It's a little longer. A touch wider. Wheel base is stretched a tad. Engines are improved.

Sounds like the formula for anybody's new car. But this is the all-new 3-series. Like the generation before it, you can bet the new "3" will be the same uncatchable mechanical rabbit, out of reach for its competitors.

Yes, the previous 3-series' attributes magically meshed to make it the unchallenged segment leader, the perfect product that Lexus and Audi and Mercedes and Cadillac strove to emulate. The problem was, and always has been, BMW's competitors couldn't fathom the Three's unique blend of brand image and performance. Audi, perhaps, with its A4, has come closest.

Now, after a seven-year reign, the 3-series is redone - and doubtless the '99 version will only solidify the car's stranglehold on the segment.

The redesign offers new, smoother styling, mirroring that of the bigger 5-series. The new Three is bigger and appears more organic - but the lines still are taut: the overhangs practically don't, the metal seems barely able to cover the mechanicals, as if they're striving to break free. The new-generation Three, with its longer wheelbase and length, also addresses the previous cars' sole debit, a fairly serious lack of rear-seat space. Although rear-passenger leg-, head- and shoulder-room all are increased less than an inch, the overall rear area seems markedly more spacious. BMW claims that total interior volume now surpasses that of both the Mercedes C-Class and the Audi A4.

Then there are the engines, those glorious inline sixes for which BMW is so rightly worshipped. The new models - launched only for now as sedans, with coupe, convertible and hatchback variants to follow - now rely only on the I-6s. For the U.S., there no longer will be 4-cyl. 3-series sedans. The two sixes, a DOHC 2.5L and larger 2.8L, now feature all-aluminum construction, their cylinders lined with cast-iron sleeves to alleviate past problems with high-sulfur U.S. gasoline. BMW's slick VANOS infinitely variable valve timing system now muscles both intake and exhaust cams into producing more low- and mid-range torque. Horsepower also is slightly enhanced, to 170 stout ponies for the 2.5L (up from 168) and 193 hp for the 2.8L, versus last year's 190.

There's a ton of other chassis and safety enhancements that, taken with the new styling and increased room, translate simply into a more refined sport sedan.

But therein lies the dilemma. Maybe BMW has made the '99 Three too polished. My drive - in a setting that, it should be said, did not abet the sort of serious road-carving for which I assume this BMW still is optimized - left me indifferent. That the new Three is a tremendously accomplished car is without question. But the hallowed inline-6 opera now seems more remote. The manual transmission's occasional whine to remind of its labors has been smothered in a misguided tilt for total purification.

Perhaps only the True Believers will notice - or even care. The rest of the coffee-sipping, cell-phone-talking, "Hey-I'm-only-commuting-to-work" zombies who've always wasted good BMW factory time buying these cars for the wrong reasons, will revel in the new amenities, the larger size, the still shapely but less individualistic sheetmetal.

If those infidels haven't already influenced development, the new prices will only bring more of their ilk to the gates: a real, 6-cyl. 3-series now can be had for only $26,400.

BMW, did you ever consider that asking Camry money might develop into catering to Camry buyers?