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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, 320i driveability, 320i ride quality, fuel consumption, roomier interior, refinement, six-speed auto, handling balance, improved climate control, extra safety features, pricing
Room for improvement
No spare tyre, optioinal metallic paint, no manual 330i, loss of inline six engine noise, 17-inch wheel ride quality, stop/start button

17 May 2005

DESPITE the panning BMW's current, E46 3 Series received in 1998 for being too big, too heavy and lacking the dynamic attitude of its E36 forbear, the current Three went on to become the most popular ever.

So it would have been easy for BMW to rest on its laurels, wrap the E90 in a new set of metal clothes, bolt in a new engine and extra technology from more expensive models in the range and ship it out to showrooms.

And, on the surface, it would be easy to dismiss the new 3 Series as just that: a rebodied, more powerful version of the E46.

But E90 is much more than its relatively conservative exterior suggests.

First, the all-new bodyshell is 25 per cent stiffer - no mean feat given the current model feels as solid as any BMW - which plays no small part in the new model's even greater impression of refinement and quality.

Slightly larger in all key areas, BMW's new compact sedan is a little more comfortable for taller occupants - especially those residing out back, where 3 Series remains the small premium sedan benchmark for stretching space.

The fact all this extra interior space and body rigidity comes with no weight penalty is commendable, and shows BMW listened to the criticism levelled at its predecessor.

It also allows the substantial gains achieved in the area of engine performance to be maximised in terms of real-world acceleration and fuel consumption.

Given only the 320i/Executive and 330i were available to drive at launch, we can only guess that - as the only six-cylinder available with a manual transmission - the 325i's 160kW 2.5-litre mill will be worth waiting for.

In 3.0-litre 330i guise, however, the new magnesium-alloy R6-series engine is a cracker. With an extra 20kW of peak power on tap thanks to its 7000rpm redline, it feel substantially quicker in a straight line, while the standard six-speed auto does an even better job at ensuring instant, satisfying acceleration is always at hand.

That fuel consumption remains a relatively frugal 9.0 litres per 100km (interestingly, the same figure quoted for the 325i auto!) is also highly commendable.

However, the fact torque output remains unchanged - especially in the midrange, where most of us spend most of the time in most conditions - shows BMW has gone for peak numbers with its new 3.0 six.

So while the new 330i is substantially quicker thanks to more horsepower at higher revs, it's only marginally more tractable in everyday driving because of its superb new six-speed auto.

And while that's a positive, the apparent loss of some of the previous 3.0-litre engine's characteristic exhaust and induction 'bark' is most certainly not.

As good as the new R6 engine is, however, it's performance is set to be eclipsed by Mercedes-Benz's new 200kW 3.5-litre V6, which will be made available in the C-class sedan later this year.

The 330i auto's 6.6-second claimed 0-100km/h acceleration figure is impressive, but the C350 will shade it by two-tenths.

That said, if rumours of a new six-cylinder turbo engine - in what may be dubbed the 335i - prove correct, 3 Series sedan performance is set to reach even greater heights.

And then there's the prospect of a 4.0-litre V8-powered M3 coupe when the two-door version arrives here within 18 months.

Of course, BMW's 3 Series volume-seller will be the 320i Executive, powered by the same 110kW/200Nm four-cylinder, which in E90 guise gains 5kW of peak power over the 318i it replaces and benefits in terms of flexibility from Valvetronic and double-VANOS valve control systems.

Extracting its best is the excellent six-speed auto, though it's a pity only about five per cent of buyers will opt for the slick-shifting six-speed manual.

Throw into this slightly better weight distribution, which sees the four-cylinder Three turn into corners a little more crisply and makes it just a little more adjustable mid-cornering.

Ride quality on the base model's 205/55 16-inch tyres was exceptionally supple, increasing to firm on the lower-profile alloy-shod tyres and bordering on harsh on 17s with optional sports suspension.

Of course, the availability of upstream options like active steering and keyless starting is a boon for 3 Series buyers, but there's no sign of the 7 Series' electronic park brake and we can't help thinking the start/stop button is a gimmick that will soon wear out its welcome.

It's a pity metallic paint remains optional at this price - and we lament the loss of a spare tyre in a country like Australia - but minor details like the greatly improved dual-zone climate control, temperature adjusters for rear air outlets and improved DSC (with a host of useful brake technology advances) make this easier to bear.

Overall, every 3 Series sedan variant is bigger, more powerful, at least as economical, more refined and offers enough 'newness' to back up BMW's hype.

More importantly, each offers the BMW hallmarks of class-leading handling dynamics and balance that continue to offer an innate ability to straighten out corners, generate more grip than there actually is and instil unrivalled levels of confidence.

While we're not convinced E90 is as big an advance over its predecessor as the E46 was over E36, it's clear BMW has spent its development dollars where it counts most.

Roomier, more refined, more powerful and safer without sacrificing handling, weight, driveability or fuel economy, the new 3 Series has advanced enough in the critical areas to remain the best premium compact sedan available.

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