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Sunday, July 13, 2008

2009 BMW 3 series refreshed and updated

There have been many imitators over the years, but when you're in the market for a comfortable, everyday car that's as equally at home canyon-carving at triple-digit speeds as it is taking the kids to school, the BMW 3 Series is hard to beat.

Introduced as a 2006 model, the fifth-generation of BMW's iconic 3 Series sport sedan has continued this tradition -- especially after receiving a much-needed horsepower upgrade the following year. But recently, the Munich automaker's rivals have been catching up. Offerings from Mercedes, Infiniti, Cadillac, and Lexus now offer the 3 Series the stiffest competition it's seen in some time.

So for its third year on the market, BMW is giving its bread-and-butter model a healthy list of small improvements to make it even more desirable. Among the changes are (slightly) revised styling, an upgraded interior, simpler iDrive interface, in-car Internet access, a new audio system, and an optional dual-clutch transmission. The automaker's sublime 3.0L inline-six, available in naturally aspirated and twin-turbo forms, remains the same, but for the first time BMW is also giving Americans the option of a diesel powertrain -- and it could turn out to be the best of the bunch.

As before, the 2009 3 Series will be available as a sedan, wagon, coupe, and hardtop-convertible in either 328i and 335i form, utilizing a 3.0L inline-six good for 230 hp, or 300 in twin-turbo form. Styling changes are subtle but numerous and include a new hood with additional character lines, new side mirrors, reshaped taillamps, and a sharper crease running down each side. A revised front end makes the previous version's lines more prominent and adds a larger lower air intake, while the chrome accenting the car's signature kidney grille is less noticeable. Though at a distance the updates are hard to spot, overall the 2009 3 Series has a slightly sharper, more muscular appearance than its predecessor. All models receive LED turn signals and taillights as well.

Inside, BMW's changes are equally restrained, with new colors and materials as well as additional storage. A new stereo includes an 80-gig hard drive, USB input and optional iPod connector, while the nav system sports an 8.8-in. display. In addition the new 3 will be available with ConnectedDrive, the automaker's new EDGE-speed, in-car Internet access system, and now routes planned on the Internet can be fed directly into the 3's nav system, saving the hassle of inputting destinations manually. Like in the 7 unveiled earlier in the week, for 2009 the 3 Series also gains a revised iDrive system with more intuitive menus and drops the basic scroll wheel for a new controller allowing turn, push, and tilt motions. Major functions also can be accessed via four direct-select buttons, and much of the system is now voice-activated.

Along with the carryover engines, the 2009 3 Series sedan and wagon continue to feature a standard six-speed manual and optional automatic, but now buyers of the 335i coupe or convertible can opt for BMW's new seven-speed, dual-clutch DCT transmission as well. Offering lightning-fast shifts and no loss in traction, the DCT helps the 335i post better performance numbers than its 2008 cousin. With gas prices spiraling, the 3 also features new EfficientDynamics technology to reduce fuel consumption, including (on some models) regenerative brakes, an auto start/stop function, and a shift point display -- but whether these gas-saving tweaks will be in U.S.-market cars remains to be seen.

American buyers looking for some relief at the pump will get the chance to try out one of BMW's lauded diesels. For 2009, the automaker is finally offering an oil-burning option in the form of the 335d. A 3.0L twin-turbodiesel inline-six featuring common-rail direct injection, the mill puts out approximately 286 hp and a stunning 428 lb-ft of torque, while reaching 62 mph in a respectable 6.0 sec -- just 0.4 sec behind the topline 335i. Yet despite this, according to BMW the 335d averages 35 mpg, which is 9 mpg better than the twin-turbo gas model, and 7 more than a slower, naturally aspirated 328i.

Having virtually invented the small sport sedan segment 33 years ago, for years BMW's 3 Series has had a target on its back yet (usually) manages to still come out on top. The Munich automaker's rivals aren't about to rest on their laurels, however, with Audi readying a new S4 powered by a supercharged V-6 and Infiniti rumored to be prepping a G37 sedan for next year. Yet while the competition will no doubt continue to try and knock the 3 off its throne, with a host of updates and the new diesel powertrain option, the icon will no doubt keep fighting the good fight over the years to come.

Harley Davidson buys MV Augusta

MILWAUKEE — Harley-Davidson signed an agreement to buy the Italian high-performance-motorcycle maker MV Agusta. The agreement is set to become final in "several weeks," Harley-Davidson said, and will see the legendary U.S. company take a full 100 percent ownership of the privately held MV Agusta Group. The purchase is part of Harley's strategy to expand in Europe.

Harley is paying the equivalent of $109 million; part of the deal is a $70 million payment to satisfy existing bank debt, and there is an additional "contingent payment" based on meeting financial targets. That is set up to be made in 2016 to Claudio Castiglioni, MV Agusta CEO and head of the family that currently owns 95 percent of the Italian company.

MV Agusta produces high-end, high-performance sport motorcycles under the MV Agusta brand and lightweight bikes under the Cagiva brand name. The company has a network of 500 dealers, most of which are in Europe, and sold 5,819 motorcycles in 2007 — but considerably fewer this year so far because of financial problems, Harley-Davidson said.

Harley-Davidson CEO Jim Ziemer said the deal makes sense from his point of view because the two companies "both have great products and close connections with incredibly devoted customers." Castiglioni, for his part, praised "Harley-Davidson's deep understanding of the emotional as well as the business side of motorcycling."

Harley-Davidson will name a new "leadership team" that will continue to run MV Agusta Group from its Varese, Italy, headquarters, keeping chairman Castiglioni and design chief Massimo Tamburini on in their current positions.