It sounds like a cliche, but the BMW 3-series really is the standard by which all other sport sedans are measured. Its influence has permeated the engineering halls of automakers on every continent: Cadillac used to manufacture rolling living rooms, Mercedes-Benzes were once Teutonic isolation chambers, and Infinitis were...well, nobody quite knew what they were. But today, all three -- and their collective competitors -- make cars directly aimed at the BMW 3-series.
The sound and smoothness of BMW's straight-six engine have long been a hallmark of the 3-series. For 2012, there's a new 3-series, and it's a clear and careful evolution of its predecessors -- but there's been a substantial change under the hood. The base model, the 328i, which accounts for about three-quarters of 3-series sales, now comes with an in-line turbocharged four. Sure, the 3-series has been available in the States with four-cylinder power in the past, but for the first time in a long while, BMW of North America is betting on a four-banger model to account for the majority of 3-series sales.
Obviously, we couldn't wait to order a new 3-series for our Four Seasons test fleet. And, obviously, the 335i, with its silky smooth, sonorous turbo straight six and 300 hyperactive horses, was most desirable. But we said no to temptation and instead ordered a 328i so we could answer the question: can a four-cylinder 3-series really carry the torch of a car that for so long has been defined by its six-cylinder engine?
On paper, the 328i looks great. With 240 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque, it's measurably quicker than the normally aspirated six-cylinder model it replaces. With two balance shafts and a trick pendulum dual-mass flywheel, the four-cylinder promises to be nearly as smooth as a six, too. It also scores well on the EPA's fuel economy tests: the eight-speed automatic-transmission version comes in at 24/36 mpg city/highway, beating out last year's most frugal 3-series, the diesel-engine 335d, by a hair. We chose the slightly less frugal (23/34 mpg) six-speed manual because this is, after all, the quintessential sport sedan.
Being quintessential spoiled journalists, we picked almost every option we could get, including an upgraded stereo, parking-aid cameras, power heated seats, swiveling xenon headlights, and a keyless-start system that allows you to shake your foot under the rear bumper, hokey-pokey-style, to open the trunk hands-free. We also opted for one of BMW's new "lines," which are appearance and trim packages aimed squarely at Audi. The $2100 Luxury line bestowed our 328i with a sport steering wheel, anthracite wood interior trim, eighteen-inch wheels, and some chrome exterior trim.
We did not opt for a sport package, as experience has taught us that BMW's lowered suspensions and low-profile tires are a poor match for pockmarked Midwestern roads. We would have preferred the base seventeen-inch wheels, but the smallest we could get with a "line" were eighteens. We also would have loved the sport seats, but those are available only with the sport package.
We took delivery of our sapphire black 328i after spending half a day lapping California's Laguna Seca racetrack, where we confirmed that the four-cylinder is the better choice in the handling department. In fact, it positively embarrasses the 335i -- which itself is no pig in the corners -- with incredible body control and sports car balance and composure. The 328i's trip computer showed an impressive 33 mpg on the way to San Francisco, where it met -- and dusted -- an old six-speed, V-8-powered 540i in a stoplight drag. In terms of performance and efficiency, then, the 328i is everything we expect from the latest 3-series. We'll happily spend the next four seasons answering the question of how well a four-cylinder BMW carries the torch.