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By Eric Peters

Usually the best car in an automaker's lineup is somewhere in the middle -- or at the very top.

The more you pay, the better the car.

But the '06 (and just re-styled) 3 Series sedan is arguably the best BMW available right now -- even if it is the automaker's "entry level" machine.

It's not about power as such -- other BMWs have more.

It's not about gadgets and technology, either -- some BMWs have too much of that for their own good.

What it is about is balance.

A Yin-Yang of horsepower and chassis; of proportion and line: A car that's right in every important respect -- all at a price point that doesn't automatically exclude drivers still young enough to properly appreciate it for what it can do -- not just for its value as a sheet metal totem of its owner's affluence.

These are the hallmarks of a great car, and the new 3 Series certainly qualifies.

Previous weak points such as power/straight line performance relative to similarly priced sport sedans have been eliminated. The standard engine in the '06 325i is an up-sized and up-rated version of BMW's famous DOHC in-line six -- displacing 3 liters and making 215 horsepower vs. 2.5 liters and 184 horses last year. That's a substantial improvement you feel every time you put your foot down. The extra 31 horses vitiate legitimate criticism of the previous 3 Series that it was underpowered -- at least compared to what you might buy from Nissan or another competitor for about the same or less money.

The 0-60 capability of the entry-level 325i is now within a few tenths of last year's top-of-the-line 225-hp 330i (approximately 6.3 seconds) and well within the "respectable" range for a modern sport sedan. Even better, the price point of the '06 325i -- $30,300 -- is only a few hundred bucks more than the price of last year's much less powerful, smaller-engined 325i ($29,300) and about five grand less than the only slightly stronger '05 330i ($35,700).

Buyers have their choice of transmissions -- either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. The manual makes the best use of the sweet DOHC in-line six -- but unlike previous models, there's now enough power on tap even in the base 325i to work well with the optional automatic transmission.

Those who need quicker -- or who want to play with BMW's race-derived Sequential Manual Gearbox (a "real" manual transmission, but with a computer and servos handling the clutchwork instead of your left leg) will also find reason to cheer the improvements made to the top model 330i.

It is built around a hot-rodded version of the 3 liter six with a block cast of ultra-light magnesium alloy, an aluminum cylinder head and BMW's "double VANOS" variable valve timing and lift technology. Power is up to 255 hp and 0-60 times drop 2-3 tenths to about 6 seconds flat. For those who remember, that's performance comparable to the old M3 of the 1980s.

And as with the '06 325i, the price of the '06 330i is only slightly higher than the '05 version -- $36,300 vs. $35,700.

Often, a new model year means a new (and higher) MSRP with not much actual difference in terms of what you get. But BMW has kept the price of the '06 3 Series close to what it used to be for an entirely new, much more capable vehicle.

That alone is worth a cheer.

But the new 3 Series has much more than just a bump in output and a very attractive pricing structure to recommend it. Specifically, it looks like a BMW. No "flame-surfacing," no oddly disjointed Cadillac Seville bustleback trunk -- no overdone kabuki opera headlights. Chris Bangle, the BMW stylist credited with the highly controversial stylistic makeover of the Z3 coupe, 5 and 7-Series sedans, had his hands tied behind his back this time. Or he has been giving a serious talking-to.

The new skin is modern but also very traditional and distinctively BMW. There's blue-chip equity in an instantly recognizable (and timelessly appealing) shape. Jaguar knows this; BMW used to. Now the memory's been jogged, perhaps as a result of the Bangle bungle, and things are returning to their proper order, at least when it comes to the 3 Series. It's a beautiful car that will still look great in 10 years -- just as BMWs always have, pre-Bangle anyhow.

It's the same story inside, where the dash pod and controls are laid out with proper German good sense and a clear emphasis on functionality first. Note quite IKEA cold like a Volvo, but orderly and free of clutter. Extraneous technology, including that automotive version of Windows 98 known as iDrive, is kept to a minimum. The now-infamous iDrive system with its "mouse input" controller is an available feature, but you don't have to buy it -- unless you must have GPS. Then it's part of the deal. But there are still conventional (read: simple, easy-to-use) dials and buttons in either case for the climate and audio controls -- allowing you to circumvent the too-clever-by-half iDrive controller to perform basic functions without having to go through a lot of pointless "menus" and "scrolling" rigmarole. Gauges are straightforward analog, white numbers on black matte background -- clean-looking, functional and right to the point. The optional Sport seats are up to the job of all-day autocross driving with plenty of support but ample give, too. There's even a little more stretching out room compared to the old 3 Series -- as the new body is slightly larger overall, allowing a bit more room inside.

This car's already well-deserved reputation for handling excellence will only grow more fulsome once word gets out about the newly-available Active Steering system. This feature improves low-speed maneuverability by turning the wheels more aggressively relative to steering input -- reducing driver effort and making the car feel even more nimble and precise than before. The system can even countersteer for you just like your very own electronic Michael Schumacher, to help correct a potentially dangerous power oversteer slide. It works with the latest generation of BMW's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system to maintain your line and keep you from crumpling up that pretty bodywork.

Another neat trick is the integrated stability/ABSsystem's ability to "wipe" the brake rotors when the car is driven in the rain to keep them dry and thus maintain full stopping capability. On top of that, the brake system automatically snugs up the calipers and pads as soon as the driver lifts off the accelerator, thereby improving braking responsiveness (and thus safety) noticeably. Front and side curtain air bags are standard, too.

The long and short of it is that an already exceptional car is now that much better -- and for not much more than last year's model.

"Entry level" or not.



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