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.
When thrown into corners, the 335is surprises with a feeling of engineered lightness. In fact, the sport car weighs roughly the same as a 3571-pound 335i. Blasting out of corners is where you'll find the true character of the 335is. An overboost function provides a temporary spurt of torque up to 370 lb-ft, lasting roughly seven seconds. The boost kick is tuned to fire up at higher gears in lower rpm ranges, so you won't encounter it often on a racetrack, but the surge is a fantastic reward for pummeling the throttle.
Equally entertaining are the burbles, crescendos, and screams from the sports exhaust, exiting through two subtle and sexy black chrome tips. Brakes remain unchanged compared with the 335i, but BMW engineers say they took the 335is to the Nurburgring to certify that the brakes were up to the task. In our drive, the stoppers proved more than adequate for performance driving and light racing.
M Sport styling
Cosmetic changes are largely drawn from the M Sport package that's already available on the 335i. The M Sport fascia is fitted with a gloss-black grille with discreet chrome edges. Side skirts also come from the M Sport hardware, but the rear diffuser is a new design. The mirror caps are also gloss black, and there is badging on both the trunk and front fenders. Eighteen-inch performance tires are standard; 19-inch rollers are available. Fog lights are only packaged with the convertible, while the coupe uses the space for additional cooling flow.
Interior changes are even more subtle, with the key elements being the M Sport steering wheel, a short shifter, and the comfortable, mildly bolstered sport seats. There's also a black headliner, door sills, sport pedals, unique gauges, and faux aluminum trim. Available options mirror those on the 335i, and a sunroof will be standard on coupes, though BMW is considering adding a delete option for the weight benefits.
Stuck in the middle
From behind the wheel, we're totally sold on the 335is. But looking at the components individually, the car is little more than a software tweak with the option of a dual-clutch transmission. 335i coupes already come standard with the sport suspension, and the cosmetic M Sport package can be had for $3250 on top of the car's $43,525 sticker. That leaves a $3750 difference with the $50,525 335is coupe paired to a manual transmission. There will be buyers who want the extra power, but how many of them have already bought an M3?
The 335is convertible will arrive first in April with a price of $59,075. The coupe then goes on sale in June. BMW says a 335is sedan will not be built.