Monday, February 25, 2013

BMW 3 Series - The Original Sports Sedan

The BMW 3 Series has become so identified with its role as "the" sports sedan (or coupe or wagon) that it defines the segment. Automotive buff magazines routinely rate the car in their "top ten" favorite lists, year after year. So what do you do when you redesign it for the sixth time?

In the case of the sixth generation car, which came out as a 2012 model, you make it slightly larger and a bit more fuel efficient. For size, the sedan now sits 3.66 inches longer and has a wider track (1.46 inches front, 1.85 inches rear). And the car looks larger now, too, thanks to horizontal lines and tricks like having the flattened twin-kidney grille link up with a chrome bridge to the headlamp pods. Despite casting a larger shadow, the new car is almost 100 pounds lighter, thanks to some thoughtful touches in design and materials.

The body still reads 3 Series, with the Hofmeister kink in the rear side window, quad headlamps, and the familiar proportions of the well-loved classic. The styling excesses of the Chris Bangle design era never completely altered the 3 Series--BMW's biggest seller--and the latest car, while sharper edged and  more energetic, is not as tied to flame surfacing and odd juxtopositions.

To make the 3 Series more fuel efficient, BMW gave it a four-cylinder engine option, after many years of selling only the inline six. This latest model uses Twin-Power Turbo technology to get 240 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque out of just 2.0 liters of displacement in the 328i. The 320i model offers 180 horsepower from the same displacement. In the old nomenclature, a 328i model name would indicate a 2.8-liter engine, probably a six, but today it's just a number. The 335i gets the inline six today.  With a 5.7-second zero-to-sixty time, the four is absolutely no slouch. It just sounds less like a BMW.

With either engine, you can have a standard six-speed manual or a remarkable eight-speed automatic. The manual, in my personal opinion, is the fun and sportier way to go, but here in the United States, the automatic is king. Eight gears allows some precise and efficient gear selection. For an extra $500, the Sport version of the eights-speed automatic provides handsome steering wheel paddles for racecar style quick shifts.

The manual transmission is upgraded with carbon friction linings in the sychromesh, one of  many ways of making sure the shifts are smooth and fast.

The xDrive models give you a shot at a 3 Series with all-wheel-drive traction. Choose it in any model. Or, opt for a convertible, for a refreshing open-air experience.

The EPA awards the four-cylinder 328i with automatic an average of 26 miles per gallon (23 City, 33 Highway). In my Alpine White test car, I achieved 25.7 mpg--essentially matching the EPA for a change. The car with the manual shifter gives up one mile per gallon in the city but gains it back on the highway--earning the same 26 mpg. The Green numbers are pretty good, at 7 for Greenhouse Gas and a 6 or an 8 (depending) for Smog.

Driving a 3 is always fun, even on the freeway, but hours of commute traffic make it feel like it's all cooped up. You really want to move along in this car. I got onto a favorite back road and it stretched out and ran. The carefully tuned independent suspension provides quick reflexes and sufficient comfort, while the floating-caliper disc brakes on all four wheels stop the car in a hurry. As a BMW, it flaunts an ideal 50/50 front/rear balance, and it uses rear-wheel drive--a fairly rare but highly touted way of building a sports sedan.

You can customize your experience on the fly by using Driving Dynamics Control to select one of four settings. You can leave the car in the fine "normal" setting or set it more like a real sports car with the Sport or Sport + setting. Or, choose ECO PRO and the car will tailor the throttle mapping to burn less fuel. My tester actually shut down at lights to save gas--an unexpected sensation--especially in a BMW.

BMWs have often seemed a little plan inside, for their price. The newest 3 Series cars have more curves, trim pieces and richness than their predecessors. My tester featured leather buckets in Dakota Coral red and black. You can actually select from four trim levels in the 3 Sedan: Sport, Luxury, Modern and M Sport. Think rich black trim for the Sport, chrome for the Luxury, and satin aluminum trim for the Modern. The M Sport gives even more, including especially nice 19-inch wheels.

I was amused at the car's hidden cup holders. There's a tray that fits over them, so if you want to be a German and say "nicht" to drinking and driving, leave the shelf in. If not, pop it out and store it in the glovebox. Another interesting act of hiding is the control for playing the satellite radio. You have to push the main controller to the left to expose the selection. You'd never see it on the dash.

Will the faithful go for this new and powerful four-cylinder engine? The sixth car I ever tested (and first BMW) was a 3 series with 1.8-liter four of its day, and it had a lighter touch than the more common six. 

Pricing for 3 Series cars starts at $33,445 for the 320i with automatic transmission and a 180-horse power of the inline four. My 2013 328i test car, with the 240-horsepower engine, top M Sport package, a dynamic handling package with the Cold Weather package, variable sport steering, came to $47,295.

I drove my first BMW 3 Series in 1992. It was a 318i, and put out just 113 horsepower. It still felt wonderful, and the 3 Series continues to please its constituency--it's just a little bigger now--in every way.

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