Welcome to Innsbruck, the 800-year-old former outpost of the Hapsburg Empire, where we've come to drive the new BMW 3-series coupe, the car that for centuries (OK, maybe it only seems that long) has been the most notable of semi-affordable sport coupes.
Every six or seven years, BMW staggers the launches of its new 3-series lineup, and, somewhere in year two, along comes a new coupe. We know what to expect by now, and it is good. Indeed, BMW has another handsome evolution of its coupe waiting for us, with more safety, even more surefooted handling, and a lineup of even better engines. So what else is new? If only all the world's carmakers took the evolutions of their cars and engine families as seriously.
A Tyrolean city of 135,000, Innsbruck has many classically Austrian edifices that look, in their quaint uniformity, like they fell out of the same model-train shop. But they still sit harmoniously alongside hypermodern expressions from contemporary Germanic architects, providing an appropriate working metaphor for the new 3-series, which neatly combines the old and the new. On some twisty back roads not far from town, shaggy cattle wandering across the roads and large men in lederhosen remind us of the old world, even while the new world is aptly represented by the 335i, which is quicker than the spry coupe it replaces and lacks little if any of the classic soul that has made the 3-series a benchmark.
At the heart of every BMW worth remembering is its engine, and the new coupe is no exception. The pick of the litter is the new twin-turbo 3.0-liter six, good for an Alpine 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. The latter figure is more remarkable for the fact that maximum torque is available at a very sea-level-like 1300 rpm, helping banish lag and making for smooth power from takeoff all the way to the 7000-rpm rev limit (and the sport package's 150-mph governed top speed).
In fact, you're almost unaware that you're driving a turbocharged car. BMW dabbled in turbocharging gasoline engines in the 1970s--its low-production 2002 Turbo of 1973-74 marking an interesting historical footnote--but this latest engine represents a key reaffirmation of turbo technology from one of the world's most respected engine builders. BMW has decided that the advantages of the turbo six--less mass and lower consumption and emissions--outweigh the advantages of a V-8. Of course, that's what BMW is saying here at the twin-turbo engine's launch. We'll see what it has to say at the welcoming festivities for the upcoming M3, which will contest Germany's hell-bent-for-leather (trousers) horsepower arms race with a V-8 of its own. In the meantime, the 335i's aluminum-block six is good for 5.3-second 0-to-60-mph sprints, which strikes us as acceptably rapid. It sounds great, too.
BMW claims that the twin-turbo six weighs 154 pounds less than a V-8 with comparable power yet ought to average 25 mpg or better. It credits not just the two small (hence lag-resistant) turbochargers, each of which feeds three cylinders, but also High-Precision Injection, its name for the piezo injectors that are stationed directly between the intake valves for exceptionally consistent and direct pulses of fuel. Will the wonders of computerized fuel-delivery systems never cease?
One step down from the turbo is the base model 328i coupe, with 230 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque. No slouch, it will rip off the 0-to-60-mph run in six seconds while also topping out at 150 mph. Expect fuel economy in the high twenties. Since it is less stressed than its turbo relation, the normally aspirated 3.0-liter is able to use lightweight magnesium in its block and bedplate.
Sadly, for fans of choice, a 175-hp 2.5-liter variant is available only in Australia, and the 335d and 330d diesel models are conspicuous by their stateside absence. The former is a mostly aluminum effort (a BMW diesel first), twin-turbocharged to offer a bodacious 282 hp and a staggering 427 lb-ft of torque at only 1750 rpm. Zero-to-60-mph times and the top speed will match those of the 328i coupe. The other diesel is not far off the pace and offers about 36 mpg according to the European Union's testing procedures. Dr. Diesel, come in, please. Hybrids are nice, but if BMW can get these oil burners to run cleanly enough to satisfy the EPA and California's particulate Pecksniffs, there surely will be enough demand to bring them over by the boatload.
BMW's standard close-ratio six-speed manual comes with a hill-hold function--shades of Studebakers and Subarus past. BMW says that the optional six-speed manu-matic shifts as much as 50 percent faster than its predecessor, thanks to remapped control software and a new hydraulic control unit and torque converter. It changes up or down in just 100 milliseconds, whether the driver has called for a gear one or several cogs away. Paddle shifters make the business of gear swapping that much snappier.
The 335i with a manual transmission that we drove had a lighter clutch action than previous 3-series models, with take-up lower down in the pedal's stroke. The gearbox was noticeably less notchy, if still not perfection itself. While I could drive the manual model with considerably more smoothness, it still required a bit more concentration, luck, and patience than I'd like.
BMW's notorious sequential manual gearbox (SMG) is not offered, although it's not officially dead yet. BMW steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that consumers dislike SMG, but the exquisitely smooth, perfectly rapid gearchanges of Volkswagen's DSG automatic make the Bavarians' protestations even more tone-deaf. The fact is, BMW's suppliers are working on a dual-clutch transmission similar to DSG that soon will allow BMW to hop down from its SMG perch and get in step with the real world.
What a 3-series coupe must do at a minimum is handle well. Once again, BMW has targeted 50/50 weight distribution, which the company considers optimal. Like the sedan, the new coupe uses a multilink rear suspension and a strut-type front setup with more aluminum than the forward underpinnings of the last-generation 3-series. This reduction in unsprung weight, not surprisingly, allows the engineers to dial in a more finely focused balance between ride and handling. BMW's electronic active steering, which seems to divide testers, is available. Call me a simpleton. I like the 3-series both with and without it.
The large disc brakes dictate standard seventeen-inch wheels and 225/45HR-17 tires (eighteen-inchers with the sport package). We Americans are saddled with the dreaded all-season run-flat tires, which in our experience are more trouble than they're worth--the weight they add and the harsher ride they provide more than outweigh the convenience and lack of a spare.
For the first time, all-wheel drive is available for the coupe, further narrowing this year-round sporty car's list of competitors. The xDrive system's power distribution is infinitely variable, courtesy of an electronically controlled, limited-slip center differential. The default setting sends more than 60 percent of power to the rear wheels. Under ordinary circumstances, the rear-wheel-drive goodness remains intact. When the vehicle is being parked or maneuvered at low speeds, the system disconnects power from the front wheels.
The new coupe is longer yet slightly narrower than the sedan, and the two-door's body structure is both lighter, by 22 pounds, and stiffer than the four-door's. The lightweight, plastic front fenders are dent resistant, easier to shape, and weigh half as much as their steel equivalents.
Swiveling and adaptive bixenon headlights are standard on all U.S.-bound coupes. The familiar "angel eyes" around the front headlamps creatively take the place of daytime running lights, while LED rods in the rear lights further distinguish the coupe from dusk until dawn. (The two-stage adaptive taillights will surprise those following closely behind, especially if they notice the additional lights that flash during panic stops.)
The new 3-series coupe is strictly four-place. The center console continues all the way aft to the rear seatback and is flanked by the individual rear seats. While other manufacturers often mount seatbelts in the seats themselves rather than to the B-pillars, BMW reprises the old German party trick of automatic seatbelt feed. An arm emerges from the rear-seat side panels to hand front-seat occupants their belts. Though these didn't seem to work that well upon our cursory acquaintance, they did remind us that someone ought to offer an option whereby driver and passenger are handed not just seatbelts but other worthwhile things, such as snacks, caffeinated beverages, CD music mixes, and the collected writings of Kahlil Gibran.
Finally, there is the matter of the new coupe's looks. We like them. It marks a natural enough progression from its predecessor, though, once again, it will be seen as a half-step backward from the overt Bangle-ism (or should we say van Hooydonk-ism?) of BMW's controversial 7-series and Z4. Perhaps we've just gotten used to it. Certainly, the world's carmakers who've cribbed liberally from this once-derided styling tangent (witness the unashamed Bangle butt of the new Toyota Camry, if you need any recent proof) have signed on. Say what you will--I'll say I think the new design is not quite as worthy as the outgoing coupe was--but it still looks exactly like a BMW coupe, with pert lines marked by a long hood, a short overhang in the front, and a tasteful rear. Its wide stance, with wheels and tires loud, proud, and mean at the corners, is complemented by the famous Hofmeister kink, lending a graceful resolution to its low coupe roof. The new two-door 3-series is not just better looking than its sedan sibling. It looks even more set to suck up tarmac, and that's what BMW coupes do best. So what else is new?