Know why that 3-series driver tears up an on-ramp out of nowhere, swoops across three lanes of traffic right in front of you, then settles into the fast lane for a nanosecond before departing toward the horizon at warp speed? Because he can.
Yes, we must admit that there's a reason the BMW 3-series attracts all the very worst people. The 3-series is capable of so much that you can't help but take advantage of what it has to offer. It's as if you're enveloped in a little bubble of BMW-branded entitlement. Personally, we blame our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., who returned from a mountain-road jaunt in 1968 absolutely transfixed by the newly introduced 2002 and created an identity for BMW with which we've lived ever since.
We'll also admit that the arrival of this 2012 BMW 328i sedan in our corner of Michigan had many of us in a total sweat of our own. The new F30 version of the BMW 3-series (BMW guys love speaking in vehicle codes, don't they?) is a very important one, because it represents the Munich company's concerted effort to address a post -- recession world of limits, in terms of both fuel costs and the very affordability of the automobile itself. For this reason, we were quick to specify a Four Seasons test car with BMW's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, as this match between sophisticated chassis and fuel-sipping powerplant will be duplicated across lots of brands and car categories.
The shape of the new 3-series lived up to our expectations, if not our dreams. Associate web editor Evan McCausland noted, "I love the new snout. The remainder of the car's exterior is evolutionary, but the pinched headlights and the sharp fender creases add flair to an otherwise familiar design." This car isn't exactly high art, but the F30 looks good enough that we all cringed when associate web editor Jake Holmes returned to the parked car after an epic thunderstorm and found it dimpled by hail. (We probably helped finance a semester of college tuition for the offspring of the dent-removal guy.) Meanwhile, copy editor Rusty Blackwell said, "The swoopy interior is very welcoming and attractive, and I especially like the asymmetrical grip on the shift lever." McCausland also gave the iDrive electronics his endorsement, although he noted that you have to snap your iPhone into a specialized cradle in the center console to get full access to BMW ConnectedDrive.
When our test began, the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine seemed like it'd be a big concern, yet it quickly became a nonissue in a couple of ways. First, the presence of 240 hp at 5000 rpm and an even more impressive 255 lb-ft of torque at 1250 rpm did not leave us asking questions about any perceived power gap compared with the in-line six-cylinder of the last-generation 3-series. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio said in the car's logbook: "When you're bounding along at 90 mph on the freeway, you're barely aware that you no longer have a BMW in-line six at your disposal."
Even better, the combination of the new turbocharged four and this car's six-speed manual transmission delivers the economy improvement that BMW promises. Associate web editor Donny Nordlicht averaged an indicated 33 mpg on his daily commute, while New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman said, "The trip computer showed that I clocked an absolutely sick 37 mpg on the admittedly fuel-economy-friendly Detroit-Pittsburgh-New York highway run. My calculator says that the mileage was a much lower 33 mpg, but for what is now a pretty large sedan, that's still not bad."
Like so many new-generation cars, this 2012 328i has an automatic stop/start mechanism plus a selectable calibration mode for the engine that promotes fuel efficiency, and we generally were in favor of this mileage consciousness. Associate web editor Ben Timmins said, "I love the BMW's stop/start system because it's precisely the kind of thing that irks smug owners of hybrid cars. Pull up next to a Prius at a stoplight and both cars shut down their engines, wasting not a drop of fuel." Senior web editor Phil Floraday added, "It's weird to see a BMW with so many eco-friendly touches. It makes me feel guilty to commute in this car without calling up Eco Pro mode." For all this, we hated the raspy engine noise and driveline vibration as the four-cylinder engine came to life after a stop/start episode.
When we configured this 2012 BMW 328i for its time with us, we decided to be adults and specify the Luxury model-rather than our usual preference for sport trim-in an effort to avoid complaints about ride quality on broken Michigan pavement, especially since BMW's preference for run-flat tires with their stiff sidewalls amplifies the unpleasantness. We can happily report that the 328i delivered a supple ride in every circumstance, just as we anticipated. Sadly, we also discovered that we are not cut out to be adults.
Almost from the first, this BMW's logbook is filled with disappointment about the car's lack of liveliness. And as we began longing for a car with more sport in its sport-sedan personality, the car's electrically assisted steering, characterless exhaust note, and breathtaking price began to obsess us.
Timmins said the car didn't give him the same buzz that he remembered from his days as a valet while working his way through college, when the 3-series was "confident, thrilling, and straightforward." Floraday added, "It's supposed to be a BMW 3-series, the sort of car that gets better and better with each generation. Today's new 3-series just feels like a small luxury sedan." McCausland said, "When driven hard on a racetrack, flaccid is the flavor du jour...I'm most disappointed in the steering. This used to be the selling point of the 3-series, but now it's numb and lifeless." Road test editor Christopher Nelson said, "I don't love the long throws of the shift linkage, even though they are far less ridiculous than the 74 feet of clutch-pedal travel." Managing editor Amy Skogstrom tried to be an adult, but even she said, "What's with the Germans charging extra for every little thing? $475 for a split-folding back seat is ridiculous. You get that on lots of economy cars for nothing." Finally, when we shredded the luxo-spec, summer touring tires during some track driving (our own fault, really), the wailing just wouldn't stop.
When we had an opportunity to drive this 2012 BMW 328i in Luxury configuration back-to-back with a 2012 BMW 328i in Sport specification, we realized that our attempt at forcing maturity was a mistake. As Floraday said, "The Sport Line car drove the way I remember a 3-series should drive," adding, "Using the Sport+ mode took all the wallow out of the suspension, which really improves driver confidence." The compliant, long-travel suspension that has always been one of the best things about the BMW 3-series can actually unnerve you a little bit when you're driving fast, which is why we prefer more body control from the suspension setup and a more natural increase in effort and a stronger sense of the road surface from the steering wheel.
After a year with the 328i, our experience reminds us that the mission of the BMW 3-series has changed in the more than forty years since DED Jr. drove the blessed little box that was the BMW 2002. This latest iteration is still enormously capable, but as it tries to be more things to more people -- a luxury car, an environmentally responsible car -- those of us who want the kind of sport sedan that the 3-series has historically been need to carefully tick the correct boxes on the order form. Previously, that wasn't so important.
As for us, we're still kids when it comes to the sport sedan. The 2012 BMW 328i proved to be a nice car, but next time we'll choose the 3-series in a configuration of which our parents would not approve. And if we complain afterward, feel free to give us a firm talking to, just like you would any self-important teenager -- like that BMW guy who cut you off on the freeway last week.