We were getting into my buddy David's family minivan to go out for the evening when he spotted the bright red BMW 3 Series tucked behind a big hedge in the driveway. He ran to it, arms outstretched. ''I love it, I want it. Can we take it?" he asked.
Well, why not?
The new 3 Series has grown up, along with the US customers it plans to please. A compact sedan that accommodates four adults easily, with ample legroom for all makes this a viable four-door sedan.
For BMW loyalists, the 3 Series retains vital styling cues. A first glance, at the exterior or interior, immediately says BMW. Look under the hood and there's the traditional in-line 6 power plant, though much updated with lighter materials. Few of us crawl underneath to examine the suspension geometry, but the feeling coming through the steering wheel and the seat of the pants clearly says handling still is great.
But to drive this BMW is to realize the company has taken a big step along the automotive evolutionary scale. And, as usual with BMW, the money has gone into performance and handling with a lot of new electronics. You have to get into options to upgrade to leather and wood from the standard leatherette seats and metal-trimmed dash.
BMW calls the transition a combination of ''progressive esthetics" and ''enhanced functionality." We say it's not the same old BMW anymore. And that's not a bad thing, but it is different.
This refining means the car no longer feels as if it's cornering on rails, though it will do just that when pushed a bit. It's also a few inches longer, higher, wider -- inside and out. The new suspension contributes to giving it a ''bigger" feel, too, more in line with its bigger siblings, the 5 and 7 Series.
But none of this car design and technology is as simple as it once was. Everything about the new 3 Series is smoother, from the engine to the brakes. The brakes can be bigger, thanks to the new suspension setup. These days, brakes are the basis of an ever-more-complex stability control system.
BMW has taken its Dynamic Stability Control to a new level to make our driving experience safer. ABS led to traction control and then to the stability systems. Among the system's features:
Soft stop. The system ''eases off" the braking as the car comes to a halt, preventing it from jerking.
Start-off assistant. Keeps the car from rolling on a hill start.
Improved ABS ''modulation." Anyone who's experience the pulsation when an ABS system kicks in will appreciate how the process has been smoothed out.
Brake fade compensation. If hard use causes brake fade, the system increases pedal force.
Brake standby. If the driver abruptly lifts off the accelerator, the DSC system ''anticipates" hard braking is imminent, snugging the brake pads to the rotors and starting the braking process, cutting reaction and stopping times.
Brake drying. Tied into the rain sensor in the windshield wipers, it periodically will activate the system, just enough to remove water from between pads and rotors.
Watch someone get into the BMW for the first time and try to start it. You plug the ''keyless remote" into the dash. Then you hit the start/stop button. To shut it down, you hit the button again, then push the remote in so it will pop out.
So we have a BMW that stops better, rides smoother and isn't as easy to start, but once you do, the 325i will do 0-to-60 in 6.7 seconds, the 330i in 6.1 seconds.
As Dave said, ''You've got to love it."