Dan Frio, Automotive Editor
Building a new BMW 3 Series is likely one of the more nerve-wracking jobs in the automotive business. On one hand, you start with excellent raw material and a simple corporate mandate: Don't botch it. Yet a new 3 Series must also push the edges of performance, redefine the market segment and excite the BMW faithful. It also has to persuade skeptical shoppers and seduce the cautious. All this is required of the 2012 BMW 328i.
BMW can't afford to miss with the 2012 version of the 3 Series, the sixth generation of the model. The previous car accounted for more than a third of BMW's sales in North America last year. Any serious miscue risks sending buyers into rival showrooms, where the Audi A4, Infiniti G or Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedans all merit serious consideration.
The good news is that BMW hasn't missed. The new 3 Series has evolved in ways both subtle and significant. But it's not without risk. The new 3 Series has grown a little bigger. It now offers a four-cylinder engine in this base model, the 2012 BMW 328i. The steering of the 3 Series has gone electric, the digital equivalent of a once sacred act now controlled by the demons of electricity. We'd even say that the 3 Series has traded some sport for luxury.
But so far we'd say that we're OK with that.
BMW has taken a gamble equipping the base model BMW 328i with an inline-4 engine instead of the inline-6 that has long been synonymous with BMW's heritage. And yet the new turbocharged four-cylinder engine for the 328i marks a return to the beginnings of the 3 Series; the BMW 3 Series arrived in the U.S. in 1977 with a 2.0-liter inline-4 and used different variants of this engine until an inline-6 was introduced in 1986. The inline-4 even made a brief return in 1988 in the beloved, high-performance M3, and then again in the unloved 318ti hatchback, sold in the U.S. between 1995 and 1998.
But where the 318ti's wimpy 1.8-liter engine deserved derision, the new turbocharged 2.0-liter in the 2012 BMW 328i might be one of the company's best yet. BMW claims 240 horsepower from the turbo-4, and Edmunds testing suggests that the actual output is even a little bit more.
The 2.0-liter turbo also makes slightly more than its rated 255 pound-feet of torque, which begins building from 1,250 rpm. This newfound low-end thrust makes the 328i even more playful on winding roads than many of its predecessors. Where previous versions of the 3 Series with an inline-6 thrilled us from the middle portions of the rpm range to the redline, the 328i with its turbo-4 does some of its best work early in the rpm range, making the car tractable and easy to drive around town while still contributing to an overall character of alertness.
In Edmunds testing, a 2012 BMW 328i with the standard six-speed manual transmission accelerated from a standstill to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. More impressive is the new engine's ability to deliver excellent fuel economy. This 328i car is EPA rated at 23 city/34 highway mpg and 27 mpg combined, plus it recorded 25 mpg while in our hands.
This fuel savings carries something of a price in performance, however. The new 328i features electric-assist power steering, which improves engine efficiency while compromising communication from the front tires. Aficionados of the 3 Series might notice a little less feedback from the steering wheel — for them, the optional all-hydraulic, rpm-controlled variable-ratio system can help improve communication — but we think most drivers won't give the electric-assist, speed-controlled system a second thought.
While the 2012 BMW 3 Series comes standard with front and side curtain airbags, a more structurally rigid body and various optional safety systems (blind spot detection and lane departure warning among others), the braking performance of this 328i base model is a bit disappointing. It stops from 60 mph in 115 feet; it's not a bad result but still longer than the car's rivals (could these 225/45R18 Goodyear Efficient Grip tires be responsible?). The 328i also exhibited signs of brake fade, as repeated stops led to longer distances sooner than we would have liked.
The 2012 BMW 3 Series is nearly 4 inches longer than its predecessor, yet designers tucked the body in all around, so less metal hangs off the front and rear ends. And despite the growth, increased use of aluminum in the suspension and body panels helps reduce the 328i's weight by a useful 90 pounds.
Most important, larger dimensions give rear-seat passengers more room than before. Legroom is up by nearly three-quarters of an inch and knees gain an additional half-inch of breathing room. It's a slight but noticeable improvement in the rear-seat experience, reinforcing the ability of the 3 Series to perform as a multitasking compact sedan. Trunk space is also generous, with 17 cubic feet accommodating a few suitcases or a very impulsive shopping binge.
Up front, even the standard seats express the performance legacy of the 3 Series. Well-defined with side bolsters that embrace torso and thighs, the driver seat is a wonderful place for any stretch of driving. Opting for the Sport seats only improves the driver's sense of command over the car, so every long corner becomes an entertaining thrill.
Although the 2012 BMW 328i marks an entrance to the BMW brand, there is nothing entry-level about the interior. Thick faux-leather material wraps tightly across interior panels that fit together as if by organic fusion. Compartment doors open and shut with muted, smoothly controlled action. The center stack with its audio and climate controls is canted 7 degrees toward the driver for better access. This level of detail makes the 3 Series feel solid to the touch, and it proves a daily reminder of money well spent.
The iDrive multimedia interface in the 3 Series has become one of the best in the business, a small array of control knob and complementary buttons just forward of the center armrest. Unlike a touchscreen, the iDrive system never requires a driver to avert his eyes to guide fingers to the display. Instead just steal a quick glance at the freestanding iDrive monitor on the dash — a high-resolution color unit similar to a large iPhone on its side — while wading through navigation, entertainment and system menus with your hand on the control knob, just like a home computer and mouse. Opting for the available Technology package and BMW Apps suite can turn your iPhone into a jukebox that can stream online music, or a tool capable of reserving a table at Ruth's Chris' Steak House while stuck in traffic.
Design/Fit and Finish
Most of the exterior changes to the 2012 BMW 3 Series appear subtle from a distance. Revised taillights now more closely align with the design of those of the new BMW 5 Series, while pronounced ridges and depressions in the hood and along the sides of the bodywork offer visual distinction.
But the biggest change has had the 3 Series faithful sniffing in skepticism ever since BMW released the first photos of this car. The headlights now feature "corners" at the inside edges of the lamps that connect with the traditional twin-kidney grille. BMW says the new design highlights the wider stance of the new 3 Series. We agree there's some theoretical design unity in this choice, but we can't get over the new front end's almost comically aggressive furrowed brow.
Who should consider this vehicle
Purists might bemoan the 2012 BMW 328i as too big and too soft. They'll say its electric-assist steering and fuel-saving 225/45R18 tires undermine the impeccable sporting legacy of the BMW 3 Series. We sympathize with their frustration, but ultimately the base model 328i delivers better power and drinks less fuel than before while retaining its quick wits.
Of course, the perennial charm of the BMW 3 Series comes with its perennial premium. The price of the 2012 BMW 328i begins at a reasonable $34,900, but it escalates quickly with just a handful of extra-cost items. Our test car was built as a showcase of 3 Series options, so it included the Technology and Cold Weather packages, plus the adaptive sport suspension. As a result, the bottom line came to $50,745. This isn't representative of the average transaction price for this four-cylinder BMW, but it does remind you that luxury has its price in the 3 Series, no matter what the engine might be.
As a consequence, some BMW 3 Series loyalists won't be persuaded that a four-cylinder engine merits their attention, even a turbocharged one. For them, there's the 2012 BMW 335i. The dimensions and dynamics are mostly the same, but where the turbo-4 starts to strain its vocal cords when pushed to the limit, the 335i's turbocharged inline-6 sings a resonant tenor all its own thanks to 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque.
Still, if you're looking for a business-class compact sedan capable of on-demand thrills, the 2012 BMW 328i doesn't miss, proving that a fine German sedan isn't entirely out of range of your bank account.
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