When the 2006 3 series—the fifth generation of a luxury sport sedan that for 30 years has topped BMW’s best-seller list—arrives this summer, it will be greeted with huge sighs of relief from BMW purists, who will notice only the lightest of brush strokes on a familiar shape that is far removed from recent styling absurdities. This handsome and energetic sedan appears almost conservative—certainly gentle, definitely buffed, and also progressive without being preposterous.
Credit for all of this craftiness and conservatism goes to designer Chris Bangle, the same man from Milwaukee who was condemned and boiled in editorial oil for doing such ugly things to the lines and looks of the Z4 and 7 Series. BMW responded by promoting Bangle to head of design for all its products, from BMW motorcycles to a new Rolls-Royce.
Bangle is wary, probably even weary, of suggestions that he gave the 3 Series cars a more conventional look simply to appease critics. Not at all, he says. BMW allowed him to be audacious with the Z4 and the 7 Series, Bangle explains, “to make them modern, to set the limits, to put them beyond everything else out there.” The 3 Series, however, is an icon, he adds, “and you just don’t take an icon car and rip it apart.”
During an afternoon romp around the plains and low hills of the Castilla–La Mancha region above Valencia, Spain, the 330i exhibits acceleration that is solid and far from quixotic, although not blinding—about six seconds, give or take a split tick, from rest to 60 mph. A cruising speed of 120 mph seems to be the ideal performance point, somewhere in the twilight zone between a safe, comfortable pace and working up a lather.
The 6-speed Steptronic automatic is perfect, and whatever is happening within that box of cogs and clutches is executed without a quiver. Rotors are ventilated, cast-iron 13-inchers that will leave you with shin splints long before brake fade. The steering is a paragon of precision that eliminates any guesswork or trial-and-error excursions.
The joy of any BMW remains this harmony of its parts. Each 3 Series system plays well with others, and every mechanical upgrade has been put in service to correct some small handling or performance difficulty of past models. All of this automotive efficiency is accompanied by careful and constant attention to occupant comforts amid small splashes of luxury and huge helpings of quality.