First Drive: 2012 BMW 328i

The sixth generation of the BMW 3-series arrives this February in the United States—in sedan form, at least—and it’s safe to say that the biggest question on the mind of most enthusiasts is: Did BMW screw it up?

That is the key question, in part, because BMW has shown a penchant for messing with things that didn’t need to be messed with. From matters as big as its exterior designs, with “flame surfacing;” and the replacing of dedicated buttons and switches with iDrive; to ones as small as ditching the mechanical turn signal stalk switch for an electronic one, BMW has demonstrated that it sometimes does not know when to leave well enough alone.

It is also a question because the outgoing 3-series is not a car that was crying out for improvement. In fact, most of us would say that even at the advanced age of six, the current-generation 3-series is still the most desirable car in its class. Witness its appearance, yet again, on Automobile Magazine’s All-Stars list for 2012.

The chief reason that the 3 continues to win accolades is the way it drives. A glance at the specs of the new car, however, provides some reason for apprehension. The new 3 is larger, the iconic straight six has been replaced with a turbo four, the steering switches from hydraulic to electric assist, and regenerative braking has been added. Those are all changes that can affect the delicate formula for a near-perfect sports sedan, even for a company with as much experience at it as BMW.

At least the design of the new 3-series (the F30, to the BMW fetishists) is unlikely to put many people off, as it hews closely to the previous car. The most noteworthy—and strangest—element is the way the headlamps bleed into the grille. Other, less controversial aspects of the design include a hood that dips down toward the front (helping to achieve a .26 cD) and the slight forward lean of the twin-kidney grilles, which hasn’t been seen since the E30 3-series of the 1980s. Compared to the outgoing, E90 sedan, the new version has grown by 3.7 inches in length while the wheelbase has been stretched 1.9 inches. That means the car’s trademark ultra-short overhangs have become slightly longer, by approximately one inch at both ends. The width, at least, was held in check (actually decreasing fractionally) and yet the front and rear tracks are both more than an inch wider. Impressively, the new 3-series has gotten larger without getting heavier. BMW claims that, on an equipment-adjusted basis, the F30 is a tad lighter than its predecessor. At 3460 pounds, the 328i is also lighter than the Mercedes-Benz C250 or the Audi A4 2.0T.

At the launch event, the BMW people couldn’t stop talking about the three Lines, which essentially are optional trim levels (above the base car). Each one tweaks the look ever so slightly, with its own eighteen-inch wheel design, variations to the grille slats and the lower air intakes, the mix of chrome and gloss black trim, and the interior décor. The Modern Line has a monochromatic interior, with a beige dash, steering wheel, and gauge faces in place of the usual black. The Luxury Line is more traditionally outfitted, and uses the most chrome; both Modern and Luxury include leather. You’ll likely be most interested in the Sport Line, not for its leatherette upholstery, aluminum interior bits, and red accents, but instead because it comes with sport seats and a lowered, sport suspension. (The Sport Line effectively replaces the sport package.) An M Sport version takes things a bit further, with restyled lower bodywork and Alcantara upholstery, but it doesn’t arrive until summer.

All three Lines are available on both the 328i and the 335i. The 335i returns with its 300-hp, 3.0-liter turbocharged straight six; in place of the previous six-speed automatic, there is a new eight-speed. It’s a no-cost option over the standard six-speed manual. The 328i has the same two transmissions, but its bigger change is in the engine room. The normally aspirated straight six is gone, and in its place is the new, N20, direct-injected four-cylinder turbo.

This swap has already taken place in the Z4 and the 528i, so perhaps you already know that this engine displaces 2.0 liters and features a twin-scroll turbocharger. In the 328i, it makes 240 hp and 260 pound-feet of torque (both of those output figures are better than the old six’s). Like the turbo six, the turbo four can be had with all-wheel drive—that is, once xDrive arrives next fall. Next fall also will see the first-ever 3-series Active Hybrid, pairing a six-cylinder with an electric motor.

Of the U.S.-market cars, the 328i with the eight-speed automatic is the version that BMW had on hand for us to try. A Sport Line model in Melbourne red, it was also brimming with all the equipment that’s new to the 3-series, including the adaptive M suspension (an option exclusive to the Sport Line), variable sport steering, and a phalanx of electronics: a head-up display, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning, a rear-view camera with surround view, and hands-free trunk opening.

The latter proved somewhat disappointing, as wiggling a foot under the rear bumper failed to produce the desired effect and felt as ridiculous as doing the Hokey Pokey. But then at last the trunk popped open and we threw our bags inside (sensors recognize the motion and the key in your pocket). We should at this point mention that cargo volume has improved by 1 cubic foot.

Given the greater stretch between the axles, it’s no surprise that the 3-series cabin has more space than before, particularly in the rear seat. Six-footers will find decent legroom, generous knee clearance, and adequate headroom. Up front, the driving position is familiar, which is to say great. There’s a fat-rimmed, small-diameter steering wheel; a large dead pedal; and the driver sits in close proximity to a fairly upright windshield.

All F30 3-series come standard with iDrive and a free-standing 6.5-inch screen—cars equipped with navigation get an 8-inch screen. The iDrive logic still requires more steps than should be necessary to perform many functions, but there are physical controls for many of the most-used items, including the climate controls and much of the audio system. As is typical of BMWs, the layout of all lesser controls is above reproach. The BMW faithful will find everything right where they expect it, and newbies to the brand will have no trouble adjusting. The interior design has more slashing angles than before, but the cabin still looks like a BMW. Materials quality, while not lavish, has no evident lapses.

Our first drive took us through some stop-and-go suburban driving before we got out into the countryside, where a long series of two-lane switchbacks delivered us to Montserrat, and then on to our hotel. The 2.0-liter four doesn’t have quite the sophisticated thrum of a straight six at start up, but the engine boasts a trick flywheel and two counter rotating balance shafts that help make it quite smooth at idle. Run it up the tach and it emits a satisfying growl. With an additional 60 pound-feet of torque compared to the old six, it also moves the 328i with verve. The car zips from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds (factory figures), which is a full second quicker than the previous 328i with its six-speed automatic. Paired with the manual, the turbo four is even quicker, reaching 60 mph in 5.7 seconds (0.6 second quicker than before). With peak torque coming in at a low, 1250 rpm, the car is energetic right off the line, and the boost is beautifully integrated.

Of course, the four’s main mission is to improve fuel economy. EPA figures are not yet available, but in the 528i paired with the same eight-speed automatic, this engine manages 23/34 mpg (city/highway), and it should do at least that well here. That’s far better than the previous 18/28 mpg. Helping the cause is an auto start/stop system and regenerative braking, which are standard in both 3-series models. Unfortunately, the auto start/stop isn’t quite as seamless as it is in a good hybrid, as it creates a little shudder on restart (the system can be disabled with a button next to the ignition). The regenerative brakes, on the other hand, are much better than those in most hybrids but are still a little grabby in light pedal applications.

Standard on the new 3-series is a drive mode rocker switch, to toggle among four settings: Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport-plus. Eco Pro is part of BMW’s Efficient Dynamics push, and it reduces the drag on the engine by running systems such as the air conditioning and the seat heaters at less than full capacity. That’s fine, but it also remaps the throttle to kill engine responsiveness, and it tries to coach you by showing little nagging icons on the dash, suggesting that you slow down and let off the gas. We quickly grew tired of Eco Pro.

Switching between Comfort and Sport also alters throttle mapping and transmission shift strategy, as well as steering effort and damper firmness (with the optional adaptive suspension). Sport-plus is the same as Sport, but switches the stability control to dynamic mode. Steering effort in Comfort mode is a little lighter than the BMW norm, so we preferred Sport. In either mode, however, the variable sport steering provided a little too variable over the fast switchbacks, providing more lock than we thought we’d asked for. Overall, though, it’s nowhere near as weird as BMW’s active steering (which it replaces), but we’d still skip it.

We have no such reservations about the suspension, which exhibits all the athleticism we’ve come to expect here. That was particularly in evidence over five rainy laps of the Circuit de Catalunya, where the new 3 really came into its own. The steering, which we had been thinking was a bit less communicative than the delightfully informative system in the previous car, here conveyed plenty of info about the front tires’ tenuous relationship with the wet tarmac. The chassis balance (weight distribution is 50:50) was also evident, helping us on the slick circuit to keep the car in the narrow band between front-end push and power oversteer. The dynamic stability control permits generous drift angles before pulling in the reins. It also can be switched off completely by holding down the DTC button; as ever, the 3-series lets go in a controlled manner and is easy to gather up. Even on the track, however, we could not discern much of a difference in firmness between the adaptive suspension in Comfort mode and in Sport. It may be that the changes in damping rates are only evident over bad pavement, and we didn’t encounter much of that in Spain. Nothing that we did find suggested that Sport mode would be unduly harsh, but the roads back home will be a better test of that.

Overall, our first drive shows the latest 3-series to have suffered hardly at all for the cause of greater efficiency. Yes, some aspects of the 3-series have been altered, and others have been improved, but that the overall character of the car has been maintained. And that’s a relief.

The Specs
2012 BMW 328i
Base price: $35,775 (estimated)
On sale: February 2012

Body style: 4-door sedan
Accommodation: 5-passenger
Construction: Steel unibody

Powertrain
Engine: 16-valve DOHC I-4 turbo
Displacement: 2.0 liters (122 cu in)
Power: 240 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 1250–4800 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel
Fuel economy: 23/34 mpg (city/highway, estimated)

Chassis
Steering: Electrically assisted rack and pinion
Turning circle: 37.1 ft
Suspension, front: damper struts, coil springs
Suspension, rear: multi-link, coil springs
Brakes: Ventilated discs, ABS
Wheels: 19-inch aluminum alloy
Tires: Bridgestone Potenza S001
Tire size, front: 225/40R-19
Tire size, rear: 255/35R-19

Measurements
L x W x H: 182.5 x 71.3 x 56.3 in
Wheelbase: 110.6 in
Track F/R: 60.3/61.9 in
Headroom F/R: 40.3/37.7 in
Legroom F/R: 42.0/35.1 in
Cargo capacity: 13 cu ft
Weight: 3406 lb
Fuel capacity: 15.6 gal

shakiraisme
"The kidney grilles and headlamps are widened to the point of touching, in a way that looks like someone power-washed the nose too hard, removing the soft trim that usually separates the lights from the grille."This is exactly the sort of opinion that doesn't belong in auto journalism. His perception is obviously inflouencing his judgement and I cannot take anything he says as unbiased. Steve Sutcliff form Autocar loves the steering... I'll rather take my cues from him, as he hasn't fould his report with silly opinions.Btw, don't forget that, long ago, there was no body paneling between the headlights and kidney grill... think E30! Now all of a sudden its peculiar...? www.oemcargps.com
ErikAdamec
I love BMW, and probably always will, but it seems every body design iteration evolves away from the tenets that made their designs great--particularly with the front ends adorning their entire line. The kidney grills, for decades, had been upright-that is to say, each side was taller than it was wide. Over the years, they've morphed the kidneys into a "landscape" orientation--in my mind, a radical departure from the look that made BMW distinctive for so many years.Also, the leading edge of the hoods on older BMWs used to form a natural break between the top of the hood and the front end arrangement (headlights & grill). Now, as is the case with this new 3-series, there is a body-colored panel that fills in the gap between the hood and the grill. Why couldn't they just make the hood long enough to stop at the top of the grill, thereby eliminating an ugly, eye-tripping break?I wish someone at BMW would go back and study some of the old design language that made BMW synonymous with "form follows function."

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