It’s simple: drive a BMW on a twisty two-lane farm road and realize the car’s potential to thrill. Drive it on a freeway and miss the point: on a freeway, a BMW 3 Series amounts to a rather loud, small, sparsely outfitted automobile. In this environment, what luxury the 3 Series can offer amounts to seats that conform to almost any body type, impeccably assembled premium quality materials, and the kinds of features that any competitor can provide.
What most competitors can’t provide is the joy of driving, BMW style. And given the fact that the 3 Series is a fourth generation icon for that driving experience, replacing it is likely to induce heartburn at a time when the BMW design vocabulary has been met with jeers and jabs from press and consumers. And yet, with this new 2006 3 Series, BMW has successfully built upon the strengths of the previous model, protecting its reputation as a builder of the world’s most capable sport sedans.
Nuts and Bolts
That car was our favorite. It pulled strongly and smoothly all the way to redline, it’s 18-inch Michelin 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 breezy 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 the track 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. BMW has also added a hill-holding feature to prevent excessive clutch slipping on hills. Its 17-inch Pirelli Eufori run-flat tires were a little loud, and we detected more wind noise than expected 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, just not as fast.
Our least favorite is the car most people will buy, the 330i Sport with the Steptronic automatic. Labeling this as our least favorite 3 Series, by the way, is like saying that Chubby Hubby is our least favorite of three Ben & Jerry’s flavors. This car rode on 18-inch Bridgestone run-flat tires that were quieter than the Pirellis but provided a harsher ride, thanks to slightly lower sidewall profiles. Plus, when driving hard, the 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 255 horsepower and 220 lb.-ft. of torque, compared to the 325i’s 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 rides stiffly, and every little ripple in the road is 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. Skip the Sport package if you’re likely to stay away from aggressive driving.
Sport models are equipped with multi-adjustable sport seats up front, manual on the 325 and power on the 330. With inflatable side bolsters, thigh bolster extensions, and fine adjustment for rake, angle and height, these seats conform to most body styles. Once they’re set properly, the seats prove comfortable over the long haul.
And though the 2006 3 Series is larger on the inside it still feels like a small car. It’s difficult to get into and out of, due to small front door openings and an intrusive rear wheel well. Once situated inside, however, the cabin is a snug fit; legroom in front is generous and four six-footers should be able to ride in the 2006 3 Series -- provided the driver and front passenger aren’t performing a gangsta dip. With the driver’s seat adjusted for a six-foot-tall person who likes to sit up 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. Note that BMW has improved its leather upholstery to the point where it is easy to tell the difference between real cowhides and the standard leatherette, which is stiff and grips clothing, making it hard to adjust your body while in motion. In contrast, the leather is soft, and smooth.
Side curtain airbags protect both rows of seats, and the front seat side-impact airbags are now located in the side bolsters of the front seats rather than the door panels, helping to ensure that they are properly positioned no matter how far forward or rearward the seat is placed in the track. Run-flat tires are standard equipment, allowing 150 miles of range at up to 50 mph. Other safety gear includes a brake drying system for rain, an optional active cruise control system to maintain proper distances on road trips, brake-fade compensation for when you’re driving the 3 Series aggressively, and adaptive front headlights (standard on the 330i and optional on the 325i) which help to illuminate around turns. Stability control is also standard, with three modes of operation – full-on safety suit, let’s play with the tail a little, and you’re on your own.
Ergonomically, it is not readily apparent how or what some controls function based on their markings, and the iDrive setup, while simplified, can still frustrate. 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.
Wrap-up and Specs
What may give a potential buyer pause is the poor dollar vs. euro valuation. A 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 car, 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, buy a 325i Sport with no options at just $32,595. After one hundred miles behind the wheel of this exact 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.
Base Price (325i): $30,995 (including $695 destination charge)
Base Price (330i): $36,995 (including $695 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 3.0-liter inline six
Engine Horsepower (325i): 215 @ 6,250 rpm
Engine Horsepower (330i): 255 @ 6,600 rpm
Engine Torque (325i): 185 @ 2,750 rpm
Engine Torque (330i): 220 @ 2,750 rpm
Observed Fuel Economy (325i): 24 mpg (with manual)
Observed Fuel Economy (330i): 20.2 mpg (with Steptronic)
0-60 mph (325i Manual): 6.7 seconds
325i mph (Steptronic): 7.2 seconds
330i mph (Manual): 6.1 seconds
330i mph (Steptronic): 6.3 seconds
Photos courtesy of Christian J. Wardlaw