The 3 series has been the benchmark to which all manner of vehicles are measured. The comparisons go beyond the likes of the A4, C-Class and S60 and include things like M3 vs Camaro, 328i vs Prius. There’s a problem with your largest volume product being put on this kind of pedestal: how do you redesign it? Carefully, mildly, infrequently and only when absolutely required. With increased competition from the Audi A4, a redesigned S60 and Caddy’s new ATS, can BMW afford the same formula again? Michael Karesh got his hands on a 328i back in March, while I spent a week testing the 328i in its natural habitat: the California freeway. (Oh, and we spent some time on Lagua Seca as well.)
If you’re not a BMW fan, you might mistake the 2012 3-Series for its predecessor, or at the least assume this is just a different trim level of the same. Despite practically nothing being shared with the outgoing model, the exterior looks like a simple facelift with new front and rear bumpers. According to BMW, that’s just how the target demographic likes it. Since the sheetmetal is pleasing to the eye, who am I to disagree? If you compare side profiles, you’ll find the 3-Series’ wheelbase has been extended two inches while the entire car has been stretched by four inches. The cabin-stretching results in a more balanced and elegant look than before. If you’re into BMW trivia, because of the 3-Series’ perpetual growth, the 328i is just one inch shorter than a 1998 5-Series. Aficionados will bemoan the loss of LED turn signal lamps. Why BMW chose to move one step backwards we don’t know, but their loss won’t bother many shoppers.
In an attempt to create multiple personalities for the 3-Series, the same basic sedan can be had in five different style packages: Modern, Luxury, Sport, M-Sport, and the base model. Exterior differences boil down to different bumper covers, wheels, a sport suspension upgrade on the Sport trims and different answers to the eternal question: to chrome or not to chrome?
I never cared for BMW’s “double-bump” dash look that put the infotainment screen in a binnacle of its own. Apparently it didn’t do anything for the BMW’s engineers either. For 2012, your choice of standard 6.5-inch or 8.8-inch iDrive displays is permanently fixed to the center of the dash, sans “hood.” The look is reminiscent of the last generation of pop-up Volvo Nav system, sans-pop and is far more pleasing to my eye. The new screen and the Jaguar-like volume of real-tree are clues to the baby Bimmer’s refocused mission: luxury and technology.
2012 brings more wood, metal and plastic trim options than ever before. Also on offer are several finishes for the portions of the interior you see above in matte chrome. Base models continue to come with BMW’s “leatherette” seating surfaces in two shades, while real-cow surfaces are offered in 7 shades with available piping and contrasting stitching. The front seats in our “Luxury line” tester were extremely supportive during a 4 hour road trip and selecting the “sport” seats allows a range of seat contour adjustment that is class leading. Thanks to the wheelbase stretching, rear leg room is up by a quoted 3/4 inch but the adjusted seating positions (slightly more upright) and the shape of the front seat-backs makes the rear larger. Trunk space has grown more considerably to 17 cubic feet, notably larger than even the American-sized trunk in the Lincoln MKZ, despite the considerable intrusion from the trunk hinges.
Infotainment & Gadgets
The 2012 3-Series gets the latest generation of BMW’s iDrive. The system builds upon the previous versions in small, but important ways. Keeping up with the times, BMW has swapped the CD button for a “Media” button which makes accessing your USB and iDevices easier than in the past. You’ll also find an additional USB port in the glove compartment enabling you to have two USB/iDevices plugged in at the same time with an additional device plugged into BMW’s “dock” in the center armrest.
BMW has also taken the next logical step and integrated the infotainment system with the optional heads-up display. While some may look at this as an all-new distraction, if you’re going to be browsing your playlist, you might as well do it while looking at the road. The full-color image is projected onto the windshield from an in-dash LCD that makes the electrofluorescent HUDs used by GM and Toyota look like a 1980′s flash back.
Our 328i tester had the “BMW Apps” package, a $250 option on-top of the $2,150 navigation system and $650 “enhanced USB” and BMW Assist (both of which are required to “app” yourself.) If you’re not a gadget freak like I am, app integration won’t matter much to you. If you like the idea of being able to download an app to enhance your infotainment system years after you buy your car, then apps are for you. The current app suite allows you to Facebook, Tweet and stream internet radio from your iPhone to the car’s radio. The twist for 2012 is an all-new Wikipedia app (that can be used on previous generation BMW vehicles with the app option as well). While this may sound silly, the Wiki app integrates with your GPS to find Wiki articles about nearby points of interest. Once a POI is selected, iDrive will download the Wiki article and using text-to-speech, it will read it to you as you roll. While Ford MyTouch has vastly superior voice command options, iDrive’s tasteful high-res graphics, fast interface and superior phone integration make this the system to beat.
If these gadgets float your boat, they can be combined into one package for $3,100 and includes 4 years of the basic BMW Assist (BMW’s version of OnStar). Before you get too excited by the advertisements however keep in mind you have to pay an extra $199 a year for the “convenience” features of BMW Assist like Google send-to-car and the BMW concierge service.
No new European car would be complete without a bevy of luxury and convenience features, especially not the new 3-Series with its new luxury direction. The extensive list includes: blind spot monitoring, top-view camera, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, lane departure warning, collision warning, radar cruise control, speed limit help, keyless-go, variable steering, adaptive suspension and automatic high-beams. The 328i may start at $36,500, but its easy to option your entry-level 3-Series up to its $57,000 max if you’re nor careful.
BMW has long been known for their silky-smooth inline sixes, but you won’t find one under the hood of the 328i. Instead, you’ll find the latest fruit of BMW’s direct-injection-turbocharged love affair: the N20. On the surface there is nothing special about BMW’s all-new, all-aluminum 2.0L turbo engine. After all, everyone from Audi to Volvo has a new 2.0L turbo four-banger, so what’s the big deal? Aside from the shock of finding an engine with 33% fewer cylinders under the hood of a 3-Series, not much, and that’s the big deal. Producing 240HP from 5,000 to 6,000RPM and 255 lb-ft of twist from 1,250 to 4,800RPM, this engine is significantly more powerful than the old 3.0L N52 six cylinder, all while being 20% more fuel-efficient and better in just about every way. Due to the nature of a gasoline direct-injection system, the N20 sounds like a quiet diesel at idle. Thankfully, inside the cabin you’d never know since BMW balanced the N20 extremely well and installed so much sound deadening material that you can’t hear the engine in normal driving.
You may not be able to hear the N20, but you can sure feel it. The Kansas-flat torque curve that drops precipitously after 6,000 RPM is a stark contrast from the old 3.0L engine that loved to sing at high RPMs. While some may miss the power delivery style of the old naturally aspirated six, the N20′s curve is a better match for the ZF 8-speed and average drivers.
The N20 isn’t just 33% shorter than the old N52, it is also 50lbs lighter and sits behind the front axle instead of above it. The effect of the weight reduction and nose-lightening is obvious out on the track where the 328i felt much more nimble than the 335i when driven back to back. The difference was far more pronounced than I had anticipated. In my book, the increased nimbleness is worth the reduction in thrust. While I’m sure my 335i laps were faster, the 328i was more fun. It’s easy to forget how hose heavy the 335i is until you have an identical car with a few pounds removed from the front.
In the 328i’s natural habitat, the urban jungle, you may find the new Start/Stop feature something of a mixed bag. As you would expect, the system turns the engine off while the transmission is in Drive, is stopped and the driver’s foot is on the brake. As you would expect this results in real improvements in city mileage, but there us a problem. The system is far from smooth.
At the heart of the BMW Start/Stop system is a beefier starter and a “glass-mat” 12-volt battery designed to handle the frequent starting. When the engine is warm and the cabin heating/cooling demands are in the right range, stopping at a light will be followed by a less than graceful shudder as the engine turns off. Next, the car turns the HVAC blower down to a gentle breeze to keep the electrical draw low. (Without a hybrid style battery, capacity is fairly low.) The car will automatically start the engine when you release the brake (or when the car decides the engine needs to run for cabin cooling.) Engine restarts are far from seamless with engine cranking, a shudder and a delay to forward progress while the ZF 8-speed’s hydraulics re-pressurize. Passengers used to smooth start/stop cycles in hybrid cars found the start/stop cycles “abrupt” and “jarring.” I found the fuel savings worth the commotion, but if your tastes differ, BMW offers an “off” button. If you live in a hot climate like Phoenix, don’t expect the system to start/stop too often.
After handing the keys for the BMW back something dawned on me. I’d miss the 328i. That’s not a statement I make lightly, or often. Previous 3-Series sedans just didn’t press the right buttons for me, but somehow the this one managed to poke just about all of them. The combination of handsome looks, good fuel economy, nimble handling and gadgets galore is a siren call for gadget geeks in their 30s. The problem? Is the 328i worth the premium? Or should you just buy a Volvo S60 or Audi A4? Unless you’re the kind of shopper willing to put down 5-Series money for a loaded 328i, then the A4 and S60 will deliver 95% of the experience for less and throw in AWD for your troubles. If however you value driving enjoyment, a slick nav and a gorgeous HUD, then the 3-Series is for you. The 3-Series’ benchmark status? Completely safe. For now.
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BMW provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested:
0-30: 1.65 Seconds
0-60: 5.72 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.25 Seconds @ 100.6 MPH
Average fuel economy: 32.8 MPG over 1,124 miles