Here we stand at the middle of the life cycle of the current-generation BMW 3 Series — the E90/E91/E92/E93, as BMW geeks know this car in its various guises. Something is needed to fan the embers of excitement to ensure that they burn bright for three or so more years, so BMW has undertaken an improvement program, even though not much has really needed to be improved.
The physical changes to the 2011 BMW 335i Coupe and 2011 BMW 335i Convertible are practically invisible unless pointed out in a controlled environment, but since we were driving in Munich, there were plenty of people from BMW headquarters who were prepared to show them to us.
Hey, Look at This!
Really, there ain't much to holler about as far as exterior styling is concerned. The car is 1.3 inches longer, with most of that length in front, and the whole business has been embellished with the stronger-looking, newly chromed double kidneys. BMW spokespeople say that this was first and foremost to protect humans in crosswalks should one inexplicably roll up the hood of the car. Morbid stuff, but Europe is especially hard on designers in this particular area of safety, and you can see the evidence in the changes to the BMW 5 Series and 7 Series.
The big switch happens under the hood of the 2011 BMW 335i, as the twin-turbo N54 inline-6 has now been replaced by the latest N55 inline-6, which features a single twin-scroll turbocharger working in concert with direct fuel injection and BMW's throttle-less intakes. The output rating remains much the same at 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. (BMW North America converts these actual ratings to "300 hp and 300 lb-ft" because they sound good; it's a marketing thing.)
Only Coupe and Convertible Get the Up-do
BMW is leaving alone the exterior of the E90 (sedan) and E91 (wagon) versions of the 3 Series, so the focus of this spiritual renewal is the E92 (coupe) and E93 (convertible). They've been made to look a little bit more like a 5 Series or 6 Series from certain angles. Note particularly the newly grown eyebrows for the headlights, the reshaped intake ducts and the wide chin spoiler. The switch is pretty handsome and does for the face of the 3 Series what two hours of Botox has done for millions of happy customers.
At the rocker sills, the skirts flare outward just slightly instead of just tucking under. Then in back you can discern (perhaps with the help of the Hubble telescope or maybe instead a BMW corporate specialist, your pick) more tapered corners on the trunk lid to help accentuate the newly incorporated LED elements in the taillights. Other than these tuchus mods, there is a new horizontal contour in the bottom-most part of the rear fascia that adds a little presence and draws more attention to the two chromed exhaust tips.
Inside the cabin, the 2011 BMW 335i gets a new multifunction steering wheel in leather, while the non-leather grippy parts are of a better grade of soft-touch plastic. (We know, we know. The bigger stuff is coming. Keep reading.) The software all-stars have uprated the iDrive functionality, too. The whole Google tie-in has been old hat since 2007, but this sub-version of iDrive now has a woman's voice that hooks into your iPhone and can read out your text messages, while later in 2010 she will also read your e-mails out loud, too. (Just be careful if you're having an affair and the sigoth is in the car with you!)
This iDrive feature set also synchronizes with your calendar to-do lists as well as any note-taking you've been doing with your phone. You can then program the software to search out and read aloud your preferred news items from your predefined sources. Now you can also use your existing iPod/iPhone cable to plug into the car, so there will be no more additional cables hanging around and not being used. Finally, if you wield Bluetooth phones with music-play features, you can choose tracks to play wirelessly on the in-car sound system, though there is not yet a browse feature in the iDrive screen to work with it.
Our devilishly handsome Detroit senior editor, Dan Pund, recently tried out the macho-er 2011 BMW 335is that has been built at the request of BMW North America. Pund liked it a bunch, but he also raised some questions. The 335is uses the biturbo N54 engine that used to come with the 335i, while this is the only civilian 3 Series in North America to be given the Getrag-built, seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox.
We tested the midlife 335i coupe and convertible with the dual-clutch Getrag rather than the ZF-built six-speed automatic manual that will be the U.S. option for this car. That's because the Europeans can have any transmission they darn well want in the 3 Series, while BMW North America wants to reserve the Getrag for more exclusive models like the 335is and M3.
But, as already written, there's more than just a different tranny to the revised 3 Series. The N55 inline-6 puts up the same power and torque numbers as the N54 twin-turbo, only now with less mechanical effort and fewer CO2 emissions. The N55 combines direct fuel injection, variable valve timing and a single BorgWarner twin-scroll turbocharger that can deliver peak boost of 10 psi.
So, yes, BMW has been scooching around various technical pieces in the 3 Series formula as if they were chess pieces in order to create a new, upper level of 3 Series cars. To our thinking, the new 335i and 335is are different enough to warrant one another's existence. (Is the $7,000 extra for the 335is warranted? Well, can't decide that one since it's up to them what buy 'em.)
A Less Raucous 335i
While the former twin-turbo 335i had a relatively big voice and the new twin-turbo 335is has a charming burliness to its exhaust note, the newly sensible 2011 335i lowers its tone a bit, but without losing performance. To hear the N55 engine's song better, you just have to search out more tunnels and highway underpasses.
Again, all numbers for horsepower and torque stay equal in the transition from N54 engine to N55, though launch control in the six-speed automatic enables this 2011 car to get to 60 mph in an estimated 5.4 seconds, BMW says. Seeing as we bettered the estimate for the former 335i by 0.4 second, we boldly expect to do so again, since 295 lb-ft of torque arrives fully at 1,200 rpm.
Fritz Steinparza, BMW's engine leader for the 3 Series, explained the subtleties of all this to us. The new twin-scroll turbo's intake passageway is split in two, organizing the exhaust pulses from three cylinders each, and the result is a turbo that responds quicker and can be tuned to produce a broader band of useful boost. The result is less turbo lag and more efficient use of the available power.
Ride, Sally, Ride
One more subtle change to be seen first in this 2011 BMW 335i is the use of Sachs dampers at all corners. The objective is a more linear cycle of compression and rebound across the low-speed bumps in town, as well as over the high-speed bumps of the highway. The system of coil spring and piston within the dampers has given way to a stack of thin washerlike discs that produce more progressive fluid flow and less vibration over everyday pavement imperfections. (GM has used this technology in the U.S. for years.) We can attest that we felt the difference and also that none of the goodness on the sporty side of the equation has been lost.
Owing to the seasonal conditions (you know, winter in Bavaria), BMW had us all on 225/45R17 91H Pirelli Sottozero winter tires, good for 130 mph. Despite their traction comprises on the dry pavement that we (naturally) found everywhere, these tires felt fine all day without excessive road noise. On display back at the garage, there was a coupe with a set of optional Bridgestone Potenza summer tires — 225/35R19 88Y front and 255/30 R19 91Y rear — on stunning anodized alloys.
No Midlife Crisis Here
Basically nothing is being fixed on the 2011 BMW 335i Coupe and 2011 BMW 335i Convertible that was so terribly wrong with the 2010 BMW 335i Coupe and convertible. You'll go farther and pollute less on a tank of fuel while moving practically as briskly as the guy who just bought the 335is.
Expect the freshened 2011 BMW 335i Coupe and Convertible to land in the U.S. and Canada just as the 335is disembarks, which should be late April. Pricing is just under $1,000 more per car over the outgoing edition, the surcharge for the convertible remaining around $8,500 above the equivalently equipped coupe.
The 3 Series represents 37 percent of BMW sales worldwide annually and competition gets heated with the Audi A5/S5, Infiniti G37 and Mercedes C-Class range, among others. Some adjustment and nuance to the lineup like this can never hurt.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.