German Icons: 2012 BMW 328i

Our first drive took us through some stop-and-go suburban driving before we got out into the Spanish 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 counterrotating 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 lb-ft of torque compared with 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 faster, 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-cylinder's main mission is to improve fuel economy. The new EPA ratings are 24/36 mpg with the automatic, or 23/34 mpg with the manual. That's far superior to the previous 18/28 mpg. Helping the cause is an auto start/stop system and active alternator management (a clutch keeps the alternator from spinning unnecessarily), 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).

Standard on the new 3-series is a drive-mode rocker switch to toggle among four settings: Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport +. Eco Pro is part of BMW's EfficientDynamics 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 displaying icons on the dash that nag you to 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 + is the same as Sport but switches the stability control to dynamic mode. Steering effort in Comfort mode is a bit lighter than the BMW norm, so we preferred Sport. The variable sport steering proved a little too variable over the fast switchbacks, however, providing more lock than we thought we'd asked for. It's not nearly 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 from a 3-series. 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, conveyed plenty of info about the front tires' tenuous relationship with the wet tarmac. Weight distribution is 50/50, and the balanced chassis was neutral and forgiving, allowing us to keep the car in the narrow band between front-end push and power oversteer on the slick circuit. The stability control permits generous drift angles before pulling in the reins and can also be switched off completely; 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 the adaptive suspension's firmness between Comfort mode and Sport. It may be that the changes in damping rates are evident only over bad pavement, and we didn't encounter much of that in Spain. Nothing that we found 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 the overall character of the car has been maintained. And that's a relief.

2012 BMW 328i

Base price $35,795

Engine 16-valve DOHC turbo I-4 Displacement 2.0 liters (122 cu in)
Power 240 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque 260 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Drive Rear-wheel

Steering Electrically assisted
Suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
Brakes Vented discs, ABS
Tires Bridgestone Potenza S001
Tire size f, r 225/40YR-19, 255/35YR-19

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
Weight 3406 lb
Fuel mileage 23/34 mpg (manual), 24/36 mpg (automatic)
0-60 MPH 5.9 sec
Top speed 130/150 mph (base/sport)

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I'm more concerned about the $50,000 + price tag. That seems over the top and out of reach to me, for a 3-series. I love the 3-series and have owned three over the years, but 50k? I just might be checking out Acura, Cadillac and it's other competition.

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