Last month we reviewed the 2012 BMW 328i and found it less than ultimate as driving machines go. But the reviewed car was a “Luxury Line” sedan with an automatic transmission. For driving enthusiasts, BMW offers the new F30 with different options, among them a larger engine, a six-speed manual transmission, a “Sport Line” trim level, adaptive dampers, and staggered 19-inch summer tires. Check all of these boxes, and the next M3 might seem superfluous. Or not.
Red paint, blacked-out trim, and larger, five-spoke alloys dependably make a car appear sportier. It is somewhat shocking that 19-inch wheels now seem the appropriate size, aesthetically, for a 3-Series. Shod with them, the new car appears as compact as 3s used to be. The previous generation E90 looked good with mere 18s. The next M3 will likely wear dubs. Ever since reading a reader comment on Sajeev’s design critique, I cannot stop noticing the cut line at the leading edge of the hood. BMW’s previous practice of extending the hood all the way to the grille and headlights yielded a much cleaner nose.
Inside, the Sport Line is available with black, gray, or red seats, aluminum or black trim, and coral (more red) or black accents. Whoever ordered the press car went with the most conservative options, so we have classic black leather (that doesn’t look or feel much different from the standard leatherette) with bright red stitching to lend some visual interest. The aluminum trim on the center console was already knicked in a couple of places, suggesting either that it won’t hold up well or that journalists badly abuse the machinery. The Sport Line includes front bucket seats with bolsters that are both larger and (unlike on the current F10 5-Series) power-adjustable. For anyone who’ll be taking turns at speed, these are a must-have. As in the 328i, both the rear seat and trunk are much roomier than in past 3s. For those willing to forego these for a smaller, lighter, more agile car, it’s time for a four-door 1-Series.
Despite kicking out 60 more horsepower than the 328i’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four, the 335i’s 300-horsepower turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six does not feel much stronger. BMW’s official test track numbers back up this impression. Pair both engines with a manual transmission, and the six is only 0.3 seconds quicker to sixty, 5.4 vs. 5.7. What gives? Through the mid-range the 50-percent-larger engine is only about 15 percent more powerful, and this is partially offset by an additional 165 pounds of mass. Peak torque is 300 pound-feet with the six, 260 with the four. Only once over 5,000 rpm is the big engine significantly more powerful. Audi’s supercharged “3.0T” feels torquier. It’s time for a new BMW six that’s as power dense as the new four.
The six of course sounds smoother, but its soundtrack is all exhaust (no whirring mechanical bits) and almost generic. BMW has offered sweeter-sounding sixes in the past. When cruising the exhaust drones a bit much. The four’s much more varied repertoire is arguably inappropriate for a $40,000+ car, but is also more interesting.
The EPA ratings suggest that the six isn’t significantly less efficient than the four. Figures for the latter paired with the automatic transmission have been revised downward from 24 city, 36 highway to 23/33. The six with the same transmission? Also 23/33. And the heavier, all-wheel-drive 528i xDrive…would you believe 22/32? Me neither. Something ain’t right. I suspect only one powertrain was retested. You take a hit with the manual transmission. In the 335i it’s rated 20 city, 30 highway. In my driving, the trip computer reported numbers from five to ten miles-per-gallon lower with the 335i 6MT than with the 328i 8AT. While I was able to “Eco Pro” the latter over 40, it proved a challenge to nudge the former over 30. In typical suburban driving, the trip computer reported low-to-mid 20s in the 335i and high 20s to low 30s in the 328i. The harder you are on the gas, the smaller the difference between the two. Count on a sizeable difference on the highway with the manual transmission: it has a shorter top gear (0.85 vs. 0.67) AND a shorter final drive ratio (3.23 vs. 3.15).
Given the manual’s lesser efficiency and equal purchase price, is there a point to it? If you have to ask this question, then no, there isn’t. (I only asked it out of journalistic obligation.) My only issue with the manual other than the fuel economy hit is that second gear can be difficult to find on a quick downshift, a byproduct of locating the lockout-free reverse to the left of first.
With the Sport Line’s sport suspension and the “M Adaptive Suspension” set to “Sport”, the new 3 does feel tighter than the Luxury Line car, but still looser than I’ve come to expect from a BMW. In turns, especially those with imperfect pavement or where you’re being a little too aggressive with the accelerator, the rear end can bobble about a bit. Somehow the car’s line isn’t disturbed, only the driver’s confidence – and not by much. The bond with the F30 isn’t as immediate as with past 3s, but one learns that, when driven with a modicum of sanity, the 335i will go precisely where you want it to go. The misbehavior some people (who clearly don’t know what they’re talking about) refer to as ”snap oversteer”? There’s none of that. Get on the go pedal in a turn and the rear end slides out progressively. Left entirely on, the stability control will cut in too soon. There’s no need to deactivate it; the Sport+ setting puts the threshold about where it ought to be. The electric power steering is no more communicative here than in other recent BMWs. Perhaps BMW reasons that, since the car virtually reads your mind, there’s no need for it to converse. I’m not sure I’d drive the 335i better with more communicative steering, but I would enjoy the experience more. EPS notwithstanding, the 335i becomes enjoyable if you can really push it, the problem being that this is rarely a legal possibility in populated areas. During my week with the 335i I constantly felt like I had to back off just as the fun was starting. I didn’t drive the 328i and 335i with the same suspension, but as best as I can tell, the car feels heavier and less agile with the six, a typical consequence of adding 165 pounds over the front wheels.
One option not on the tested car: the $300 “variable sport steering.” This isn’t the complex active steering offered in the previous 3-Steries. Instead, the steering ratio quickens more rapidly as the wheel is turned. On center, the standard steering is 15:1, the VSS 14.5:1. By the time the wheel has been turned 100 degrees (roughly the amount needed to turn at a typical intersection) the standard steering has quickened to 10.1:1, but the VSS has reduced to an ultra-quick 7.7:1. Intrigued, I dropped by a dealer to sample a car with this option. As the specs suggest, the optional system doesn’t feel much different on-center or in medium-to-large radius curves. Only in tight curves does the steering feel noticeably different, and even then, it’s only really apparent after hopping back into the car without it. The largest difference will be felt in parking lots, where fewer turns are needed to maneuver into a space. Unlike with active steering, the character of the car isn’t dramatically affected. But since VSS is only another $300, I’d opt for it.
The upside of the F30’s less sporty sport suspension? The car rides more smoothly than previous sport-suspension equipped 3ers. I could live with the suspension set to “Sport” all the time, a good thing, as the car can bounce about far too much when set to “Comfort.” (Yes, you’ll need to switch it every time you start the car.) Given the underdamped nature of the default setting, the Sport Line’s standard suspension is probably the way to go. This will also save you $900. To save another $900, stick with the Sport Line’s standard 18-inch wheels. They look and handle about as good and ride significantly better. The 19s don’t ride harshly much of the time, but hit even a small pothole and it sounds like you’ve taken out a wheel. Non-run-flat tires would likely do better, but BMW does not offer them.
Equipped with most but not all options, the tested 335i lists for $55,745. Seem like a lot for a compact sport sedan? As just noted, you can save $1,800 by doing without the 19s and adaptive dampers. If you can live without nav and a head-up display (which would be more useful if it included a tach), then you’ll remove another $2,550. Keep cutting the non-essentials, add the optional steering, and you’ll arrive at a mere $47,195.
Still too steep for a vinyl-upholstered compact sedan? Well, there’s a good way to save another $3,700. The 328i is nearly as quick, is considerably more fuel efficient (despite similar EPA ratings), and handles better. Overall, even with the various sport options the new 3-Series feels a little soft and uninvolving for my taste. BMW focused on providing a very well-rounded car, and clearly left room for a future “is” or “M Sport.” Among the current offerings, the 328i Sport Line is the one to get.
BMW provided the tested car with insurance and a tank of gas. Erhard BMW of Farmington Hills, MI, provided the car with VSS.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.