No car has defined and dominated a segment like the BMW 3-Series. It is the compact sport sedan everyone else has been gunning for since the origin of the line over 30 years ago. So when the 3er is redesigned, as it has been for 2012, everyone wonders: have they once again raised the bar, or have they lost their way, perhaps even choked? An answer, in two parts. First up: a “Luxury Line” 328i automatic. Next month: a three-pedal “Sport Line” 335i.
The 3-Series rose to dominance as a car for driving enthusiasts. But if BMW was ever content with such a narrow focus, that ended decades ago. Even back in the 1980s there were luxury-oriented “L” variants of the 6- and 7-Series. The newest 3 lifts a page from the Mercedes playbook to more distinctly target different groups of buyers with a “Luxury Line” alongside a “Sport Line.” A “Modern” Line” is essentially the former with less chrome on the outside and more adventurous trim on the inside. (Cheap SoBs content with 17-inch rims and satin plastic trim can get a car with no “Line” at all.) Of course, trim levels are relatively cheap and easy. Much more ambitious, especially given the relatively small size of the company is how BMW has sold some variant of the 3 to anyone seeking a $35,000+ compact sedan. But can a single model hope to be the best car for everyone?
Even successful revolutions tend to be followed by counter-revolutions. Chris Bangle’s “flame surfaced” designs sold cars and were widely copied. But enough of BMW’s core constituency expressed (at times vehement) disapproval that by the time the “E90” 3-Series (below) was introduced six years ago the American innovator had been tamed. With the new “F30” 3-Series no new aesthetic ground was sought, and even less was gained. No one will mistake the new 3 for anything else. Well, unless they mistake it for the previous generation sedan or the current “F10” 5-Series. The new car looks much the same as the old one, only with mildly softened, simplified lines, including a more bulbous nose and widened “kidneys.” An already watered-down design has been watered down further, and some of the old body’s tightness and rightness have been lost in the quest to produce a more broadly appealing, less pedestrian injuring car. Compared to the F10, the main difference is size.
Oops, wrong photo. Here’s the right one:
This is likely the last time BMW can get away with such a mild update. The F30 sedan is an attractive car, but not a striking one. Next time around, they’d best attempt an aesthetic reinvention along the lines of the E36. We’ll have plenty of warning. Design innovations tend to be tested first with the 7 then the 5. The upcoming “i” cars enable a preliminary round where truly risky concepts can be tested well ahead of any new 7.
The F30’s interior similarly represents a further development of the design language established by the 2002 7-Series, though in its case the changes are generally for the better. As with the current 5 and 7, the center stack has been vertically shortened, for a sportier appearance. For the F30 they’ve gone a step further, visually separating the display screen from the rest of the center stack. As a result, the screen sticks out of the top of the instrument panel much like a retractable one would—only it doesn’t retract. Not the cleanest appearance, but this does successfully minimize the perceived mass of the IP and thus makes the car itself seem less massive. I drove the new 5 a week earlier, and even more than past midsize BMWs it feels a little large to me. Sliding into the new 3, I instantly felt at home. Okay, not quite instantly. Unlike those in the Audi A4 and upcoming Cadillac ATS, the 3’s driver seat feels too low (to this 5’9″ driver) when in its lowest position. The seat adjuster provides a quick and easy fix.
There’s luxury, and then there’s “BMW Luxury.” In cars without the “Sport Line” treatment you get BMW’s basic seat, so it’s firm and lacking in contour. Theoretically the four-way lumbar adjuster should enable a perfect fit, but as is often the case with these no setting seemed quite right (YMMV). The “Sport Line” includes BMW’s sport buckets, with larger adjustable bolsters (oddly decontented from the current 5).
The biggest surprise with the new 3: nearly as much rear kneeroom as in the 5, and considerably more than in competitors. (Ignore the on-paper superiority of the Audi A4—it doesn’t exist in the real world.) On top of this, the rear seat is even comfortably shaped and positioned, a rarity in the segment. The trunk has grown even more. At 17.0 cubic feet, it’s easily the largest in the segment. The optional folding rear seat now splits 40:20:40. With the passive entry option, swinging a foot under the rear bumper pops the lid open hands-free.
I’m just old enough to remember when most 3ers were sold here with four-cylinder engines. And Audi fits most A4s with fours. Even so, it’s a little hard to get my head around the idea of a 328i with a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine. The inline six feels and sounds so good in runs to the redline, how could a four possibly serve as a suitable replacement? Well, it just can’t.
Not that the four is bad. It’s plenty powerful and capable of getting to sixty in under six seconds. But at idle and low rpm it sounds shockingly similar to a diesel, transitioning to a boxer-like brogue in the mid-range, and then finally to an engaging snarl over 4k. At no speed does it sound like a conventional four. But it only sings sweetly at higher engine speeds, and even then the positive impression lasts only until you get behind the wheel of a decent six.
The boosted nature of the engine is evident in a sluggish throttle response at low revs. The four might bang out 260 pound-feet at a low, low 1,250 rpm, but these “torques” aren’t immediately available. Let the transmission manage its own shifts and you’ll often find yourself seriously thrust-deficient mid-curve unless you request said thrust at turn entry—or earlier. Even in “sport” mode (which makes much less of a difference than in past BMWs). The solution is to manually shift the occasionally bumpy eight-speed automatic and keep the revs over 3k. Or get something else with a six.
An undeniable advantage of the four is fuel economy. In “Eco Pro” mode, the throttle feel approaches that of a Prius, and I found it oddly soothing to ooze slowly away from stops much as I would in a Prius. (So much so that, when I drove a 528i with the same powertrain, a Prius first tailgated then passed me. Payback’s a…well, you know.) The payoff of going extra easy on the gas: when hyper-miling through the burbs, the trip computer reliably reported 37-38 miles-per-gallon. On one trip between the kid’s school and home where the traffic signals aligned in my favor, I even managed a bit over 40. Does it lie? (I’ve asked the fleet company to let me know how much gas they put in it when the car is redeployed tomorrow.)
In less casual driving, expect high 20s to low 30s. Employ a lead foot and spend a lot of time over 4,000 rpm? Then hello high teens. With the turbo, fuel economy varies widely based on driving style. Dare the 2.0 to drink, and it’ll drink.
[Update: the fleet company got those figures to me, and they're not pretty. If they're correct, the 328i managed only 21.9 miles-per-gallon during its week with me. This is about 8 to 10 mpg lower than the figures reported by the trip computer, a huge difference. The trip computer also reported surprisingly high numbers with the 528i, so BMW trip computers could tend to be highly inaccurate.]
One fuel economy trick in need of further refinement: an automatic stop / start system. Stop at a light in Drive with your foot on the brake and the engine automatically cuts off. Lift off the brake and it automatically restarts. Hybrids have done this for years, and in heavy traffic, moving from signal to signal you’ll save a lot of gas. Unfortunately, the stops and starts are far from seamless—each is accompanied by a shudder that will provoke a visceral reaction from anyone who has ever stalled a car with a stick. More of a quibble: as in some hybrids, it can be easy to forget you haven’t actually turned the car off. The tach provides a clue, with the needle at “ready” when the engine is off but the ignition isn’t.
BMW’s reinvention of the slushbox shifter is no more desirable in the new 3 than in the 5 and 7. A tip to OEMs: if your shifter requires on-screen instructions, it’s probably too complicated. Another: people operate these things with their hands. It’s more important that they feel good when grasped than that they give sci-fi fans the cold fuzzies. A more hand-friendly reinvention, once you figure out what they’ve done: the secondary release under the hood is impossible to find, because there isn’t one. Instead, pull the release inside the car twice.
So you’ve got the engine north of 3k and head into that curve. Can the Luxury Line 3er handle it? The car’s initial reactions set off alarm bells. The body heels over and, if the pavement gets wavy, the nose also bobs considerably. Body motions are more tightly controlled in a Buick. But, what do you know, despite all the swaying and bobbing there’s no weaving. The 3er adheres faithfully to your specified line. And while the feedback might not all be confidence-inspiring, it is at least still provided in quantity, through the seat of your pants more than through the fairly light, somewhat vague (yet still superior) steering. Oversteer is easy to induce, even easier to correct. Squeeze the go pedal just so (with the revs and thus boost up) and the rear end slides around beautifully, even gracefully. Squeeze the pedal a little further to…well, just because driving sideways is fun when you can feel confident that a touch of counter-steer will dependably bring the rear back into line. You can connect with this car, the bond just isn’t as strong, as engaging, or as rewarding as in the E90 (at least not in non-Sport form). Does this matter? If the car will do what is asked of it, must it necessarily do so with a smile?
The combination of precise handling (when the chips are down) with a smooth, quiet ride might well be the best of both worlds for non-enthusiasts. But the new 3 doesn’t quite deliver the latter. As soft and squishy as the suspension can feel at times, bumps and divots still announce their presence more loudly and sharply than in a Lexus. Overall noise levels are low, perhaps lower than in the larger 528i, yet enough small sounds intrude to break the spell. Much like the interior doesn’t look like that of a luxury car, the ride doesn’t sound or feel like that of a luxury car. Many people will no doubt blame the mandatory run-flat tires, and they could well be right. But I also get the sense that, no matter how much BMW wants to appeal to luxury car buyers, they can’t entirely escape the corporate DNA.
One group BMW remains happy to leave for other auto makers: those seeking affordable wheels. The base price of the F30 is up only a few hundred dollars from the E90’s, to $35,795. Accounting for the disappearance of last year’s no-cost leather widens the gap, but a $400 adjustment for the new car’s additional features (using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool yields a roughly $1,300 bump. But the E90 was already more expensive than the competition. Check most of the option boxes, as with the tested car, and the 2012’s sticker stops just short of fifty large. A similarly-equipped Infiniti G37 (no need to bother with the torque-free G25) runs about $4,000 less after adjusting for remaining feature differences.
I remember my first drive in the BMW E90. I instantly bonded with that car, and had a blast pushing it hard along my twisty route. In comparison, many aspects of the F30 328i impressed me—most notably the rear seat and the fuel economy—but the driving experience just isn’t quite the same. BMW seems so confident of its handling superiority that it has sought to only hold the line (or even yield a little) in this area, and concentrate on improving the car elsewhere. Like the buttoned-down bureaucrat who decides to cut loose one night after work, the result in incomplete and unconvincing. Few true sybarites will be fooled. And driving enthusiasts? Well, the “Luxury Line” isn’t intended for us. I’m still very much looking forward to a week in a “Sport Line” stick-shift 335i next month.
BMW provided the car with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.