The perfect sport sedan, by definition, does it all: it thrills on back-road blasts, cruises comfortably on long trips, and turns into a secret weapon on the track. After three months with the BMW 328i, however, we've come to realize that our car does only two of those things.
Today, the new 3-series just feels like a small luxury sedan.
We surmised as much at the end of a staff track day at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, where editors got their first opportunity to flog our Four Seasons BMW 328i. At the end of the day, the car's reviews were mixed.
On one hand, the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that won our hearts on the street did it again on the track. "What BMW got right was the powerplant," says associate web editor Donny Nordlicht. "The 2.0-liter turbo four pulls hard and quickly through the rev range, with a large and flat torque curve that sent enough power to spiritedly propel the 328i around GingerMan." The six-speed manual transmission scored points, too: most drivers left it in third gear all the way around the 2.14-mile road course, and the engine -- with its ample low-end torque and good mid- to top-end grunt -- happily complied all the way to a 109-mph redline.
Yet the BMW disappointed some of us. "The electric power steering does not transmit enough information to the driver to be engaging on the track," said senior web editor Phil Floraday after a few laps, "and the suspension is surprisingly soft on the track, even in sport mode."
Senior editor Eric Tingwall agreed. "On the track, it bobbed over slight ripples in the pavement and leaned through corners," Tingwall said. "Add in the aloof steering and the new 3-series is a distant, detached shell of its former self."
Tingwall and Floraday have a point. We expect a Luxury Line BMW 328i to be somewhat softer than its Modern and Sport Line siblings. Furthermore, we deliberately avoided the 328i's Sport Line, figuring that its firmer sport suspension would shine on a track but also provoke a wave of complaints about rough rides and rough roads.
But the BMW 3-series, regardless of specification, has historically always performed brilliantly on road courses. "Part of the appeal of the 3-series is that each and every trim level was fun and involving on a track. No longer," said Floraday. Copy editor Rusty Blackwell agreed: "The words 'Ultimate Driving Machine' never came to mind when I was hustling around GingerMan."
"A BMW 3-series should flatter a novice driver when the going gets quick, not rattle his fragile confidence," he added.
The BMW might not make us feel like heroes on the track, but it does still coddle us on the street: the same suspension setup that drew scorn from track-day participants continues to get glowing remarks from road trippers. "The suspension is fantastic for a highway cruiser," Nordlicht wrote after taking the BMW to Columbus, Ohio, for a weekend. "Those wide seats and soft suspension -- which hindered the BMW on the track -- washed away the highway miles." Never mind the fact that our 3-series is shod with run-flat tires -- the same style of tire that led to a punishing ride in -- and lots of complaints about -- the Four Seasons Mini Cooper S Countryman All4.
We're seeing the same comment again and again in our logbook: the 2012 BMW 3-series might be a better car than the one it replaces, but it might not be a better BMW 3-series. An owner who doesn't flog his/her premium sedan and values economy and comfort over all-out performance will surely dig the BMW 328's four-cylinder engine and relatively plush ride, but a dyed-in-the-wool Roundel fan might miss the inline-six-only engine lineup and find the Luxury Line a bit too Lexus. "Dynamically, this is still a very good car," wrote associate web editor Evan McCausland, "but it's just not up to the benchmark BMW set for the 3-series over the past four decades."
Floraday was even more succinct, writing, "today, the new 3-series just feels like a small luxury sedan." Luxury car buyers will appreciate this -- our BMW 328i is technically a mid-size luxury sedan, after all -- but BMW purists will recognize that Floraday's quote wasn't necessarily intended as a compliment.