Marilyn. Madonna. Cher. Prince. Some superstars require but one name. In the automotive world, one number says enough—3, as in 3 Series. From almost the moment the first car in this long-running line was launched, back in 1975, BMW's sporty compact has been the benchmark against which all other entries in the segment are judged.
Now, an all-new model rolls into showrooms, and after months of nervous anticipation, BMW aficionados have reason to rejoice. Though the new car is a bit longer and wider, it maintains that balance between elegant styling and sporty performance that has made the 3 Series an automotive icon.
Traditionalists had reason to worry about BMW's plans for the fifth-generation car. When the Bavarian automaker rolled out an all-new 7 Series a few years back, the radically edgy design turned the staid world of the luxury car upside down. So did the controversial iDrive system, which was introduced to reduce the clutter of buttons needed to operate the car's sophisticated electronics.
While the new 330i clearly bears a family resemblance to the 7, as well as the 6 and 5 Series models that followed, Dutch designer Adrian van Hooydonk took an admittedly more conservative approach this time. The look is better integrated, with the familiar long hood sweeping into a back end that avoids the 7-er's quirky, bustle-back tail. The latest incarnation of iDrive is easier to use, and for technophobes, you can order a conventional instrument panel, if you're willing to forgo the useful DVD-Navigation system.
Many buyers likely will, for what has always mattered with the 3 Series is what the Germans call freude am fahren, or driving pleasure. Hit the start button, and the all-new 3.3-liter, inline-six fires up confidently. Its 258 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque will take you from 0 to 60 in just over six seconds. But the 3 Series is more than a straight-line muscle car. The longer wheelbase and wider track improve the 330i's traditionally cramped interior. They also enhance the car's overall dynamics. It's possible to lose your grip on a windy back road, but you'd have to work hard at it.
Even if you opt out on iDrive, the new sedan has plenty of onboard computer power. It borrows the active steering system first introduced on the latest 5 Series. It also gets BMW's road-hugging Dynamic Stability Control, or DSC, system. And there's laser-guided active cruise control, so you can set your desired speed and then let the car maintain a safe distance if slower traffic gets in your way. There's plenty of new safety hardware, too, including six air bags, and a trick system that periodically dries out the disc brake linings when the road is wet.
Getting it all right on the new 330i was essential for BMW. While models like the 7 and 6 Series might deliver top-end bragging rights, the 3 Series is BMW's bread-and-butter car, accounting for 40 percent of global sales. If our introductory test drive was any indication, the 2006 model will maintain the 3's iconic status.