Here's Your E39 5 Series Replacement
We all have a running top 10 list of the best drives we've ever taken, and the BMW 3 Series occupies two spots. We remember stringing together corners in an E90-generation 330i on Washington's Olympic Peninsula one long summer night. Years before, an E46 convertible made us fall in love with the stretch of California Highway 33 that runs through Los Padres National Forest.
Now Mulholland Highway beckons, and we're wondering if this 2012 BMW 328i Sedan will make the list. It starts out well, as the latest 3 Series changes directions quickly and has such a well-damped ride that bumpy patches of pavement barely register. The most controversial detail on the car — the new turbocharged four-cylinder engine — has plenty of grunt to accelerate out of turns, but it doesn't sound like the old 328i's inline-6. That's fine, though, as the extra torque is more than a fair trade.
Of course, it's not the only trade BMW is asking us to make. The 2012 BMW 3 Series Sedan is bigger than last year's car, and it has a new electric power steering system, along with less sticky, mpg-enhancing tires. It's still a wonderful entry-luxury car with sharp reflexes, but you might not be so quick to call it a sport sedan anymore.
Is It Really That Big?
As the 3 Series sedan transitions to the F30 generation (the coupe, convertible and wagon are still the old style for 2012; the M3 sedan is a goner), it gains an extra 2 inches of wheelbase (110.6 inches) and it's 3.7 inches longer overall (182.5 inches).
These aren't huge increases, but if you look back at the 1999-2005 E46 3 Series, a 176-inch car built on a 107.3-inch wheelbase, you realize this car has grown a lot in a decade. This 2012 BMW 328i is actually closer in size to the 1997-2003 5 Series (111.4-inch wheelbase, 188 inches long). It's starting to feel like a 5 Series from behind the wheel, too. The hood drops off steeply so you can't see the nose from the cockpit anymore, compromising visibility and exacerbating the big-car feel.
Then again, the 3 Series competes against the Audi A4 and Infiniti G25/37, which are already of E39 proportions — and as our technical director Dan Edmunds noted in his suspension walkaround on the 2012 328i, there's a potential CAFE benefit to this upsizing. Plus, it's hard to argue with all the extra rear legroom and the 17-cubic-foot trunk.
Moreover, the revised unit-body is lighter, and BMW claims a net 88-pound reduction when you adjust for equipment. To put real numbers behind that, consider that our heavily optioned, manual-shift 2012 BMW 328i test car weighs 3,427 pounds — 4 fewer pounds than our long-term 2006 330i, which had a naturally aspirated inline-6 engine and a manual gearbox, but no iDrive navigation system.
A Four-Cylinder for the Ages
Designated N20, the new 2.0-liter inline-4 features a twin-scroll turbocharger, variable intake valve lift, variable timing on both the intake and exhaust valves and direct injection, which enables the engine's high 10:1 compression ratio. In our 2012 BMW 328i, it's rated at 240 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 255 pound-feet of torque at 1,250 rpm. We dynamometer-tested the 328i and confirmed our suspicion: This engine's making way more power than BMW would have you believe.
Likewise, the 2012 328i is quicker than any of the entry-level models from rival manufacturers. Heck, it's ahead of our old E90 330i, too.
In our manual-shift test car, you reach 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds (or 5.5 with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and pass through the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 98.9 mph. At its best, our heavier, automatic-equipped, long-term A4 wagon, which had a 211-hp, 2.0-liter turbo-4, went to 60 in 6 seconds flat and through the quarter in 14.5 — the same numbers we got out of the 330i. Neither came close to the 328i's trap speed, which tells you they're just not as powerful. A 2010 328i sedan, which had a 230-hp version of BMW's inline-6, was farther off the pace, taking 6.4 seconds to hit 60 and 14.7 seconds for the quarter-mile.
Meanwhile, the torque-deprived Lexus IS 250 (7.5, 15.7) and G25 (8.0, 15.8) aren't even in the game.
It's a Different Game
As quick as the 2012 BMW 328i is, it can be annoyingly low-key. It responds softly to throttle inputs even in Sport mode (though with none of the tip-in delay we complained about in our 2011 528i), it revs in somewhat plodding fashion, and although redline is marked at 7,000 rpm, it's ready for an upshift by 6,500.
Mind you, it's easier to drive in traffic than earlier 328s, because the torque comes together at such low rpm, but we miss the intensity of the naturally aspirated inline-6s — they hungered for redline. This is mostly about personal preference, and the 335i's still around if you need it.
Enhanced efficiency is the whole point of the N20, and though you'll want the eight-speed automatic for best mpg (24 city/36 highway/28 combined mpg), BMW has revised the gearing on the six-speed manual for the 328i sedan — it's taller on 3rd through 6th gears. That results in EPA ratings of 23 city/34 highway and 27 combined. We saw an observed overall mileage rating of 25 mpg during our test week.
So Is It Still Fun?
You can't avoid having fun on the twists and tight turns of Mulholland Highway, but although enjoyable, the 2012 BMW 328i doesn't feel quite as locked in as the E90 — not even with its optional adaptive dampers in Sport.
It's the little things we notice. The new electric steering is precise and offers good feel, but lacks the intricate feedback that distinguished the old hydraulic-assist setup. Notably, our tester doesn't have the optional variable-ratio setup (that alters the ratio through variable spacing of the gear teeth, rather than software). Similarly, the sharp brake pedal response we're accustomed to on the 3 Series has been relaxed; the pedal feels almost mushy.
In addition, Sport package 3 Series sedans aren't putting as much rubber on the road anymore. Before it was always a staggered fitment with wider, lower-profile tires in back, but our 2012 BMW 328i Sport has 225/45R18 91V run-flat tires at all four corners. They're not the old Bridgestone Potenza RE050A run-flats, either — instead, you get Goodyear EfficientGrip tires that barely merit the summer designation.
We certainly notice the difference in grip at the track. There's nothing horrible about a 67.1-mph slalom speed and 0.88g on the skid pad, but the E90's numbers were better. So were those for our long-term A4 wagon. Notably, the 2012 328i outperforms the 2010 328i we tested (65.0 mph, 0.84g), but that earlier sedan didn't have the Sport package, so it came with far less grippy all-season tires and a less aggressive suspension calibration.
Braking is disappointing, too. The 2012 BMW 328i stops from 60 mph in 115 feet, and shows fade by the fourth stop. The A4 stopped in 103 feet, and the last 335i we tested managed 109 feet as did the G25.
It Costs How Much?
Of course, you forget all about these details in normal driving, because the 2012 BMW 328i rides beautifully over our ugly Southern California freeways. The optional sport seats offer superb support, and the iDrive system offers a straightforward interface for navigation and myriad media sources (including your phone). Everything in the cabin is high-quality and the build quality looks and feels top-notch.
And, for $50,745, it better be, right? The base price on the 2012 328i is actually only $300 more than last year ($34,900, plus $895 destination), but if you get crazy with the options, well, this is what happens. And if you remind yourself that this is for a car with a four-cylinder engine, it seems downright unreasonable — even when you know objectively that the N20 is hardly a compromise.
On one level, we really like the 2012 BMW 328i as a luxury sedan. It's very quick, spacious, elegant, fuel-efficient, and if we want to explore some back road, the capability is there. On another level, we're disappointed that this car is not as sharp as the E90 3 Series. Lay aside that expectation, though, and the 2012 BMW 3 Series Sedan is a great car — probably the nicest alternative to the E39 5 Series we've driven to date.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.