Now in its sixth-generation, the all-new 2012 BMW 3 Series is helping to usher in a new era of efficiency, not only for Munich's most important model, but for the brand's lineup as a whole. It's a future where hyper-efficiency and dynamic ability are expected to live in perfect harmony. But can they? BMW believes they can, and is relentlessly pushing to meld the two on cars like the new 3 Series.
Due in the U.S. next February, the new generation 3 Series not surprisingly gets a unique sheetmetal treatment, with cues from the coming BMW i8 sports hybrid and big brother 5 and 7 series models. A wider, squatter take on the traditional BMW kidney grille motif takes center stage, while a pair of narrow, vertically elongated headlamps connect to the grille on each side to form one organic, flowing front end. A strip of LED accent lights sit atop BMW's now familiar twin headlight treatment within the housing, slanting inward for a furrowed eyebrow look. Opt for the xenon headlights and the inner lamps get LED halo rings. The central intake opening in the front valance of the previous model has been abandoned, and is now split into two separate openings beneath the headlights. Out back, the car's horizontally lined taillights are similar to the units found on the recently updated 5 and 7.
As is almost always the case with a new-generation model, the 3 Series gets bigger dimensionally, growing 3.66 inches in overall length, with a nearly 2-inch longer wheelbase and 1.85-inch wider track. Despite the growth spurt, weight gain is kept to a minimum, thanks in large part to the use of lighter and stronger materials including high-tensile-strength steel, plastics, advanced composites, and heavy use of aluminum in the suspension. The end result is a body that's 10 percent more rigid and as much as 88 pounds lighter compared to a similarly equipped previous-gen model, according to BMW.
Reducing weight means improving efficiency. So does improving aerodynamics, and the 2012 3 Series benefited from full-scale wind tunnel testing, helping to further streamline body panels and sculpt the underbody for improved airflow. BMW claims a drag coefficient of 0.26, which puts the new 3 Series in the same league as hybrid hyper-milers such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.
But it's with the new car's updated powertrains where the biggest EfficientDynamics gains lie. The big news under the hood of the 2012 328i is the addition of the same turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4 that debuted in the Z4 sDrive28i earlier this year (the first I-4 in a 3 Series since the E36-generation 318i), producing 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque - a gain of 10 hp and 60 lb-ft over the naturally aspirated 3.0-liter I-6 it replaces. Thanks to the twin-scroll design of the new base engine's turbocharger, peak torque is achieved at 1250 rpm and doesn't drop off until 4800 rpm. In addition to the novel design of the TwinPower turbo, BMW pulled from its usual bag of power and efficiency tricks for the four-cylinder, employing direct injection, double-VANOS variable cam timing, and Valvetronic variable valve timing. The payoff is a claimed zero-to-60 time of 5.7 seconds along with improved fuel economy that will eclipse the 18/28 mpg city/highway of the outgoing I-6, BMW says.
BMW's now-familiar turbocharged 3.0-liter N55 I-6 continues to serve duty in the 335i, with its 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are now available with BMW's eight-speed automatic transmission, which is new to the 3 Series and further improves efficiency. A six-speed manual remains as the standard gearbox. Though the gear spread is wider with the eight-speed compared to the outgoing six-speed auto, BMW says shifting is smooth and optimal ratios are available for practically any situation. A sport version of the eight-speed auto, complete with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, will be available with the M Sport Package.
Additional fuel-efficiency optimization tricks for the new 3 Series include BMW's Auto Start-Stop and Brake Energy Regeneration systems, and a new ECOPRO mode added to the automaker's Driving Dynamics Control system. Similar to systems popping up from other automakers, Auto Start-Stop's controller resides within the transmission and cuts engine power when the vehicle is stopped and restarts on throttle input. Brake Energy Regeneration uses energy captured through braking to help power accessory components like the air conditioning compressor, alternator, and water pump, which are also disengaged when not needed.
Select ECORPRO mode using BMW's Driving Dynamics Control switch (Comfort Sport, Sport + are the other options), and optimized throttle mapping will limit power output. With eight-speed-equipped cars, ECOPRO also shifts to a higher gear sooner and delays downshifts. When the 3 Series is operated in the mode, BMW says average fuel consumption could be reduced by up to 20 percent.
Helping to keep the 2012 3 Series dynamically sound is a suspension setup that's largely the same as the outgoing car, with a double-pivot front axle and five-link independent rear. Aluminum is deployed heavily throughout the suspension to help reduce unsprung weight, and friction in the wheel bearings and ball joints is kept to an absolute minimum, contributing slightly to the car's fuel-saving ability. The brake setup is also designed for lightness, with the 328i sporting lightweight floating calipers all around that bite down on the discs. The 335i gets four-piston fixed calipers in the front, and floating calipers in the rear.
The changes and updates are just as numerous to the new 3 Series' cabin, which has gotten a smidge bigger. Rear passengers will enjoy a little more wiggle room, with legroom, knee room and headroom all getting slight bump thanks to the car's increased dimensions. Apparently, the Germans are starting to understand how Americans like their interiors, as evidenced by a pair of large drink holders that now occupy the space in front of the gear selector in the center console. The 3 Series gets roughly 17 cubic feet of trunk space, a gain of about 0.7 cubic feet over the previous-generation sedan. If the Comfort Access option box is checked, 3 Series owners can wave their foot underneath the rear bumper to open the trunk without having to use the key. A through-load option splits the rear seats up three ways (40/20/40) and allows longer items like skis or snowboards to easily pass through the middle.
BMW's ConnectedDrive infotainment system finds its way onto the 2012 3 Series as an option, integrating available safety features like BMW Parking Assistant, Active Blindspot Detection System, and Lane Departure Warning System, along with office functions and Bluetooth capability. Bluetooth-enabled cellphones can be interfaced through the system, granting the driver access to their phone's music player and Internet-based services like Facebook, weather, and news. In addition, the system can read text messages and e-mails aloud through the car's speakers.
An available rear-view camera is bundled with the Park Distance Control system. Making an appearance for the first time in the 3 Series is BMW's Top View system, which takes feeds from two additional cameras located in the side mirrors and combines them to form a composite bird's-eye view of the car's surroundings. Also located in the side mirrors are triangle-shaped lights for the radar-based Active Blindspot Detection system, which warns of objects in the car's blind spot. Further accident protection is available from the Lane Departure Warning system with Collision Warning, which alerts the driver if they drift out of their lane, or when a collision is imminent.
If a crash is unavoidable, BMW's Automatic Collision Notification will immediately notify emergency services, transmitting vehicle location and detailed info on the severity of the crash based on data collected from the car's many onboard sensors. The system also automatically disconnects power from the battery, unlocks the doors, and turns the hazard lights on.
The 3 Series gets a next-gen full-color head-up display that relays driver information by projecting images onto the windshield. Information regarding vehicle speed, cruise control settings, and directions from the navigation system can be seen on the display, along with turn signal indicator symbols and system messages that appear automatically. The driver can select what information they feel is most important to have in their line of sight, and the intensity of the display automatically adjusts to outside lighting conditions.
The car's exterior lighting is enhanced by an Optional High-Beam Assistant that switches the high beams on when needed. If an oncoming vehicle is detected a quarter-mile away, the system switches the high beams off so not to blind other drivers. Also available are BMW's adaptive xenon headlights, which can focus their beam in the direction the car is turning. BMW says this provides improved visibility on curvy roads.
BMW's 3 Series trim strategy has also changed, with appearance and equipment packages now reduced to three distinct options -- four if you count the M Sport package. Called Sport Line, Luxury Line, and Modern Line, these trims each offer a unique look to the new 3 Series. Sport Line blacks out the vertical grille slats of the dual kidneys, and adds other black accents to the exterior as well as 18-inch alloy wheels. Luxury Line goes in the opposite direction, adding more chrome to the 3 Series' exterior along with plenty of high-gloss wood inside the cabin. BMW calls the Modern Line equipment level avant-garde, with its satin aluminum-finished exterior accents and dark oyster-trimmed interior.
BMW is just getting started with its sixth-generation 3 Series range, and has laid plans for an ActiveHybrid 3 model and xDrive all-wheel-drive versions of the 328i and 335i scheduled to arrive by fall and summer of 2012, respectively. There also will be coupe and convertible options, although the future of the wagon is in question. Details on the highly anticipated next-gen M3 are slim, and speculation as to that car's powertrain -- now believed to be a six-cylinder of some form -- is abundant. Though the new model is arguably more about burning less oil reserves than bahnstorming through the countryside, the 2012 3 Series could ultimately prove to be among the most exciting entries in its storied history. Expectations are higher than ever, and BMW is no doubt hoping the sixth time is as charmed as the rest.