2012 BMW 3-Series
The BMW 3-series is, for lack of milder terminology, a crucially important model for the Bavarian brand. Every third BMW sold in the U.S. is a 3-series, and buyers tend to be die-hards for what they affectionately believe (thanks to the BMW marketing team) is the "Ultimate Driving Machine." And so BMW cautiously but assertively redesigned their sacred cash cow for its sixth generation.
The new 3-series―currently available in two sedan variants, the 328i ($34,900) and 335i ($42,400)―is 3.6 inches longer than its predecessor, its wheelbase is nearly two inches lengthier, and its track is wider, as well. While driving fanatics might be quick to criticize the larger dimensions, their complaints will be quelled by the fact that the new 3-series boasts a curb weight that's 88 pounds lighter than the model it replaces.
Sheetmetal and interiors have also been rethought, lending a contemporary look and feel to the 3-series through new contours and a fresh aesthetic treatment. But key to this sports sedan are its road manners, and we put those to the test both on and off the track.
What's to Like
BMW still knows how to build a focused sports sedan that's as fun to fling along your favorite backroad as it is around a world-class race track. The new direct-injected, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is torquey enough to entertain, while it's also capable of achieving an impressive 33 mpg on the highway―a win/win, in our book.
What's Not to Like
BMW is accustomed to charging a premium for their products, and the 3-series sedan―starting at $34,900 for the 328i and $42,400 for the 335i―is rather expensive, considering its basic equipment list. Loads of seductive options are available, and it's easy for a 3-series to creep well into the $50,000 range. And while the interior is slickly styled, some of the cabin's surfaces sometimes don't feel as premium as they should.
We began by testing both 3-series variants―the 328i and 335i―at Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. The 335i, which carries over the same twin-scroll, twin-turbocharged inline-six powerplant from its predecessor, delivers the same famously smooth-spinning operation and copious midrange torque that's made it a shoe-in for countless accolades over the years. Also deserving credit is its intuitive handling and natural steering feel―though a new, more fuel efficient electric steering system loses some of the feedback offered by the old hydraulic system.
When switching over to the 328i, first impressions make us miss the off-the-line oomph and midrange pull of the bigger engine, not to mention the familiar the mellow hum of the inline-six; this four-cylinder's high pressure direct injection system idles with a knocky din, not unlike a diesel. But further into our lapping sessions we begin to appreciate the smaller, lighter car's more nimble maneuverability and eagerness to turn-in. The 328i may be the pipsqueak of the bunch, but it also has plenty of driver rewarding verve.
On public roads, both versions offer poise and power, more than enough to get us into trouble. The 3-series is an undeniably fun car to drive, and strikes a sweet spot between finely weighted controls, communicative feedback, and focused performance when called upon. BMW may have lost a touch of its steering feel, but it still maintains the through line of balanced, enthusiast-focused tuning in its latest 3-series sedans.
Engine and Drivetrain
The new BMW 3-series is available with two engines: the 335i comes equipped with the familiar twin-turbocharged 3.0 liter inline-six producing 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque, while the 328i comes equipped with a new turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that yields 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Either engine can be mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, or a traditional six-speed manual gearbox.
Green Evaluation/Gas Mileage
All BMW 3-series now come with a stop/start function that automatically shuts down the engine at stoplights (the system can also be disabled via a dash-mounted button), and an Eco Pro mode rewards fuel-efficient driving styles by indicating how many miles you've gained due to your light-footed touch. While the BMW 335i offers respectable fuel economy considering its ability to sprint to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, the four-cylinder 328i achieves an impressive 23 city/33 highway, with only a three to five tenths of a seconds lost to the six-cylinder, depending on transmission choices.
Features and Technology
BMW is keeping pace with the cutting edge of automotive technology not only with drivetrain advances, but also thanks to forward thinking in-car features. Available for the first time in its class, the 3-series offers a full-color heads up display that projects speed, navigation, and collision warning/lane departure information onto the windshield. ConnectedDrive also integrates internet-based services like weather and news in addition to calendar entries and SMS or email services into the iDrive display. Smartphone connectivity allows access to music playlists and album cover artwork, while the BMW Connected app links Apple iPhone web radio and calendar functions as well as streaming services like Pandora and MOG.
BMW's techy features also extend to the realm of accident response, with an Automatic Collision Notification system that links to ConnectedDrive and sends detailed information to first responders on the type of collision and likelihood of trauma level injuries. The system's algorithm was developed in partnership with a trauma center, and can also be used manually through a BMW call center.
The 3-series now comes available with one of three "Lines": Sport, Modern, or Luxury, each reflecting a different theme. Sport ($2500) incorporates high-gloss black trim bits on the exterior and double-spoke 18-inch wheels, while the interior gets a contrasting red and black color scheme with highly bolstered seats and unusual red aluminum trim. Modern ($2100) boasts satin aluminum exterior trim and turbine-style wheels, while the interior receives a Scandinavian-style treatment with pale monochrome finishes and blonde, open-pore wood. Luxury ($2100) is more chrome-intensive on the outside with multi-spoke wheels, while the interior gets high-gloss wood and a chrome surround on the climate control system.
Thanks to a longer wheelbase, 3-series interior volume and rear legroom increases, the latter by .7 inches. Trunk also gains nearly eight gallons, and the rear can be opened simply by waving a foot beneath the bumper.
For the most part, the new 3-series adopts its exterior styling inspiration from its 5-series stablemate―which is fitting, since it's also grown closer to the 5 in regards to exterior dimensions. With its signature double-kidney design leading the way, the 3's nose is characterized by headlights that touch the grille, accentuating the car's width. Simplicity reigns throughout, with a single character line defining the 3-series in profile, and 5-series style taillamps rounding out the rear. 17-inch wheels are standard on the 328i and 18-inch wheels for the 335i, though opting for any of the trim levels―Modern, Sport, or Luxury―upgrades to 18-inch wheels.
Market Segment and Pricing
The 328i's base price comes in at $34,900 (or $35,795 with destination), and at a glance the competition seems comparably priced: the Audi A4
starts at $34,175, the Mercedes-Benz C250 Sport
begins at $35,675, and the Volvo S60 T5
runs a more modest $32,175. But pile on the features, and the Bavarian becomes dramatically pricier. Opting for one of the Lines ($2,100 - $2,500) is necessary in order to avoid a bargain basement feeling, while a technology package (with navigation and heads up display) adds $2,550. Various other features help launch the price quickly enough to bring a 328i to the $50,000 mark; the 335i can be pushed further with disarming ease. Nice cars, these BMW sports sedans, but they'll cost ya.
What We Think
BMW has succeeded in building a better 3-series, thanks to the addition of more room, refined performance, and increased fuel economy. Nitpickers might complain that some feedback is lost to the new electro-mechanical steering setup, but in the grand scheme of things, the 3-series is a winner. While it may be tempting to go for the 335i, the 328i delivers a surprisingly high fun-to-drive quotient while achieving an impressive 33 mpg, highway. While the 3-series commands a significant premium over its competitors, especially when loaded up with features, the German car cognoscenti will likely shrug and fork over the cash; after all, few modern cars enjoy as dedicated a following as does BMW.