If you love driving, BMW is high up on a pedestal of their own making. Its advertising slogan, "The Ultimate Driving Machine," begs for debate. The 2006 BMW 325i is the compact sports-luxury sedan to which all others are compared, for better or for worse. With a base price of $30,900 ($36,465 as tested) and a 4 year/50,000 mile warranty, the 2006 BMW 325i is right in the thick of the competition, wheel-to-wheel with offerings from Europe and Japan. Can the 2006 BMW 325i live up to its billing?
BMW's Head of Design Chris Bangle is one of the few "name brand" car designers working at major manufacturers today. Bangle's new design for the 3-series sedan follows closely on the heels of his controversial redesigns of the 7- and 5-series, sharing some attractive flourishes. The trademark "Bangle Bends" make their appearance on the 3-series--shaping door panels and quarter panels with complex integrated creases and bends that form scallops. The bends are subtle on the 325i, but close inspection reveals a high degree of complexity to each piece of sheet metal on the car.
There's visual interest from every angle on the car. The bulbous snout with its nostril-like openings flanked by piercing headlights reminds me of a charging bull. The flared wheel openings and rising horizontal body lines along the sides of the car give a dynamic sense of movement even in repose. The 325i is sculptural and muscular like a highly toned athlete.
The 3-series redesign is more subtle than the 5- or 7-series reworkings. The 325i manages to tread a fine line between sport and luxury. High quality workmanship says luxury--great paint, tight, even seams and gaps, beautiful chrome accents--there's not a cheap or chintzy detail anywhere on the 325i.
In the Driver's Seat
Simplicity near starkness.© BMW
Let's talk about seats. The 325i's standard seat is manually adjustable -- a rarity in the class. My test car had the optional "Terra Leather" package ($1,450) and front sport seats as part of a $1,600 "Sport Package" that included 17" alloy wheels and sports suspension. At first, the 6-way adjustments on the driver's seat drove me nuts. The controls are not intuitive, at least not to me. Once I found the sweet spot, the seat was pretty comfortable, though the inflatable lumbar/back support seemed built for a smaller person -- it just squeezed me out of the seat, rather than supporting me. Check the fit before you buy -- you have to spend time with this seat to figure out if it works for you.
The 325i's dash is stark, but very attractive in its simplicity. The plastics and trim are all high quality, and will look good for years.
There are a couple of weird quirks with controls. The power door lock switch is on the dash at center -- not where you'd ever look for it. To start the car, you insert the remote fob into a slot in the dash and push an "Engine Start" button -- why not just make it a proximity key already? The integrated audio system works and looks great, but forget about aftermarket upgrades without a ton of work.
On the Road
The 325i grew on me like no other car I've ever driven. At first, I was unimpressed. I wasn't bowled over by the 3.0 liter inline 6-cylinder engine's modest power output -- at 215 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, it's hardly a class leader. The more I drove the rear-wheel drive 325i, though, the more enamored I became. The car slices through traffic like a knife. The precise six-speed manual transmission is so easy to shift that I was always in the right gear. In traffic, the 325i is civilized. Get some open road and you really start wishing for time on the Autobahn. At the upper ends of the speed limit (and, I must confess, a little above the speed limit), the 325i really settles in. Stability at speed breeds confidence in a driver, and the 325i made me feel like I was part of the machine.
On the luxury side of the equation, the 325i is quiet, smooth and elegant in motion. The sport suspension is firm, but still delivers a comfortable ride. The car is not plush, it doesn't overwhelm you with standard features -- every detail seems designed toward making the driving experience more pure. High end features like rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic headlight control, automatic climate control all help keep your mind on the road.
BMW's back end.© BMW
I'm not a label-conscious guy -- one glance at my wardrobe and you'll agree. I'm interested in actual quality, performance and value. So I approached the 325i with a healthy dose of skepticism. If you're a serious driver and you want to get the most out of your car, you should drive the 325i before you buy any of its competitors. Drive the 330i sedan as well -- for $5,700 more, you get an additional 40 hp and 35 lb-ft of torque, while still retaining everyday drivability.
Audi's A4 and Mercedes C230 are worthy German competition for BMW -- within a few thousand dollars of the 325i they each deliver interesting takes on the sports-luxury compromise. Japanese manufacturers have really hit this market segment with a fury, especially in terms of value. Lexus' newly redesigned IS 250 and Infiniti's G35 are extremely well-equipped rear-wheel drive weapons, while the Acura TL is a nice front-wheel drive alternative. Saab's 9-3 is the quirky kid on the block. US manufacturers haven't figured this segment out yet. Cadillac's CTS and Chrysler's Charger are different kinds of creatures, not the precision machines that the 325i aspires to be.
The Ultimate Driving Machine for you may be in the mix -- it's all in how you define sports-luxury.