Larger, more comfortable and more fuel efficient, the latest generation BMW 3-Series is a better daily driver, but is it still the ultimate driving machine?
|1. 328i models are now powered by a new 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with 240 hp at 5000 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque from just 1250 rpm.
2. Fuel economy is 23/34 mpg for the 6-speed manual and 23/33 for the 8-speed automatic.
3. BMW rates the 328i at 5.7 seconds to 60 mph.
4. 3 Series models start at $36,500 with Sport Line models from $39,000.
That’s not a question that can be accurately measured on the street and so we set out to our usual test track to run the German sport sedan through its paces.
Rather than the obviously exciting 335i with its turbocharged six-cylinder, we chose the more calm, efficient and less expensive 328i model. To be fair, however, though our tester might have been equipped with the less-potent engine, it was otherwise fully kitted out, with a suite of options that left few lavish items absent.
Missing only the M Sport goodies our Sport Line model came equipped with the upgraded suspension and 225/45/18 performance tires, not to mention a traditional six-speed manual transmission with those perfectly placed pedals for heel-toe action. M-badging aside, a more track-ready 3 Series there isn’t.
SPORT LINE MODEL LOOKS THE PART
Outside the car looks the part with its Melbourne red paint contrasting with gloss black accents and even a black chrome exhaust. Inside the sporty theme continues with Sport seats (featuring adjustable side bolsters) coated in black leather with red stitching, while a thick-rimmed black steering wheel with red stitching fits nicely in the hands. Additional accents include custom Sport Line doorsills and gloss black accents on the dash.
At $2,500 above the base $26,500 328i, this is exactly how we’d outfit our 3 Series. It’s hard to argue that from customization to overall quality, the new 3 is remarkably improved when it comes to the cabin.
ONE FAST 4-CYLINDER
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Exit the pits and put the power down the front straight and it certainly doesn’t feel like an entry-level engine. Even more surprising, it doesn’t feel like a 4-cylinder.
For 2012, gone is the 3.0-liter straight-six in favor of a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder. Power is down slightly to 240 hp at 5000 rpm while torque rises considerably to 260 lb-ft between 1250 rpm and 4800 rpm.
Without traffic, curbs or the long arm of the law, a racetrack has an amazing way of dulling the sensation of speed. After all, you’d never screech the tires through a corner at 60 mph in the real world, but on a track it’s certainly not unheard of. And yet the 328i still feels fast, and it is, with a 0-60 time of just 5.7 seconds.
That low torque is handy for exiting corners, although what really makes the engine a joy is that peak thrust stays on strong until just 200 rpm short of max power, meaning that the consistency of power delivery is nearly perfect – something you almost never get in a turbocharged car.
Switch back to the street for a moment and the same engine has plenty of low torque for daily driving while the 4-cylinder engine is surprisingly refined on the highway. On the road is when you’ll also appreciate the 4 banger’s fuel economy, which is rated at 23 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway, a dramatic increase over last year’s model and well-above rivals like the Mercedes C250.
NEW 3 SERIES SHOWS ITS SIZE
The steering, a new electric unit that replaces the old (and excellent) hydraulic unit in the previous model, isn’t perhaps as engaging, but it’s still very good.
The level to which the new 3 Series fails to deliver the same level of driving enjoyment and responsiveness as its predecessor is miniscule compared to the old model and the reason has far more to do with the overall size and longer wheelbase than any changes to steering.
MANY CARS IN ONE
Letting the car adapt to your driving mood is a Driving Dynamics Control selector (located next to the iDrive controller) that now includes a total of four different settings. The Sport setting firms up the steering and throttle responsiveness while the Sport+ removes the traction control. Disabling stability control, however, still requires a push and hold of the traction control button – something necessary to test the limits of the car and let you steer it with the rear wheels.
Numerous turbocharged cars, even with those measuring peak torque at 1750 rpm, fail to deliver that ability to rotate the car with the throttle in lower speed corners. With 260 lb-ft at just 1250 rpm, however, that’s not an issue here.
Cool down, pit out and then hit the highway and the 328i instantly becomes more impressive. While Sport mode is actually our ideal drive setting, move to comfort mode (dulling throttle and steering inputs) and the experience becomes more relaxed for the long cruise home. Surprisingly, the car isn’t terribly unresponsive in this setting, compared to the Mercedes C250, which must always be driven in the Sport mode to make it anything but a lazy dog.
The fourth setting is Eco Pro, which maximizes the efficiency of the climate control and will either make sure you’re in the highest gear in the 8-speed automatic or provide cues to up-shift the 6-speed stick. Plus, the 3 Series now also gains a start-stop system and features regenerative braking.
We couldn’t live with Eco Pro on a daily basis, but the option is a nice one. Whether stuck in traffic on just piddling along the freeway, if there’s no opportunity for fun, it’s not a bad time to save a gallon of gas and some extra change. In fact, the Eco Pro mode will also tell you how many more miles you’ve extended the car’s fuel tank range.
With this latest model the 3 Series has reached new heights for comfort and quietness. It also gains plenty of new available features ranging from lane departure warning to blind spot monitoring, a backup camera and a distance warning system that alerts you if you’re approaching another car too quickly. All 3 Series models get Bluetooth standard as well as a 6.5-inch iDrive screen and a push-button ignition – though absent is keyless access.
Rear seat passengers will be impressed as well with a now livable amount of legroom, while BMW boasts plenty of cargo room with 17 cu-ft of space. More likely to be used for golf clubs than a spare set of track tires, what matters is that the 3 Series legitimately carries on its reputation as a driver’s car.
An immensely more practical machine, with improved fuel economy, comfort and features, the newest 3 offers so many more of the qualities buyers actually want and use on a daily basis, while remaining a class-leader in driving enjoyment.