A 4-Cylinder 3 Series With Few Flaws
There is much you need to know about the new 2012 BMW 3 Series, not the least of which is the fact that it's a very noticeable upgrade from the very first drive.
It is larger, lighter, has a longer wheelbase, uses less fuel and has more cabin and trunk space. It also offers either a six-speed manual to appease the purists or an eight-speed auto to appease everybody else.
It has downsized on the engine side, too, so the 2012 BMW 328i will arrive in the U.S. in February next year with a 240-horsepower, direct-injection, turbocharged four-cylinder lurking under the hood.
And what about BMW's legacy for six-cylinder power? Well, consider this, the four-cylinder runs to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds according to BMW. That's only 0.3 second slower than the turbocharged six can manage in the incoming 335i. Think anyone will complain?
The "New" 3 Series
Like all new BMWs, the latest 328i is not exactly all new. Such is the planning in Munich that the 3 Series shares parts with other family members, both lesser and greater. The front suspension, the front bulkhead, the central floorpan, the electrical systems, the iDrive switchgear and even the transmission tunnel are carried over from the latest iteration of the 1 Series. The automatic transmission is already used in several other BMW models and even this 2.0-liter engine first saw action in the Z4 sDrive28i.
But, as we found out on a cold, wet day in Barcelona, Spain, the car has gained more in character than you could ever pick up from dry specification lists. BMW insists the quality of its four-cylinder turbocharged motors is now high enough that it can deliver the performance and smoothness normally tasked to six-pots with all the fuel economy of a four. On paper, it's tough to argue.
One of the tricks it uses to achieve better fuel economy is the standard start-stop system. Another more conventional method is by having an engine so torquey and strong that you don't need to wind it out to get moving. It's a smooth motor, especially at low revs, and its idle feels little different from the old six's. It has tremendous strength at low revs for such a small capacity engine, with 255 pound-feet of torque arriving at 1,250 rpm and staying flat until 4,800 rpm.
Doesn't Feel Like a Four
The odd thing is, it doesn't feel like a torque monster in normal driving. A lot of turbo motors nowadays have similarly flat torque curves and yet offer flat performance. The 2012 BMW 328i offers a drive that starts strongly and just gets stronger. It's not perfectly linear, like a naturally aspirated six, but it's a big step in the right direction.
The horsepower peak has its own flat line, arriving at 5,000 revs and sticking around until 6,500. It revs higher than that, though, fizzing all the way out to around 6,800, but the truth is the last 400 revs or so are just for show.
The noise isn't as pure as a six, but it's very good and maintains its composure beautifully until very near redline. It's quiet from idle until you ask it for everything, then its note gains some strength until it gets an angry growl at around 3,800 rpm. From there it just gets angrier until well into the sixes.
An Automatic That Works
Whatever the purists might believe, this engine is born to run with the eight-speed automatic. It's a lovely device and, in our test car, had the optional paddle shifters which is a tacit admission from BMW that the old model's push-pull paddle shift arrangement was, well, silly. This one runs the same one-up, one-down philosophy as M has been using for years, and it works intuitively. You can also change gears on the shift lever, which works nicely as well, or you can leave the whole business to the 328i's big brain.
There is much to like here, and it ties into the same modal switch we've seen in the 5 Series. In the 2012 BMW 328i, you can choose either the default Comfort setting, Sport, Sport Plus or Eco Pro, which might save you heaps of fuel by harnessing virtually every energy spender in the car and putting them on a budget, but it does its very best to make it feel like a 1.0-liter six-cylinder car.
Sport Plus is a bit track pack, tightening up the throttle, turning off the traction and skid controls and, in our version with the optional Dynamic Damper Control, tightening up the suspension, too. That's when it gets interesting.
Still a Proper Sport Sedan
The chassis is easily the highlight of the car, and that's partly because of the damper control system, but mostly because the car is 88 pounds lighter, has a longer wheelbase and runs a 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution. It steals what is already an impressive show by being so nimble and light on its feet that it feels like a featherweight when you want it to dance. It's a chassis that overachieves, one that might have been saved up for the next Z4, but here it is beneath BMW's stock in trade.
Arrive at a corner carrying far too much speed and the 2012 BMW 328i's steering lightens for a moment to tell you it's understeering. From there it waits for the tires to scrub off enough speed and then coyly sneaks in toward the apex. It's the same trick when the back end starts to slide as the 328i breaks free so diplomatically that you think the proactive steering input is your reactive idea. From there it just straightens up and drives hard out of the corner.
It carries far more midcorner grip than we thought possible on saturated Spanish roads. The 328i charmed with brilliant balance, being stupidly adjustable midcorner and refusing to be anything but hugely progressive and unrelentingly forgiving of errors or ham-fistedness. Whether you favor the chip-chip-chipper style or you're a one-turn-in-one-turn-out guy, it works either way.
As with the rest of the chassis, the brakes are tremendously strong and adjustable midcorner. The pedal position never moved in four hours of hard mountain driving, either. The steering is, in this return to absolute driving fun, not brilliant. Well, it's not bad, it's just not quite at the standards of the rest of the car and is damned by the comparison.
3 Versions of the 3 Series
There are three versions now, with BMW taking a leaf out of the Mercedes-Benz playbook to offer Modern, Luxury and Sports versions. Though, where Benz changes the grilles, the most significant changes BMW makes are to the detailing in the air intakes at the side of the bumper. There are different wheels, too, and the interior trims are different as well.
The most obvious change to the 3 Series face is the enhanced status given the twin kidney grilles, which are now wider, lean forward and you can also see their chromed surrounds from the side of the car. They're partnered by a more up-to-date set of headlights that automatically adjust to high beam whenever it's safe, turn corners whenever you do and still have the traditional LED corona rings.
If all that sounds like BMW has taken very few risks with the car that accounts for a third of its total sales, it's an opinion that's reinforced inside the cabin where size and style meet better than they ever have in a 3 Series before. The 2012 BMW 328i we drove was a Sports line model that included an anodized-style red streak of metal across the clean dash. As odd as it sounds, it kinda worked.
More 3 Series Inside
Immediately, though, the cabin feels as though it has more space — and it does. The rear-seat room, never a 3 Series calling card, is up 0.7 inch, the rear knee room is up 0.6 inch and there's 0.3 inch more headroom, too. You'd have every right to expect such largess for the occupants, because the whole car is significantly bigger.
The car itself is 3.7 inches longer, the wheelbase is 2 inches longer and the tracks have grown at both ends (1.5 in at the front and 1.9 at the rear). The front and rear overhangs are both longer, too, and the trunk space is up to 17 cubic feet.
There are, typically, two massive dials (tachometer, speedometer) dominating the instrument cluster real estate and now, with its proximity key, you fire up the 328i via a start button you can't actually see. It's buried behind the steering wheel spokes and you can look in vain for the electric parking brake, because the 328i still uses an old-school lever.
It has, as you'd expect, a flawless driving position, though we only had the chance to sample the 328i automatic. The pedals are perfectly positioned for both left- and right-foot brakers, the seats have a tremendous range of travel and the steering moves manually but has an impressive range of height and reach adjustment.
There Isn't Much Left To Fix
So what's wrong with it? Not much really. For some, the styling doesn't go far enough. Even with its new low nose, the differences aren't immediately apparent to the untrained eye. And the trunk is not huge in the practical Audi style with all of BMW's rear-drive suspension architecture chewing up any potential for a deeper floor.
And that's about it. Like we said, there's not much to complain about with the latest 3 Series. The move to four-cylinder power had the potential to jeopardize its performance credentials, yet the 2012 BMW 328i is still a quick sedan that gives up little in the way of performance to its competitors. If this is the future of four-cylinder performance, the cylinder sacrifice isn't going to be a problem.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.