First Drive: 2011 BMW 335is

We have just had a handful of laps on a damp racetrack in the new BMW 335is, but it only takes one trip around the Estoril circuit in Portugal to recognize that this car is no poseur in the shadow of the grandstands. The "s" that's been appended to the 335i tag stands for sport, and BMW has made adjustments to the powertrain and suspension to back that up. With the 414-hp M3 and the dynamic 335i already in BMW's lineup, though, the 335is certainly needs to make a case for itself since it's bracketed by such capable cars.

Honesty in driving
The heart of the new "s" model is a modified version of the twin-turbo in-line six that will soon be discontinued in the 335i. Software tweaks have allowed power to be increased from 300 to 320 hp while torque rises 32 lb-ft to a total of 332 lb-ft. BMW predicts that quite a few buyers of the 335is will end up taking their cars to the track at some point. To compensate for the extra abuse, there's a second water cooler, a new oil cooler, and a heavy-duty cooling fan. As a North America-only model, German engineers took special care to understand how the vehicle would be used in our market. Since Europeans tend to race on open, high-speed tracks, the BMW engineering team proved their cooling system on California's compact Buttonwillow race course to mimic the lower-speed, higher-rpm racing that's more popular here.

We set out on the 2.6-mile course at Estoril in a coupe equipped with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Outside of the M3, this is the first 3-series (and only for the immediate future) to receive the DCT gearbox, and it makes a convincing argument as to why you should skip the standard six-speed manual. The speed of an upshift, the beautiful rev match of a downshift, and the constant smoothness prove to be unflappable, while the wheel-mounted paddles make up for the loss of engagement found in moving a stick and clutch pedal. BMW also says the dual-clutch car is a tenth faster than the manual transmission, taking 5.0 seconds to hit 60 mph.

There will be both convertible and coupe body styles for the 335is, and both use the sport suspension that's available on other 3-series models. BMW's team (wisely) required that we leave stability control activated due to the wet pavement. While the system cuts power quite sharply before any serious yaw happens, it's clear that the car is eager to oversteer at the limit of grip. This is not a computer-controlled vehicle that will churn out phenomenal laps with mindless driving. Completing a genuinely fast lap takes honest talent. And that's the way we like it.

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