By on August 19, 2005

The BMW 325i proves that Bimmer's roots rockAn electrical relay sitting in the front windscreen's rain gutter. Headliner that looks like mouse fur. Soft touch plastics that aren't. If you look closely at the new BMW 3-Series you'll see considerable evidence that Mercedes isn't the only German brand cutting corners at the low end of their lineup. But there's a difference: BMW says they let the whole obsessive compulsive construction thing slide so they could enlarge the 3-Series' performance envelope whilst holding the line on postage. In other words, they amped-up the driving dynamics rather than sweating the small stuff.

The new 3's helm justifies the justification. For far too long, BMW has pandered to America's [alleged] predilection for steering with all the feel and feedback of a Novocained bicuspid. Now, finally, The Boys from Bavaria have installed a rack-and-pinion tiller that rewards elbow grease with information. Whether you're giving it some mid-corner or jinking around a Volvo, the wheel tells you where you are in the pivoting process and what's happening underfoot. It makes driving, wait for it, fun. (Anyone who opts for Bimmer's anesthetic– I mean, active steering system loses all pistonhead privileges.)

No 7-style bustle, but a Bangle bungle nonetheless The superb helmsmanship is something of a miracle. All 3's ride on run-flats. Applied to the 5, the newfangled technology is prone to tram-lining, road noise and unnecessary harshness. On the 325i, wrapped around optional 17's, they're a revelation. Whether cruising in town or hustling down a snaking off ramp, the rubber remain sticky, progressive, responsive and compliant. At long last, a manufacturer has made a compelling case for losing your spare tire. After all, less weight means more performance…

Those of you fed-up with the German-instigated horsepower wars (in which BMW is a major combatant) have a new champion. Although the 325i's inline six stumps-up "just" 215hp, the magnesium/aluminum powerplant provides enough motorvation to rocket the self-shifting sports sedan from zero to sixty in 6.7 seconds. Sure, you have to keep the revs above three grand to maintain spirited progress, but that's no chore. The six-speed swaps cogs so slickly, the engine growls so seductively, the six spins so sweetly, that driving at the top of the rev range is less difficult than finding a reason not to speed.

No longer the sina qua non of sports sedans, but still a wicked whip.  Suspending this lot is the same old cast [aluminum] of characters: struts at the front and a multi-link at the rear. Only now the back end is managed by a five beam/five link deal with dual upper control arms. Translation: increased wheel control and greater ride comfort. In sports package guise, the setup can rock without roll at license-losing velocities. Again, heft is the dominant sensation. The 325i feels planted and stays that way, no matter how many G's you add to the equation. The only chink in the 325i's armory is an alarming inability to stifle horizontal movements; it's an unwelcome echo of BMW's roots as an airplane engine manufacturer.

Push the 3 to its lateral limits and the front tires will signal the onset of understeer by chirping like a coal miner's parakeet. If you're feeling brave, press the DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) button once. Nanny will step out for a ciggie while you mess around with tail-out shenanigans. If you want to let it all hang out rear end wise, first check the price of those funky run flats with your local dealer, then press DTC twice. You'll love the smell of burning rubber in the morning. It smells like… a BMW.

Oh dear.It's been a long time since a base Bimmer offered sufficient tactility to facilitate acrid antics. For enthusiasts who can stretch to 30 large, the new 3 offers a mouth-watering combination of accessible performance, a palatable base spec and reasonable depreciation. Other than its lamentable build quality, the new 3's looks are the only fly in the soup.

While the media has congratulated BMW for not totally screwing-up the 3's sheet metal (a la 5 and 7), the company still deserves vilification for partially screwing it up. Check out the area at the base of the front windscreen. It's an aesthetic train wreck that betrays the design's complete incoherence. And have a look at the 3's "flame surfacing" strakes. They give the mid-market sedan a distinctly Accord-like demeanor. The detailing is just as bad. The arches make the wheels look like they belong on a Dinky toy and the pissed-off Pokemon lamp treatment literally highlights the Japanese connection.

Even without considering the manufacturing shortcuts, the new 3's style is enough to make a brand loyalist sing "Look what they've done to my car, Ma'– until they jump inside the predictably dour and cramped cockpit and take the wee beastie for a thrash. Then it all makes sense. The Ultimate Driving Machine is back, and it's bad.

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