At the Wheel of the 2009 BMW 3 Series
Over the past 33 years there have been no fewer than five incarnations of the 3 Series — each and every one of them a roaring success. It looks like the 2009 BMW 3 Series will be no exception.
The BMW 3 Series manages to rake in sales year after year without ever appearing to try particularly hard. Since the inception of the BMW 3 Series back in 1975, it has entirely dominated the compact sport sedan market with a heady blend of performance and dynamic excellence. Other carmakers have desperately attempted yet failed to emulate this car's perennial sales success.
Such is the popularity of the 3 Series that it accounts for 44 percent of total BMW sales worldwide. This illustrates just how important the 2009 BMW 3 Series is to the company, and this face-lifted E90 model has changed in important ways to reflect this.
The New-Look E90
BMW shocked us with the look of the current 3 Series when it was introduced in 2005, the last of the cars designed with the new styling vocabulary developed by the team of chief designer Chris Bangle. Time has served to lessen its impact somewhat, but there are still those who think it lacks the sort of visual emotion that made earlier models of the 3 Series such a worldwide hit.
The face-lifted E90 tries to rectify this. All of the existing sheet metal, save for the hood, remains the same. However, the remainder has been reworked in a move that provides the 3 Series with fresh visual appeal. At the front is a wider kidney grille, heavily reprofiled bumper and new headlamps that incorporate LED turn signals and BMW's signature corona-ring daytime running lights. The changes soften the previous cars' look, yet also add distinction.
The look is complemented by new rocker sills, while the taillamps also offer a new look with LED turn signals, and the bumper is deeper. On the whole, it's a successful face-lift, and will no doubt win over potential customers who thought the original E90 was too plain.
Improved Interior Detailing
The interior has also been improved, if only in detail. The driver-side armrest now sits higher, making the window and exterior mirror controls more accessible. There are also new-look instruments, higher-quality matte-finish aluminum trim and some redesigned switches within the center console.
The biggest change is reserved for the optional iDrive system. It receives a smaller rotary controller surrounded by four individual one-touch buttons for the navigation, CD player, AM/FM radio and telephone functions, as well as a function to back out of the menu altogether. An 8.8-inch monitor is available. The iDrive software has also been revised, and the various options are now stacked vertically on the screen. All up, it's now a much more intuitive device.
When it comes to people, however, the 3 Series still seems a little short on space. Owing to its rear-wheel-drive layout, the 3 Series can't quite offer the same sort of interior accommodation as some front-wheel-drive rivals. This is particularly noticeable in the rear, which lacks sufficient leg- and headroom.
Choose Your Weapon
BMW has always served up a wide range of power plants with the 3 Series. In some markets buyers get to choose among 10 different units, ranging from a 143-horsepower, naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline-4 in the 318i all the way to a 306-hp, twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 in the 335i.
So it's odd that the only engines available to us for our first drive of the new model in Germany were the familiar 272-hp, naturally aspirated, 3.0-liter inline-6 of the 330i and a new 245-hp, turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline-6 diesel in the 330d. It is the latter unit that holds the biggest interest right now, having been chosen to spearhead BMW's diesel offensive here in the U.S. once fitted with the German carmaker's new Blue Performance technology.
Known internally as the M57, the diesel has been developed using engineering solutions from BMW's smaller 2.0-liter inline-4 diesel. The two engines share the same cylinder-bore spacing, piezo injector design and each gets an aluminum block — all of which sees the new engine shed some 11 pounds over BMW's older, iron-block 3.0-liter inline-6 diesel.
This is an impressive engine by any standard, providing the face-lifted 330d in which it sits with genuinely rapid acceleration. Loaded with a generous 383 pound-feet of torque, this engine never feels anything other than urgent. There are huge levels of thrust from just over 1,000 rpm and it spins with a much more eager nature than most diesels up to an electronic cutout at 5,400 rpm. For a big diesel, it is also amazingly refined. There is a characteristic clatter upon start-up, but once under way the engine is muted.
BMW claims the 330d will do zero to 60 mph in just 6.1 seconds, which makes the diesel quicker up the strip than the 330i. What makes it all the more impressive is the official consumption, which is put at 41 mpg. With Blue Performance, a system that injects a urea solution into the exhaust system to minimize particulate air emissions, the 2009 BMW 330d also conforms to all relevant emission regulations here in North America.
BMW has resisted the urge to bring any major changes to the chassis of the 3 Series. That's a good thing. If there is one area where the rear-wheel-drive sedan has continually excelled over the years it is in dynamic ability. This latest face-lifted model still offers exceptional handling balance, superb body control and the sort of cornering grip that allows the driver to attack challenging back roads with real confidence.
Underneath it retains the same hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering as well as the customary MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear suspension system of the outgoing model. The rear track has been widened by an inch to improve cornering stability, however.
The excellence really begins at the steering wheel, which operates in a delightfully positive, precise and direct action. BMW decided not to equip the face-lifted 3 Series test cars we drove with its optional Active Steer rear suspension, which is the right thing as far as we're concerned; the standard setup provides more linear action. As a consequence, there is a good deal of steering effort to contend with as you wind on steering lock — more so than in any comparable compact sport sedan — but the wheel can still be worked with the wrists rather than the elbows.
Stick to the posted speed limits and the 3 Series is close to flawless. Its actions are fluid and almost exclusively sporting in character. Throw it into a corner with a gradually tightening radius and there's a neutral attitude to the handling that progressively favors understeer as the adhesion of the 225/45R17 Bridgestone tires begins to wane.
It doesn't always have to be safe and sensible, though. With the button of the stability control depressed for more than 3 seconds, the stability and traction control systems become disengaged entirely, and lurid oversteer can be produced with a heavy application of the right foot.
It's not all bouquets, though. Despite adopting new fourth-generation run-flat tires with an altered sidewall design aimed at providing greater compliance, the 3 Series continues to suffer from an overly firm ride. At highway speeds it is reasonably comfortable, but at lower speeds around town it can become quite harsh when attempting to deal with broken sections of asphalt.
All the Right Moves
The 2009 BMW 3 Series appears to tick all the right boxes: superb engines, muscular performance, low fuel consumption, brilliant handling, excellent refinement, impressive quality and a top-notch image. When you climb aboard, slot the electronic key into the ignition, hit the start button to fire up the engine and snick the gear lever into 1st, you just know it will deliver. In this respect, nothing much has changed with the new E90 model.
What BMW has also succeeded in doing is making the 2009 BMW 3 Series more user-friendly. The changes brought to the iDrive system greatly enhance its operation, with more intuitive menus and a simplified process opening up its potential in a big way. New software also allows prospective customers to option their car with some cutting-edge technology through BMW's ConnectDrive system, including in-car Internet for the first time. To make sure you keep your eyes on the road, it only functions when the car is at a standstill.
Good thing, because the 2009 BMW 3 Series likes to be driven fast. In this respect, nothing much has really changed.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.