First Look: 2012 BMW 3 Series

The Benchmark Is Now Bigger, Yet More Efficient

The brief for the 2012 BMW 3 Series was simple: Don't get it wrong. For the best part of four decades, the 3 Series has been the default premium sport sedan and the car on which BMW built its reputation.

Now, the sixth generation 3 must continue that tradition, offering the familiar recipe with a contemporary twist. Bigger but lighter, faster but greener and stuffed with technology from its larger siblings.

Unveiled with considerable fanfare at the gigantic BMW Welt center in Munich, Germany, the new 3 Series is instantly familiar. The only vaguely controversial feature surrounds the new headlights, which span the nose to merge at the famous kidney grille. Like them or not, at least they're distinctive, something that will help identify the new Bimmer when it hits U.S. showrooms next February.

Two Engines for Launch
The 2012 BMW 3 Series will be launched in the U.S. with two TwinPower turbo gasoline engines. The entry-level 328i will feature BMW's new 1,997cc four-cylinder turbo (code name N20), which debuted in the 2012 Z4 sDrive28i. It combines direct injection with BMW's Valvetronic variable valve timing. And despite its name, there's just one twin-scroll turbo.

Replacing the old straight-6 with a turbocharged four might upset the purists, but BMW says it's lighter and much more efficient. It generates 240 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, while the maximum torque of 260 pound-feet is available from 1,250-4,800 rpm. According to BMW's own figures, the 328i is good for zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph, or 155 mph with the optional Sport Line pack.

For now at least, the range-topping 3 Series will be the 335i which uses the same N55 inline-6 as the current model. Combining direct injection and Valvetronic with a twin-scroll turbo it delivers 300 hp at 5,800 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque from 1,200-5,000 rpm. BMW says this 335i will sprint from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds and, like the 328i, is limited to 130 or 155 mph.

A six-speed manual is standard on both models, while BMW's new eight-speed automatic is available as an option. Opt for the Sport Line or M Sport package and the latter also comes with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

It's All About the Economy
BMW's brand gurus are making a big play of the 3 Series EfficientDynamics, a combination of systems designed to minimize fuel consumption. An automatic start-stop function is one such feature and it comes standard with both manual and automatic transmissions. This system automatically switches off the engine at traffic lights or in stationary traffic. It's joined by BMW's Brake Energy Regeneration system, which powers the alternator only during braking or overrun.

Of greater importance still is the Eco Pro mode for the Driving Experience Control unit. This switchable option retunes the powertrain, climate control, heated seats and exterior mirrors to maximize efficiency. BMW reckons this alone is capable of reducing fuel consumption by as much as 20 percent. Exactly how it's calculating that number, we're not exactly sure.

BMW has yet to announce EPA ratings for the U.S., but the 335i achieves 29.8 mpg on the EU test cycle and the company claims a 6 and 16 percent improvement in emissions for the manual and automatic versions, respectively.

A Little More of the Same
There is one trend that BMW was never going to reverse — the new 3 Series is bigger than its predecessor. The front track has grown by 1.5 inches and the rear by 1.9 inches. The wheelbase is longer by 2 inches and the overall length is up 3.7 inches. In sum, these changes make a notable difference, but they're hardly revolutionary.

The increased dimensions have generated additional cabin space, although they're all modest increases. BMW claims an extra half inch of knee room in the rear and 0.3 inch of extra headroom. The trunk capacity grows 0.7 cubic foot to 17 cubic feet.

The options list will be predictably vast and include such features as a head-up display system, a Parking Assistant that helps you parallel-park and BMW's ConnectedDrive gizmo that can sync your iPhone's calendar and stream Web-based radio or music. The days when BMW would save its best gadgets for the 7 Series are long gone.

Familiar Bones
Despite the subtle increase in size, BMW has been able to reduce the overall mass of the equivalent model by 88 pounds. This has been achieved in part by the copious use of aluminum for the front MacPherson struts, wishbones and swivel bearings. At the rear, the now familiar five-link design of the outgoing 3 Series has been retained but retuned.

Variable-ratio steering will be offered as an option and reduces the steering lock required by up to 25 percent. As you'd expect from BMW, the new car has a 50-50 weight distribution and although the launch cars will be rear-wheel drive, xDrive all-wheel-drive versions will reach the U.S. by the summer of 2012.

The M Sport suspension package, which is likely to be available shortly after launch, features a 0.4-inch reduction in ride height, increased spring and damper rates, larger antiroll bars and either 18- or 19-inch "M" alloy wheels.

In common with BMW's larger models, the 2012 BMW 3 Series will come as standard with a Driving Dynamics Control switch. This offers four modes — Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ — which control everything from the throttle response to the steering and stability control system.

Packages for Everyone
In addition to the standard trim, the 3 Series will be offered with a choice of three different option packs, plus an M Sport variant. "Sport Line" sprinkles the car with gloss black detailing, from the kidney grille to the exterior mirrors. Inside you get red stitching and red dials to match the sport seats.

"Luxury Line" swaps the gloss black for chrome, both inside and out. The seats come leather wrapped in a choice of three colors, there's some dead tree inside and you even get a chrome-tipped key. "Modern Line" ditches the chrome for what BMW calls "satin aluminum" on the outside, while the cabin benefits from "pearl-effect chrome" and porous wood trim that BMW reckons offers "a whole new feast for the fingertips." With Modern Line you also get an oyster-colored ignition key with matte silver detailing to tell the world that you're "of the moment."

The M Sport package is more familiar. There's an aero body kit, unique 18- or 19-inch alloys, and a black kidney grille on the outside, and a bundle of "M" branded trinkets for the interior, including a driver's footrest and steering wheel.

The Future: BMW ActiveHybrid 3
BMW has already confirmed that it will introduce an ActiveHybrid 3 in the fall of 2012. It blends the 335i engine with an electric motor, delivering a maximum power output of 335 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque.

BMW claims it will be able to run for up to 2.5 miles on electric power alone, reaching a maximum electric-only speed of 37 mph. The batteries are stored under the trunk floor, reducing the trunk capacity by 4.2 cubic feet.

Overall, BMW reckons the hybrid will achieve a fuel saving of 12.5 percent compared with the conventional gasoline version.

Final Thoughts
The 2012 BMW 3 Series offers no major surprises. This is BMW's cash cow and the company has no reason to do anything but give an evolutionary redesign to keep it current. There was little wrong with the old model and the newcomer looks set to build on its obvious strengths while adding greater efficiency and a smidge more space.

We'll reserve final judgment until we drive it, but there's nothing here to suggest that the new 3 Series has gone off the deep end in any regard. The switch to four-cylinder power might be sacrilege to the six-cylinder faithful, but the numbers don't lie. It's more efficient and more powerful; hard to argue with that.

If that's not enough, the 3.0-liter six is still available and thankfully, so is a proper six-speed manual. Those hoping for a smaller, more nimble 3 Series might be disappointed, but the other 99 percent will probably find it just about right.