The sixth generation of the BMW 3-Series arrives this February in the United States — in sedan form, at least — and it’s safe to say that the biggest question on the mind of most enthusiasts is: did BMW screw it up?
That is the key question, in part because BMW has shown a penchant for messing with things that didn’t need to be messed with. From matters as big as its exterior designs with “flame surfacing” and the replacing of dedicated buttons and switches with iDrive, to ones as small as ditching the mechanical turn-signal-stalk switch for an electronic one, BMW has demonstrated that it sometimes does not know when to leave well enough alone.
It is also a question because the outgoing 3-series is not a car that was crying out for improvement. In fact, most of us would say that, even at the advanced age of six years, the current-generation 3-series is still the most desirable car in its class. Witness its appearance, yet again, on Automobile Magazine’s All-Stars list for 2012.
The chief reason that the 3 continues to win accolades is the way that it drives. A glance at the specs of the new car, however, provides some reason for apprehension. The new 3 is larger, the iconic normally aspirated straight-six engine in the 328i has been replaced with a turbocharged four-cylinder, and the steering switches from hydraulic to electric assist. Those are all changes that can affect the delicate formula for a near-perfect sport sedan, even for a company with as much experience at it as BMW.
At least the design of the new 3-series (the F30, to BMW fetishists) is unlikely to put many people off, as it hews closely to the previous car. The most noteworthy — and strangest — element is the way the headlamps bleed into the grille. Other less-controversial aspects of the design include a hood that dips down toward the front (helping to achieve a 0.26 Cd) and the slight forward lean of the twin-kidney grilles, which hasn’t been seen since the E30 3-series of the 1980s. Compared with the outgoing (E90) sedan, the new version has grown by 3.7 inches in length and the wheelbase has been stretched 2.0 inches. That means the car’s trademark ultrashort overhangs have become slightly longer, by approximately one inch at both ends. The width, at least, was held in check (actually decreasing fractionally), and yet the front and rear tracks are both more than an inch wider. What’s impressive is that the new 3-series has gotten larger without getting heavier. BMW claims that, on an equipment-adjusted basis, the F30 is a tad lighter than its predecessor. At 3406 pounds, the 328i is also lighter than the Mercedes-Benz C250 and the Audi A4 2.0T.
At the launch event, the BMW people couldn’t stop talking about the three Lines, which essentially are optional trim levels. Each one tweaks the look ever so slightly, with its own eighteen-inch wheel design and variations to the grille slats and the lower air intakes, the mix of chrome and gloss-black trim, and the interior decor. The Modern Line has a monochromatic interior with a beige dash, steering wheel, and gauge faces in place of the usual black. The Luxury Line is more traditionally outfitted and uses the most chrome; both Modern and Luxury include leather. You’ll likely be most interested in the Sport Line, not for its leatherette upholstery, aluminum interior bits, and red accents, but instead because it comes with sport seats and a lowered sport suspension. (The Sport Line effectively replaces the sport package.) An M Sport version takes things a step further, with restyled lower bodywork, Alcantara upholstery, and a bit more power, but it doesn’t arrive until summer.
All three Lines are available on both the 328i and the 335i. The 335i returns with its 300-hp, 3.0-liter turbocharged straight six; in place of the previous six-speed automatic is a new eight-speed transmission, which is a no-cost option over the standard six-speed manual. The 328i has the same two transmissions, but its bigger change is in the engine room. The normally aspirated straight six is gone, and in its place is a new direct-injected turbocharged four-cylinder engine, code-named N20.
This swap has already taken place in the Z4 and the 528i, so perhaps you already know that this engine displaces 2.0 liters and features a twin-scroll turbocharger. In the 328i, it makes 240 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, and both of those output figures are better than the old six’s. Like the turbo six, the turbo four will be available with all-wheel drive once xDrive arrives next fall. Next fall also will see the first-ever 3-series hybrid, which will pair a turbo six-cylinder with an electric motor.
Of the U.S.-market cars, the 328i with the eight-speed automatic is the version that BMW had on hand for us to drive. A Sport Line model in Melbourne red, it was also brimming with all the equipment that’s new to the 3-series, including the adaptive M suspension (an option exclusive to the Sport Line), variable sport steering, and a phalanx of electronics: a head-up display, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning, a rearview camera with surround view, and hands-free trunk opening.
The last item proved somewhat disappointing, as wiggling a foot under the rear bumper failed to produce the desired result and felt as ridiculous as doing the hokey pokey (sensors recognize the motion and the key in your pocket). But then at last the trunk popped open and we threw our bags inside. This would be a good time to mention that cargo volume has improved by one cubic foot.
Given the greater stretch between the axles, it’s no surprise that the 3-series’ cabin has more space than before, particularly in the rear seats. Six-footers will find decent legroom, generous knee clearance, and adequate headroom. Up front, the driving position is familiar, which is to say great. There’s a fat-rimmed, small-diameter steering wheel and a large dead pedal, and the driver sits in close proximity to a fairly upright windshield.
All F30 3-series come standard with iDrive and a free-standing 6.5-inch screen — cars equipped with navigation get an 8.8-inch screen. The iDrive logic still requires more steps than should be necessary to perform many functions, but there are physical controls for some of the most-used items, including the climate controls and much of the audio system. As is typical of BMWs, the layout of all lesser controls is above reproach. The BMW faithful will find everything right where they expect it, and newbies to the brand will have no trouble adjusting. The interior design has more slashing angles than before, but the cabin still looks like a BMW. Materials quality, while not lavish, has no evident lapses.
Our first drive took us through some stop-and-go suburban driving before we got out into the Spanish countryside, where a long series of two-lane switchbacks delivered us to Montserrat and then on to our hotel. The 2.0-liter four doesn’t have quite the sophisticated thrum of a straight six at start-up, but the engine boasts a trick flywheel and two counterrotating balance shafts that help make it quite smooth at idle. Run it up the tach and it emits a satisfying growl. With an additional 60 lb-ft of torque compared with the old six, it also moves the 328i with verve. The car zips from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds (factory figures), which is a full second quicker than the previous 328i with its six-speed automatic. Paired with the manual, the turbo four is even faster, reaching 60 mph in 5.7 seconds (0.6 second quicker than before). With peak torque coming in at a low 1250 rpm, the car is energetic right off the line, and the boost is beautifully integrated.
Of course, the four-cylinder’s main mission is to improve fuel economy. The new EPA ratings are 24/36 mpg with the automatic, or 23/34 mpg with the manual. That’s far superior to the previous 18/28 mpg. Helping the cause is an auto start/stop system and active alternator management (a clutch keeps the alternator from spinning unnecessarily), which are standard in both 3-series models. Unfortunately, the auto start/stop isn’t quite as seamless as it is in a good hybrid, as it creates a little shudder on restart (the system can be disabled with a button next to the ignition).
Standard on the new 3-series is a drive-mode rocker switch to toggle among four settings: Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport +. Eco Pro is part of BMW’s EfficientDynamics push, and it reduces the drag on the engine by running systems such as the air-conditioning and the seat heaters at less than full capacity. That’s fine, but it also remaps the throttle to kill engine responsiveness, and it tries to coach you by displaying icons on the dash that nag you to slow down and let off the gas. We quickly grew tired of Eco Pro.
Switching between Comfort and Sport also alters throttle mapping and transmission shift strategy, as well as steering effort and damper firmness (with the optional adaptive suspension). Sport + is the same as Sport but switches the stability control to dynamic mode. Steering effort in Comfort mode is a bit lighter than the BMW norm, so we preferred Sport. The variable sport steering proved a little too variable over the fast switchbacks, however, providing more lock than we thought we’d asked for. It’s not nearly as weird as BMW’s active steering (which it replaces), but we’d still skip it.
We have no such reservations about the suspension, which exhibits all the athleticism we’ve come to expect from a 3-series. That was particularly in evidence over five rainy laps of the Circuit de Catalunya, where the new 3 really came into its own. The steering, which we had been thinking was a bit less communicative than the delightfully informative system in the previous car, conveyed plenty of info about the front tires’ tenuous relationship with the wet tarmac. Weight distribution is 50/50, and the balanced chassis was neutral and forgiving, allowing us to keep the car in the narrow band between front-end push and power oversteer on the slick circuit. The stability control permits generous drift angles before pulling in the reins and can also be switched off completely; as ever, the 3-series lets go in a controlled manner and is easy to gather up. Even on the track, however, we could not discern much of a difference in the adaptive suspension’s firmness between Comfort mode and Sport. It may be that the changes in damping rates are evident only over bad pavement, and we didn’t encounter much of that in Spain. Nothing that we found suggested that Sport mode would be unduly harsh, but the roads back home will be a better test of that.
Overall, our first drive shows the latest 3-series to have suffered hardly at all for the cause of greater efficiency. Yes, some aspects of the 3-series have been altered and others have been improved, but the overall character of the car has been maintained. And that’s a relief.
2012 BMW 328i
Base price $35,795
Engine 16-valve DOHC turbo I-4
Displacement 2.0 liters (122 cu in)
Power 240 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque 260 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Steering Electrically assisted
Suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
Brakes Vented discs, ABS
Tires Bridgestone Potenza S001
Tire size f, r 225/40YR-19, 255/35YR-19
L x W x H 182.5 x 71.3 x 56.3 in
Wheelbase 110.6 in
Track F/R 60.3/61.9 in
Weight 3406 lb
Fuel mileage 23/34 mpg (manual), 24/36 mpg (automatic)
0-60 MPH 5.9 sec
Top speed 130/150 mph (base/sport)