Automotives: Release of BMW's new 3-series causes relief and admiration --though some criticize design

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Ever since the introduction of BMW's 7-Series luxury cars and 5-Series midsize sedans, the automotive world has held its collective breath awaiting the introduction of the fifth-generation BMW 3-Series. So the arrival of the ca...

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Ever since the introduction of BMW's 7-Series luxury cars and 5-Series midsize sedans, the automotive world has held its collective breath awaiting the introduction of the fifth-generation BMW 3-Series. So the arrival of the car initiates a collective sigh, of both admiration and relief.

The 2006 3-Series expands on what is arguably the world's favorite sporty sedan and improves upon a near-perfect car in almost every way, with more power, more handling agility and more interior room. The focal point will be the car's styling. It is both provocative and alluring, wearing the new and sometimes controversial BMW design cues, which make it admirably different from the existing 2005 3-Series, but with less startling appearance than either of its bigger brothers, the 7-Series or 5-Series -- to everyone's relief.

As evidence of its place in the modern automotive world, BMW anticipates selling 50-50 to men and women, and strengthens its hold on advancement of technology. The '06 models debuted in showrooms just this past weekend, with the 325i starting at $30,995, and the 330i at $36,995.

In style, the 3-Series looks more like a compact version of the midsize 5-Series than it does the current 3-Series. It has the same short-overhang at the front, with the long hood, and the flip-up tail. It also has the new-age contours grooving on the hood and along the sides.

When BMW altered the large 7-Series into a controversial new shape, I was among the masses who criticized it for going too far, with its droopy-eyelid headlights and its tacked-on bustle rear. When the 5-Series came out next, with similar cues but with the 7's most objectionable elements distinctly toned down, I thought it was a beautiful compromise. When many magazine critics ripped the 5, I thought it was almost because they still disliked the 7.


The 3-Series is another step, less of a departure but clearly differentiated both from its current model and its restyled siblings. The existing 3 is near-perfect in style and will forever be beautiful, and the harshest critics may need some time to adjust to the new look. But as soon as a few new-generation 3s show up, car-folks will find themselves looking back at the predecessors and mentally noting that while beautiful, they are the "old" Beemers.

In the rush to criticize, BMW director of design Chris Bangle -- an American, from Wisconsin -- has been vilified. Any car magazine over the last two years will jab at "Chris Bangle's design," but actually he did none of the actual design of any current BMW models. I praised the beauty of the 6-Series Coupe as vigorously as I spelled out my dislikes for the 7-Series sedans, and now I find out that Adrian Vanhooydonk designed both the 7 and the 6, while other designers drew up the 5 and the 3.

The car was ready to hit showrooms on May 7 and BMW wanted to properly introduce the new 3-Series, because it is a car -- no, the car -- that best serves as the iconic link between exotic and practical in the automotive world. So it selected an exotic and mysterious location for the introduction...Pittsburgh?

Yes, Pittsburgh, and while BMW's marketing types layered us with various and assorted ways to link Pittsburgh to the 3-Series, none of them mattered alongside the most pragmatic reason: a new and readily available road-racing track located just far enough from the city for an hour and a half drive over a sequence of winding, twisting, hilly highways.

Perfect, both in fact and analogy. The 3-Series itself has always been basically pragmatic, even while reaching above and beyond the practical boundaries of most competitors' cars, thereby inviting all sorts of lofty fantasies. That takes care of the analogy. In fact, the highways leading the 2-year-old Beaver Run race course are challenging and satisfying to cover, with abrupt hills and curves, and with the rare advantage of being not-at-all smooth. Most introductions strive for smooth roads to make the ride more impressive; BMW chose rather rough roads for the same reason -- to display how the new suspension could carry the 3-Series cars with poise and grace over both normal and rough, irregular asphalt.

The new design stretches the car by 2.2 inches in length and 3 inches in width, both of which expand interior room. Increased use of high-tensile steel makes the body lighter, and yet 25 percent stiffer. Front suspension is now of double-pivot design, and the rear has a new five-link arrangement.

If I have one complaint, it is the usual snow-belt driver concern that rear-wheel drive is less effective on ice and snow than front-wheel drive, traction-controls notwithstanding. But in the debate over FWD and RWD, we certainly can applaud the BMW 3-Series, with its 50-50 weight distribution on the front and rear axles, for simply being the best rear-wheel-drive sedan on the planet. It has been that for a decade or two, and virtually every car-maker, admittedly or secretly, chooses the 3-Series as its new-design benchmark for handling. The competition hasn't caught up yet, and judging by the first drives of the 2006 3-Series, the gap may be widening.

John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews, and can be reached at .

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