BMW has long wielded innovation to improve the handling and safety of its cars. Still, the auto maker's latest advances, packed into the 3 Series sedan, are impressive. It has brakes that know to dry themselves every 60 seconds when it rains, a system that ensures manual-transmission cars stopped on a hill don't roll backward when the driver starts to accelerate, and an automatic signal that prepares the car to brake if the driver's foot comes off the gas pedal quickly, shaving a second or so off the car's reaction time. Slam the brakes at 60 mph, and the car comes to a quick and controlled stop.
The fifth-generation 3 Series, which starts at $31,700 and arrives in showrooms in March, looks great. It has a sleek silhouette that looks more like a coupe than a sedan. The shoulder line slopes upward toward the rear, and the back fenders bulge out, giving the car a dynamic stance. The first two models, the 325i and 330i, will sport new six-cylinder engines (ranging in horsepower from 215 to 255). The 330i goes from zero to 60 in 6.1 seconds; the 325, in 6.7. The interior is roomier -- higher (0.8 inches), longer (2.2 inches), and wider (3 inches) than its predecessor. You have to applaud BMW's detailed attention to creature comforts. For instance, the car's sensors detect when sun is shining on half the driver's body and regulate the air-conditioning to bring the temperature on the warm side in harmony with the setting on the control panel.
The much-derided onboard information system, iDrive, is also available as an option for the first time on the 3 Series. BMW has taken pains since the iDrive's introduction in the flagship 7 Series sedan in 2002 to make the system more user-friendly. By holding the iDrive button to the far right for two seconds, for example, you can avoid the tedious step of going back to the main menu and toggle directly from a CD to the navigation control. Other carmakers' systems are more intuitive, but the tweaks should keep you from tearing your hair out.
It's hard otherwise to find any fault with the car. With great handling, dynamic styling, and added safety features, the 3 Series lives up to its legend as the pacesetter in compact sporty sedans. By Gail Edmondson