If we pointed our time machines to five years ago and told our former selves that the future BMW 3-series would have limp steering and superb infotainment, 2007-us would probably laugh 2012-us back to the present. Of course, where previous generations of BMW 3-series excelled at handling, they also fell short in the department of "technological features, ease-of-use." Yet as much as we've groused about the driving experience that the 2012 BMW 328i Luxury offers, buyers will be happy to know that the on-board tech is pretty great.
The praise starts with iDrive. BMW's well publicized problems with both iDrive's software and its interface - a single knob atop the center console - began from the system's introduction for the 2001 BMW 7-series. But in the eleven years since then, the system has matured and now surprisingly sits at the top of the market in terms of breadth of features and ease of use. The improvements haven't gone unnoticed, as managing editor Amy Skogstrom notes, "It's funny - when iDrive was first introduced, we panned it because it was overly complicated, yet now I find BMW's iDrive system among the best in the business."
The crucial iDrive's upgrade is a simple "back" button, so you can correct your inevitable mistakes. (If only life itself were so simple.) Jen Misaros, managing editor for digital platforms, writes, "I'm impressed with the functionality of the iDrive controller, especially the back button." She continues, "Instead of simply moving up through the menus, it actually takes you back through the steps you just performed. As far as I can tell, there's no limit. It'll probably go backward to the moment you entered the car and started using it."
A spirit of simplicity also has transformed the presentation of BMW electronics on the dashboard of the 3 series, not the least in the retention of those familiar control interfaces of the past century. "My favorite thing about BMWs is the preset hard buttons," writes associate web editor Donny Nordlicht. "They're not just radio station presets. You can set them to do anything, like program the navigation destination to your home, play your iPod, or call your mom. The best part? If you touch the buttons but don't press them, the screen shows what each button is set to do."
Associate editor David Zenlea sums it up best: "I'm amazed by how well iDrive works now. It's the only system I can operate without much thought."
Our BMW 328i Luxury Line is also equipped with a few other hi-tech add-ons, notably BMW ConnectedDrive with enhanced Bluetooth and USB. The suite of features includes internet radio apps, business reviews from Yelp, and the ability to social network on Facebook or Twitter. Nevertheless, deputy editor Joe DeMatio stayed away from the temptation to use Twitter. "The last thing I need to be doing is reading tweets while I'm driving down I-94," he writes. Even so, he has enjoyed the availability of internet radio stations, although with some reservations: "If I had a dollar for every time I have spun a tuner dial up and down the SiriusXM station list looking for something worth stopping at, I could retire. But I like Pandora, which allows me to avoid the hassles of finding and uploading my own music, which I consider to be an utter chore." Over the Thanksgiving break, his playlist of choice was Christmas Jazz.
Associate web editor Jake Holmes preferred to flip through his own music files, using the BMW's PlugIn mode (which requires an optional iPhone cradle for the armrest compartment). "Using PlugIn mode first allowed me to use my iPhone's music collection just like I would use an old iPod," he writes. "You scroll with the iDrive wheel, use the center and back buttons to choose menus, and it's as if you have a real iPod interface. Very cool." Holmes did notice that there isn't a simple "next track" button on the 328i's steering wheel, a feature we've found on other cars. Instead the protocol to skip through tracks using the steering wheel requires the driver to use the jog dial on the right-hand spoke of the wheels, and this dial also controls either the LCD screen beneath the gauges in the instrument display or (for this particular 328i) the heads-up display. While we love the flashy graphics of this BMW's interface for Pandora, it's not always apparent exactly how to get things done.
The ConnectedDrive system also streams music from MOG and can optionally download map or POI information from Google, which is the kind of thing that makes this BMW 328i a strong competitor in the category of luxury sedans. It doesn't placate BMW purists, though. As senior web editor Phil Floraday says, "The Pandora integration sums up everything that's wrong with this generation of 3-series." For most of us, however, the toys and trinkets are a salve to the psyche after enduring the cold, distant driving experience. The luxury and convenience features so inspired associate editor David Zenlea that he writes, "I wonder if we're being unreasonable in our criticisms, because the 328i is, by nearly any measure, a fantastic car."
The verdict is still out. We're hoping to warm up to this 2012 BMW 328i, but meanwhile the ambient temperatures in Michigan are falling and soon so will the precipitation. To prepare for the coming winter, we called Tire Rack and ordered a set of Pirelli Sottozero Winter 240 Series II tires. Once mounted on our wheels and balanced, the total cost came to $830.88. So far they've been fine when it's been wet or simply cold, but the snow is yet to come. We expect good things, since the Sport Line package for the BMW 328i comes with similar Pirelli Cinturato P7s.