aluminum wheel wearing 205/55 all-season tires, and for the 330i it’s 17-inch alloys shod with 225/45 all-season rubber. A tire pressure monitoring system is also standard. Add the optional Sport package to either model for plus-one wheel sizes and lower-profile performance tires.
Vented four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake proportioning are standard, equipped with several features to boost performance for 2006. Brake standby prepares for a panic stop when the driver’s foot is abruptly released from the accelerator, under the assumption that rapid braking is going to be required. Fading compensation reacts to rising brake temperatures, and accordingly adjusts hydraulic pressure relative to pedal force. Brake drying removes wetness from the brake rotors in the rain, based on sensor readings from the standard rain-sensing wiper system. Soft-stop automatically helps generate smoother stops, and start-off assistant holds a 3 Series with a manual transmission in place on a hill until the clutch is released and the accelerator is depressed.
There’s also a standard stability and traction control system called Dynamic Stability Control (DSC). DSC operates in three modes, adjusted using the button mounted in the center of the dashboard. In normal mode, DSC uses the braking system to halt skids early, bringing the 3 Series into line as quickly as possible. Depress the DSC button once to expand the safety net, allowing you to have a good time by drifting and sliding and peeling the rubber a little bit before DSC steps in to quell the fun. Depress the DSC button and hold for three seconds, and the system completely disengages, leaving you to your own devices should you hit an unanticipated wet, snowy, or sandy spot mid-turn.
Silken fluidity perfectly describes the character of the powerplants, steering, and brakes on the 2006 BMW 3 Series. We sampled the new 325i Sport with a six-speed manual transmission and the 330i Sport with a Steptronic six-speed automatic transmission on public roads. At Pennsylvania’s BeaveRun raceway, we also flogged a 330i Sport with a six-speed manual around the road course.
That car was our favorite. It pulled strongly and smoothly all the way to redline, it’s 18-inch Bridgestone run-flat tires gripped extraordinarily well with a slight tendency toward understeer in tighter hairpin turns, and its Active Steering system, which reduces the degree to which the wheel must be turned to negotiate sharper turns such as when parking, proved its mettle in the slalom course. Even the brakes worked flawlessly, lap after lap, never hinting at fade or suffering pulsation in the pedal. Of course, it was in the mid-40s and windy at BeaveRun, so the rotors and pads had plenty of time to cool between applications.
Our 325i Sport with a manual was quite entertaining, and returned 24 mpg during our trip to BeaveRun from downtown Pittsburgh, despite the fact that we drove it like somebody else was paying for the gas. Though the 325i now makes almost as much power as the old 330i, the redesigned 3.0-liter inline six manages just 185 lb.-ft. of torque, making it feel a bit sluggish. Gratefully, rowing gears to access the power is sheer bliss, the stick gliding from gate to gate and the clutch delightfully light and easy to engage, unlike with previous BMW manual transmissions which had a hair-trigger clutch and a bit too much resistance at the gates. BMW has even added a hill-holding feature to prevent excessive clutch slipping on hills. The 325i Sport’s 17-inch Pirelli Eufori run-flat tires were a little loud, and we detected more wind noise than expected right where the windshield pillar meets the roof, but otherwise there’s little to complain about. The 325i is just as much fun to drive as the 330i, it’s just not as fast.
Our least favorite, the car that most people are likely to buy, was the 330i Sport with the Steptronic automatic. And just to clarify, labeling this our least favorite 3 Series is like suggesting that Chubby Hubby is our least favorite of the three best Ben & Jerry’s flavors lining the freezer case at the local Trader Joe’s. This car rode on 18-inch Bridgestone run-flat tires that were quieter than the 325’s Pirellis but provided a harsher ride thanks to slightly lower sidewall profiles. Plus, when driving hard, this car’s transmission sometimes delivered downshifts that came a split-second later than we wanted. We could have shifted for ourselves using the Steptronic feature, but BMW insists on using a non-intuitive tap-up for downshifts and tap-down for upshifts, so we left the selector in fully automatic mode. Nevertheless, we extracted a 20.2-mpg average from the 330i, which makes 40 more ponies and 35 more pound-feet of torque than the 325i’s respective 215 and 185 ratings.
No matter which 2006 3 Series we drove, the Sport suspension setup proved a gift to enthusiast drivers and a curse for luxury seekers. The car doesn’t ride roughly, but it does ride stiffly, and every little ripple in the road gets telegraphed to the cabin. Another trait we disliked was the tendency, on undulating or heavily patched road surfaces, for the front tires of the both the 325i and the 330i to tug from side to side. If you’re not planning to drive the 2006 3 Series in the manner for which it is intended, we’d recommend skipping the Sport package and sticking with the smaller standard tread.
BMW also offered a chance to drive a 330i Sport with one of the run-flat tires deflated. Though we guessed right off which tire had no air, we wouldn’t have been able to tell on the short road course designed to prove that, even when running on a flat, the new Three is a secure performer.
Judge for yourself whether or not the new 2006 BMW 3 Series is as handsome as before. Just make sure to actually visit the BMW dealership and lay your eyes on the sheetmetal in natural light, because the car looks much better in person than in photos. In fact, in our opinion, the only botched element is the front bumper, which contains character lines that continue the bulge in the hood all the way down to the lower air dam, recalling not only current Audis and Volkswagens, but also the beloved Beetle of yore.
Trapezoidal, clear-lens headlights with washers resemble the BMW X3 sport-ute more than the flared “Dame Edna” lamps on the BMW 5 Series. The new BMW 3 Series also avoids the heavy, slab-sided appearance of the 5 Series through the use of four character lines that sweep back to the decklid. They add welcome definition to the rocker panels, the doors, and the rear quarters.
In back, the new 3 Series exhibits modern, tasteful, conventional design, decorated with traditional L-shaped red taillight lenses and punctuated by a chrome-tipped twin-pipe exhaust outlet. Blessedly free of the bustle-butt found on the 6 Series and 7 Series models, the 2006 BMW 3 Series is available in three standard primary colors – red, white, and black – and several optional metallic paint hues.
Inside the 2006 3 Series, the driving environment is clean and business-like with large, metallic-trimmed gauges that are easy to read, but it’s no longer driver-centric. Dual front cupholders slide out of the dashboard to the right of the center stack of controls and the center console storage box is climate controlled for 2006.
Leatherette (vinyl) upholstery is standard, with leather a stand-alone option or included in the Premium package. Burl walnut wood trim decorates every 2006 3-Series interior, with poplar natural wood or aluminum available as options.
For 2006, new features for the 3 Series include Comfort Access for keyless locking and engine starting, compatibility with Bluetooth-enabled personal cell phones so that calls can be made or taken using the voice-command feature that is included with the optional navigation system, and a Harmon Kardon Logic 7 premium audio system wired for Sirius satellite radio and equipped with an input jack for an iPod or MP3 player.
Ergonomically, the 2006 BMW 3 Series remains enigmatic. It is not readily apparent how or what some functions control based on their markings, and the iDrive setup, while simplified, can still frustrate even the most hardcore techno-geeks.
In the redesigned 2006 3 Series, BMW actually gives buyers a choice regarding iDrive, the multi-function control knob and colorful dashboard display that replaces proper controls for the stereo system. Dreaded by many, iDrive is installed in the new Three only when the optional navigation system is ordered. No nav, no iDrive. Hallelujah! We’ll buy a map!
If you succumb to the allure of technology, the optional iDrive controls most stereo functions, secondary climate settings, the optional navigation system, and on-board communications features. Primary functions for the dual-zone automatic climate control are located on the dashboard, and BMW provides a CD slot with a knob for power and volume. We wish that we could get radio tuning and station pre-set controls in conjunction with iDrive, but it appears that this will remain a dream.
Voice-control is included with iDrive, accessed via a button grouped with satellite controls for the stereo on the steering wheel, and the 2006 BMW 3 Series is also compatible with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. The ability to issue voice commands, and perform stereo adjustments using the redundant controls, should help to reduce the amount of fumbling with the silver metal iDrive controller between the seats.
Cars without iDrive have conventional stereo and air conditioning controls mounted in the center of the dashboard between the shifter console and the vents, allowing the driver to concentrate on the point of owning a BMW: Driving.
Skip the $2,000 navigation system, and you’ll get regular controls for the stereo and climate systems instead of a fussy iDrive controller in the center console. That’s great news for the 2006 BMW 3 Series, along with added space and new features designed to make trips more comfortable.
Our Sport models were equipped with multi-adjustable sport seats up front, manual on the 325 and power on the 330. With new inflatable side bolsters; thigh bolster extensions; and fine adjustment for rake, angle, and height, these seats conform to just about anyone, and once they’re set properly, prove comfortable and supportive, if a bit restrictive, over the long haul.
Despite gains in interior room, the 2006 BMW 3 Series is still an intimate car. It’s difficult to get into and out of due to small front door openings and an intrusive rear wheel well, and once situated inside the cabin snugly envelops its occupants. Legroom in front is quite generous, and four six-footers can comfortably ride in the 2006 3 Series, provided the driver and front passenger aren’t performing a gangsta lean. With the driver’s seat adjusted for a six-foot-tall person who likes to sit up nice and high with a good view forward, another six-footer can slide into the back and enjoy enough legroom that knees and shins clear the hard front seatbacks.
Passengers riding in the rear seat of the 2006 BMW 3 Series get rear air vents, power points, and a fold-down center armrest. Both front seatbacks are equipped with storage nets, and a power rear sunshade is available to cut solar glare and heating.
Note that BMW has improved its optional leather upholstery to the point where it is officially easy to tell the difference between real cowhides and the standard leatherette. The leatherette is rather stiff and grips clothing, making it hard to adjust your body while underway. In contrast, the leather is soft and smooth.
For years, BMW has quietly prided itself on building cars that are fun to drive but also safe, and the new 2006 3 Series includes the latest technologies designed to protect occupants in the event of a crash.
Passive occupant protection includes standard seat-mounted side-impact airbags for front seat passengers, an improvement over last year’s door-mounted restraints. With the side-impact airbags located in the side bolsters of the front seats rather than the door panels, they are properly positioned no matter how far forward or rearward the seat is placed in the track. BMW also includes a new side-curtain airbag system that protects both front and rear occupants, and all outboard seatbelts are equipped with pretensioners and force-limiters. Side airbags for rear seat occupants are no longer available on the 3 Series – the company says protection levels have improved to the point that these would be redundant.
Active safety is managed through BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) with traction control. DSC operates through the bigger four-wheel, vented-disc, antilock braking system equipped with electronic brake proportioning. DSC includes three modes of operation – “full-on safety suit,” “let’s play with the tail a little,” and “you’re on your own.”
For 2006, several new braking features have been added to 3-Series to improve safety, including brake standby, fading compensation, brake drying, and start-off assistant features. Brake standby prepares for a panic stop when the driver’s foot is abruptly released from the accelerator, under the assumption that rapid braking is going to be required. Fading compensation reacts to rising brake temperatures, and accordingly adjusts hydraulic pressure relative to pedal force when the new Three is driven the way God intended. Brake drying removes wetness from the brake rotors in the rain, based on sensor readings from the standard rain-sensing wiper system. Start-off assistant holds a 3 Series with a manual transmission in place on a hill until the clutch is released and the accelerator is depressed.
Additionally, the braking system works with the standard dynamic cruise control to help maintain pre-set speeds. Active cruise control is optional, ensuring proper following distances with traffic ahead, and adaptive xenon headlights are available to illuminate the road ahead – even if it’s curvy.
BMW offers an optional Park Distance Control (PDC) system to keep children out of harm’s way and the bumpers in good shape during parking maneuvers by warning the driver when objects are close to the 2006 3 Series. Also, the optional BMW Assist telematics service includes automatic collision notification, SOS emergency calling, and instant access to both roadside assistance and a concierge service.
Last, but not least, run-flat tires are standard equipment, allowing 150 miles of range at up to 50 mph so that even if a gaping pothole destroys two tires at the same time, the driver of the 2006 BMW 3 Series is not stranded someplace unsafe, such as Lane 3 of the Dan Ryan expressway on a rainy night, the middle of the Mojave desert on a triple-digit day, or in a neighborhood where drugs, guns, and kids without respect for human life run rampant.
Counting on the 2006 3 Series to deliver the bulk of its profits, BMW took few risks with this redesign. Historically speaking, new Bimmers have generally improved in terms of powertrains, performance, and creature comforts. After a day behind the wheel, it appears that the new Three is no different in this regard.
Two of our few complaints with the previous model have been rectified for 2006. The manual transmission’s clutch and stick are much easier to operate, and the rear seat is larger and more accommodating. Other concerns proved premature. The conservative styling of the new 3 Series makes it the best-looking car in the lineup, and we’re delighted that iDrive is an option and not standard. Blend these positive characteristics with improved engineering, technological advancements, and the brilliant performance for which the BMW 3 Series has become legend, and you have the ultimate recipe for the ultimate sport sedan.
However, the unfavorable exchange rate between the dollar and the euro could give any buyer, except hard-core BMW fanatics, pause. Our 330i Sport, equipped with just about every option, had a sticker price of $47,390. That’s a ton of cash for an entry-level luxury vehicle, even with free maintenance for the duration of the standard four-year/50,000-mile warranty.
But if you crave a car that is to the joy of driving what a set of silk sheets at the Four Seasons is to a good night’s sleep, a 325i Sport with no options, at just $32,595, is justifiable. After one hundred miles behind the wheel of exactly that car, it’s clear that BMW builds some of the world’s most responsive and capable sport sedans.
This new 2006 3 Series is rock solid, unflappable, and a pleasure to pilot. Y’know, if you like driving.
Test Vehicle(s): 2006 BMW 325i Sport; 2006 BMW 330i Sport
Price of Test Vehicle(s): $33,190 (325i); $47,390 (330i)
Engine Size and Type: 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder (330i with three-stage induction)
Engine Horsepower: 215 at 6,250 (325i); 255 at 6,600 rpm (330i)
Engine Torque: 185 at 2,750 (325i); 220 at 2,750 (330i)
Transmission: Six-speed manual (325i); Six-speed automatic with manual shift capability (330i)
Curb weight, lbs.: 3,285 (325i); 3,450 (330i)
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 20/30 mpg (est. 325i); 20/28 mpg (est. 330i)
Observed Fuel Economy: 24 mpg (325i); 20.2 mpg (330i)
Length: 178.2 in.
Width: 71.5 in.
Wheelbase: 108.7 in.
Height: 55.9 in.
Leg room (front/rear): 41.5/34.6 in.
Head room (front/rear): 37.4/37.1 in.
Max. Seating Capacity: 5
Max. Cargo Volume: 12 cu. ft.
Competitors: Acura TL, Acura TSX, Audi A4, Cadillac CTS, Chrysler 300C, Infiniti G35, Jaguar X-Type, Lexus IS, Lincoln Zephyr, Mazda Mazdaspeed 6, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Nissan Altima SE-R, Nissan Maxima SE, Saab 9-3, Subaru Legacy GT, Subaru WRX STi, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, Volkswagen Passat, Volvo S60
Photos courtesy of Greg Jarem