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Auto Test Drives

The 2006 330i Has it All: Style, Performance, Dynamics and Comfort
By Andrew Gardner; photos by the author
Apr 12, 2006, 23:17 PST
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The 2006 BMW 3 Series embodies the best of everything BMW has been and is. From exterior and interior design to material quality, power, weight distribution, and everything in between, the 330i is pure BMW. You know it when you see it, and you know it when you drive it. The difference between this year’s car and those of old, mainly, is just a sign of the times.

First, there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Bangle. He says what goes in Bavaria, and striking geometries are at the head of his program. This has meant some initially very unloved designs, but designs that the general enthusiast public is getting used to. The designs have also gotten a bit tamer. The 760, for example, has been toned down and made more stately in the last year, with a decklid design that no longer looks like somebody popped the trunk and then filled in the gap with more sheetmetal. The 3 Series is the result of feeling out what works right now with this angular new design theme of Chris Bangle’s, and then refining it to make it more palatable in today’s society. The 7 Series was a bit of a blow to the head, at least in some angles (which is not to say it is ugly); the 330 just looks good.



The front starts with the BMW pair of kidneys grille, headlamp housings with a moderately exclamatory tip on the outboard upper corners, and a lightly sculpted hood. The sides curve outward to meet the beltline, much like the sides of the front section of a ship’s hull. The 3 Series looks good at a standstill, and it looks great at speed. It looks good in bright light, and it looks good at night. Small white lights housed in the bottom of each door handle illuminate a portion of the door when the car is unlocked – this brings the elegantly lit look of an expensive home right to your car doors.

The interior is bathed in black, some leather and some vinyl. A strip of wood cuts through the front doors and the dashboard. A wave, imaginatevly generated by the "ship’s hull" on the doors, flows across the front of the dashboard, rising into a peak over the gauge cluster.



The center console – radio and HVAC controls – look familiar. The shift knob feels and looks the same. The seats are stiff even for a sports sedan, and they offer good support - with the sports package the seats offer even better support. The seats, the steering wheel, the shift knob – all look and feel like traditional BMW design. The interior room feels similar to the [redecessor 3 Series, but this is definitely improved. The rear legroom is still tight, a fact we accept in exchange for minimal wheelbase and excellent overall driving dynamics. The headroom has improved remarkably in the last two models – compared to a 1996 325, this bimmer is quite accommodating to 6-foot-plus occupants.

Once comfortably situated, depress the unlabeled stereo power on/volume control knob and tune in to Sirius satellite radio station "Buzz Saw," and coming through loud and clear might be Def Leppard chanting "Pour some petrol in me - oooh in the name of sport! Pour some petrol in me, and then light it up! I’m hot, with sticky feet - so let’s blast, down this street!"



Just one problem; how does one start this contraption? There is keyless remote entry, a bit tricky in itself – an arrow pointing to what we assumed was supposed to be the front end of the key fob ends up being the unlock button. The trunk button is clearly labeled, so then deductively the Rondell in the center presents itself as the lock button. If you get that all handled you will then be stumped by the lack of a mechanical key that pops out - a featured we've grown acustomed to from the last egeneration of VW/Audi keys. There is a start button, but just having the fob inside the car doesn’t quite seem to do it. Lock and unlock the doors, push the clutch in and out, put it in and take it out of gear. Unbuckle and buckle your seatbelt. Then you do the hokey pokey...What are we missing? One must find the slot at the right of the steering wheel perfectly suited to the fob. Another issue very very simply solved by reading the owner’s manual, or which would be explained by a dealer on the first test drive, but it's an instance of unclear ergonomics. A reflection of the common man being overcome by technology.



We’re done with that. With the fob in and the start button depressed, the fantastic aluminum and magnesium 3.0-liter engine rumbles to life, with (happily) a very familiar sound. That straight-six battle cry.

Slide the shifter ever so easily into first gear, let out the light clutch that is smooth albeit a bit weird-feeling in its operation. The clutch starts to grab about one-third of the way through its travel, then give it some petrol and go. The big straight six growls lightly but strongly, and the 330 sails forward easily with little pedal depression. The 3 series is always at ease under normal driving conditions. The six speed transmission flows beautifully, and moving into city or freeway speed is effortless.

Moving into speed is exciting with this fabulous aluminum and magnesium straight-six. 3.0 liters house the burning of well-mixed combustion reactants to produce 255 horses (at 6600 rpm) and 220 lb-ft of torque (available fully at 2750 rpm!). A 3-stage variable intake manifold helps adjust the flow characteristics of incoming air to match the engine speed and the way in which reactants will mix with the piston thrusting up at that certian velocity. BMW's variable valve timing, VANOS, works the intake and exhaust valves to maximize flexibility of when things come and go from the combustion chamber at certain engine speeds and loads. These accommodating computer-controlled actions are so involved and competent that they completely replace the traditional throttle body that was once upstream, before the intake manifold. This technology works well on the 330's big six, as plenty of torque is available down low. Powertrain response is instantaneous, thanks not only to ever-available torque but also good tuning of the electronic throttle.



The 3-liter powerplant barks deeply like a German Shepherd, revs quickly and freely without load, and pushes through the full rev range in the lower gears like a (weight-laden, slightly mild) racecar. In short, characteristics we have grown to know and love about BMW's phenomenal straight-six are alive and well in this latest revision, but are here enhanced through well-developed technology.

Interaction with driving controls except the steering wheel are accented in their softness and easiness. The shifter action is light and smooth, but with good feel - light nudging of the shift knob with one's finger tips easily puts the tranny in the right gear, and you can feel the difference in spring action between going left or right or further right. The pedals give way to moderate foot pressure, such that flooring the gas pedal with much gusto means arriving at the end of pedal travel sooner than you might think.The brakes are strong though you can't feel it through your leg, and the clutch is light as well. The clutchaction is decent in that it picks up fairly early on in its travel...but it could use a bit less "dead" travel at the end. Pedal spacing is good, for all of comfort, safety in not accidentally slamming down on the wrong one, and yet certainly being able to heel and toe.

Steering is good, well-weighted (and varied) properly for all speeds. It offers a reasonable level of feedback though certianly is isolated enough to be considerate of some luxury. Steering is fairly direct, and within the limits of this car's anti-roll characteristics it features very good turn-in.



The driving in this latest perfectly weight balanced BMW is largely phenomenal Grip is great, power is great, steering is great, poise is great. Accelerated travel is most enjoyable through a variety of roads. Straight line speed is fantastic, with that straight six screaming on down the highway in a song sure to capture your heart in the way you never thought a German could. That edgily trim yet somewhat voluptuous shape seems to cut through the wind quite well, as the 3 Series creates little wind noise at 80 (this is not all due to sound insulation). A freeway bend at higher speed offers up some insight into the anti-roll characteristics of this car as it leans in some. The off ramp comes and you don't slow as you find it empty. Late braking to the point of ABS engagement shows good stability offered by brakeforce distribution, even if you throw some lateral change of direction into the action. Your heart races, flutters ecstatically as you rev the engine to match the 6th to 5th to 3rd downshifts. A smooth but rapid rotation of the steering wheel brings a surprising amount of roll for this German, but little enough to make you confident that this does indeed remain a sports sedan - it just seems a tad more tipsy than what we expect of this car, particularly with the sports suspension option. It quickly takes a set, grips and sticks, the tires chirp, and you keep gripping on in. YOu lift off the throttle to tighten your line and find it tightens a good bit. Roll on the gas to get the rear end just loose enough to adjsut the attitude of the car such that it approaches a tighter line, and feel the engine go a bit limp as the fuel is cut out.



Duh. Kill the Dynamic Traction Control to give yourself some play, and try again. Nada. Lay your foot to the floor, and what you get is fuel cutout, followed by the 330 coming in closer to the apex as decreased forward velocity and thrust yield a turning radius, then power comes back in and pushes forward and starts to overcome turn-in grip and the tires make the first hint of noise, and the fuel cuts out again.

Below this transition point from static (stable) tire grip to dynamic (slip) grip, the 330 is fantastic, responsive to steering, powerful in forward motion and change of speed, nimble, balanced, light and giddy to drive. But the anti-slip programming kills one of this car's greatest features. In the dry, and without unreasonably frantic manuevers, you can't get rear wheel slip. By getting rear wheel slip you can really explore this car's perfect weight balance and easily adjust its over or understeer, drift it, slide it, be smooth with it or even be jerky. The 3 Series is a mechanically, physically magnificent car that shoud be fully enjoyed by the driver and their manual controls, but the electronics takes this critical freedom away, as far as cornering goes. That's disappointing. All wheel drive without traction control would be much prefered to rear wheel drive that doesn't let you use the rear wheels mid-corner.



Let us also add another perspective: to remove doubt that we are focused primarily on the slip-condition handling of the car, as if this were a review of the 330's qualifications to be a drift car, let us emphasize the normal driving characteristics of the car: they are as phenomenal as ever. And let us remember that proper driving is carried within the realm of macroscopic tire non-slip conditions. When ou slip, you lose grip and you can't accelerate forward or laterally as fast. So if you drive this just right, the traction control theoretically should not inhibit your lap times. The 330 is a perfect slalom car, responding beautifully in transition despite needing better anti-roll treatment. The 330 is responsive. It turns like you want it to turn, in balance with the delays resultant from a comfortable ride. It is Ludacris' ideal sedan: "When I move you move! / Just like that?" Heck ya, hey Bimmer, play that back.

The real benefit of this aggressive traction control, all you family-starting owners and buyers, is that this car is rock solid stable in the dry, and still keeps things under control in the wet. If you romp in the gas and make a sharp 90 degree turn you can get some tailwagging action in the rain, but Dynamic Stability Control still comes in with proper wheel-focused brake application and fuel cut-out - it's just that the reaction time isn't quite quick enough to dial all slip out in the low-grip wet road condition. Combine this with dual-stage front airbags and side-impact airbags for front occupants, and the 3 Series gets a big thumbs up for safety.



Back to what this car is focused on, driving, we feel the suspension could be sportier. Considering this is the BMW 3 Series, but also that our model was equipped with the sport package, which offers improved throttle feel, several more horsepower, and stiffer suepsnsion, we expected less roll and a little bit better turn-in. The ride quality was a bit more luxurious thatn we expected. This suspension softness and front end roll are accentuated by the lack of ability to get the rear end loose with the traction control ever present, such that it is easier to get a bit of front end plow and outer-front tire sidewall rubbing.But it is a sports sedan. And it still offers better balance than anybody else in the class, or in just about any class (I think at this point this is what you call "world class") - we just expected better. The 2006 330i offers phenomenal driving dynamics. The featuers other than traction control are very driver focused and positive, everything works easily to guide the car along the intended path and at the intended speed per the driver's instructions.

Here it is. The new 3 series. Still king of the hill? Maybe. It has all the right stuff - the suspension is almost there, the brakes are there, the power is more than there, the response of the car to driver inputs, the perfectly smooth shifter with moderate throws, the balance....the power. It drives so beautifully. But too much traction control is also there This severely damages the overall driving dynamics and leaves the 3 Series wide open to competition. Within the limits of static friction, though, this car is as beautiful, light, free-revving, and quick as ever - except that now it is a lot faster. The build quality, the materials quality, and the safety make this a complete package for its $36,000 base price. The sports package and a couple of luxury packages brought our test ride up to $42,865. That is a good chunk of change for a small car. The 3 Series is worth every penny.
















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