I'm now convinced that there is a strange and mystical laboratory somewhere deep within the walls of BMW's industrial complex. A secret place kept hidden from prying spy cameras and nosey automotive journalists. This special work area must be filled with a level of exotic decor and wondrous machinery that would no doubt rival a scene out of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. To fully appreciate the sorcery contained within these walls, you must first realize that I'm not talking about wind tunnels or computer animations or even high-speed test tracks, though I'm sure BMW has access to all of those tools as well. No, this magical place goes beyond mere mathematical formulas or intense focus groups and taps into a realm that few automotive companies even know exists. And how can I be so certain of this otherworldly presence? That's easy; I've driven the new 3.
Before I get into the new 3 Series, I want to pay proper homage to the "old" 3 Series (which, by the way, will still be available throughout the 1999 model year in coupe and convertible form). Since 1992, the 3 Series has presented driving enthusiasts with a midpriced sports sedan unmatched in pure road-going thrill. Whether it was the comfortable, competent 328i or the dynamic, uncompromising M3, BMW's E36 platform gave its drivers the kind of vehicular experience that few automobiles, at any price, could match. Telepathic road-feel, precise steering feedback and racetrack-inspired shifting action; these made up the core characteristics of the E36 3 Series. If BMW hadn't changed a thing on this model line, it would have remained competitive for several years.
But BMW doesn't like to compete--they like to dominate. And that's exactly what the new, E46 platform 3 Series is going to do: dominate the Sports Sedan class. By addressing the old platform's weak points while simultaneously enhancing its strengths, BMW has "evolutionized" what was already a superb car.
The most obvious changes to the new 3 Series come by way of its reshaped body and include a new front end, wider wheel arches, and a more rounded roofline. The headlights now feature "cut outs" below the lenses which emphasize the traditional BMW quad headlight design. This not only gives the new platform a distinctive look, but also improves headlight performance by 30 percent. Since our test model was outfitted with the "Sport Package" it was riding on 17-inch cast alloy wheels with 225/45-17 tires (16-inch wheels are standard on the 328i while the new 323i comes with 15-inch wheels standard). Between the tall wheels, short tires, and exaggerated wheel arches, our Steel Blue 328i looked like it had just finished doing hot laps on a Super Touring race circuit. The car garnered a fair amount of looks while driving through West L.A. and I'm certain the wheel-and-tire combo, in conjunction with the flared arches, had more to do with its head-turning ability than any other styling cue.
But Bimmers aren't just about style. If they were, we'd have to group them in with all those other cars that lose their appeal once you slide behind the wheel. Thankfully, BMW knows that in a vehicle class as competitive as the current Sport Sedan arena, good looks will take you only so far. Of all the traits on which a vehicle can be judged, performance and functionality are the two key aspects that define the success of a sport sedan.
In terms of performance, the previous 3 Series was already successful and, for this reason, BMW decided to make only moderate changes to what was already a class-leading design. Both the 323i and 328i receive improvements to their respective drivetrains. Among these are a lighter aluminum block, a more advanced variable valve timing system (called Double VANOS), and a dual resonance intake system. Taken together, these advances result in higher torque numbers at lower engine rpm. Previously, maximum torque was achieved at 3,950 rpm, but the new 2.8-liter, six-cylinder engine tops out at 206 pound-feet of torque at an even more useful 3,500 rpm. This makes for a noticeable increase in throttle response as well as better acceleration numbers. In the new 328i, horsepower is up by three, for a total of 193 at 5,500 rpm. This was good enough to sling our five-speed equipped test unit from zero-to-60 mph in just 6.3 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 98 mph. If you're not the shifting type, a five-speed automatic that features BMW's Adaptive Transmission Control (already found in the 7 and 5 Series) will be available in the new 3 Series.
Aiding in overall vehicle performance is a body structure that is almost twice as resistant to torsional bending as was the E36 platform. Combined with a stronger and lighter set of suspension components, a wider track and a refined suspension geometry, the new 3 Series handles even better than its already stellar predecessor. Aluminum now makes up 21.3 percent of the suspension weight with a total of 6.6 pounds less unsprung weight between the front and rear suspension.
What about the magic I spoke of earlier? This is where it manifests itself. It's in the perfectly weighted steering wheel that makes the $37,000 328i feel like an exotic, six-figure sports car. It's in the clairvoyant suspension that seems to meet, evaluate and dispose of each road imperfection during the split-second they're in contact with each other. Certainly the smooth-revving and torquey six is a joy, but it's in the spiritualistic suspension that BMW let its wizards run wild. Maybe the new 911 has better feedback and maybe the Viper provides more ultimate stick, but only the new 3 has mastered the art of bringing all aspects of superior handling together in one comfortable, confident package.
And comfortable it is. The new car boasts five more cubic feet of interior space with some of the biggest improvements coming in rear leg (0.8 inches) and rear shoulder (0.9 inches) room. The stiffer and smoother body, plus the smoother engine, contribute to less road noise and a more tranquil atmosphere that is almost on par with the 5 and 7 Series. Interior touches like the brushed aluminum trim, one-touch power window switches (for all four doors), ambiance lighting, improved automatic climate controls and power driver's seat with three-position memory bump the 328i up several levels in the luxury-car food chain.
For safety-sticklers who demand the latest in high-tech protection, the new 3-Series includes an All Season Traction system and (new this year on the 3 Series) Cornering Brake Control (CBC). Both of these systems are designed to keep the driver in full control under extreme weather conditions and/or when he does something unwise like lifts off the accelerator and brakes hard in midcorner. CBC is specifically capable of modulating the brake pressure separately at each wheel to keep the vehicle from sliding sideways under hard braking while in a turn. I felt the system kick in only once during a spirited drive along twisting Mulholland Highway above Los Angeles and, as advertised, it helped me stay on the proper side of the double yellow line after entering a turn just a little too "hot." Of course, ABS is standard on every BMW and it hauled this model down from 60 mph in just 126 feet.
If one somehow manages to overcome the new 3's idiot-proof driving systems, he can rest easy in the knowledge that three separate airbags are waiting to inflate around him. Besides the standard issue, (depowered) front airbags, there are also side airbags and the new Head Protection System (HPS) airbags that will protect the driver and front passenger in the event of a serious impact. Rear-seat side airbags can be ordered as an additional safety option and all-new 3 Series come with energy absorbing padding at the A-, B- and C-pillars.
So is there anything not to like about the new 3 Series? Of course! What kind of automotive journalist would I be if I couldn't find something to gripe about? The steering-wheel mounted buttons for changing radio stations are too small and, despite a well-designed center console, there's no real storage bin to be found. I couldn't even find a compartment big enough to hold cassettes, much less CDs. However, the change holder is one of the most innovative pieces of work I've seen.
Performance, luxury, roominess, safety and style. Proclaiming that the new 3 Series "has it all" may sound like an overused cliche. Problem is, it's also the most accurate way to describe BMW's latest wunderwagen.