BMW 328i takes new path, raises the bar
Imagine if Orson Wells was expected to improve on “Citizen Kane” every six years, or if Kobe Bryant’s contract demanded that every time he put Nike to hardwood, he needed to score 60 points.
Such is the sphere of influence where BMW’s 3 Series operates.
The company says one out of every three BMWs sold since 1975 is one of these compact sport sedans -- that’s 12.5 million in all.
Not only has the car been the automaker’s most recognizable ambassador to the car-buying masses for the last 30 years, but with such volume comes corresponding profit.
If brand identity and corporate affluence weren’t big enough burdens to bear for the 3 Series, consider that more than one rival automaker has lost plenty of sleep trying to capture the gestalt-in-a-bottle the car has long represented.
So, you know, no pressure on BMW in bringing this 2012 328i to life.
The biggest change for this new model, other than some interesting design choices, is the 328i’s engine. Reflecting the trend toward smaller and more efficient, this model, starting at $35,795, is now moved by a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four cylinder.
Although size drops by two cylinders from the previous in-line six cylinder, this direct-injected turbo unit is up on power. Its rating of 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque is a gain of 10 horsepower and 60 pound-feet of torque over the old engine. BMW says the 328i I tested with an automatic transmission will go from zero to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds.
That boost in power, and more important the max torque that comes at 1,250 rpm, is a welcome change. The engine doesn’t have the delightful voice of the old in-line six, but it sounds plenty strong when pushed toward its redline, and it moves toward that point with brevity. The only time it’s off-key is when it’s idling and sounds like it’s hiding a diesel motor somewhere.
Complementing the added power from the engine is a sizable jump in fuel economy. Paired with the new eight-speed automatic transmission (a six-speed manual is also available), the 328i is rated at 24 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway. In a week of driving mostly on the highway, I averaged 29 mpg.
That automatic transmission is both new and good. Shifts are well-timed and incredibly smooth, with none of the continuous hunting for the right gear that can plague lesser gearboxes. Drivers also have the option of changing gears manually with the joystick-like shifter on the center console. Curiously, BMW seems to have those shift directions backward; one must pull back to upshift, push forward to downshift.
I’d tell you to just use the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, but my car didn’t come with them since they’re optional. Maybe I’ve swallowed too much motor oil over the years, but if BMW bills its products as the Ultimate Driving Machine, anything bearing the company’s logo -- station wagons, sport-utility vehicles, tricycles -- should come with paddle shifters.
What BMW has included is a standard feature that would make Ed Begley Jr. proud. It’s known as Driving Dynamic Control and is now common throughout BMW’s lineup. The system enables drivers to select three and sometimes four settings that adjust the response of the throttle, steering, stability control and engine. Default is the Comfort mode, with Sport mode dialing things up and Eco Pro mode making things more efficient. Sport Plus is optional on some models.
Furthering the 3 Series’ green credentials is a start/stop function for when the car is at a rest, and a brake energy regeneration system that powers much of the car’s electrical system.
If you fancy yourself a regular Nick Heidfeld, you’re going to want to avoid Eco Pro and keep the car in Sport mode for spirited driving. Also, you should probably fancy yourself a race car driver other people have actually heard of.
It’s in Sport mode that the oft-imitated harmony of this sport sedan reaches its zenith. The steering, too vague in Comfort mode, tightens up, the engine revs high and long and the throttle is ready before you are. The balance and handling this 3 Series exhibits is excellent; you have to be a talented idiot to find fault with the way it moves.
That much is objective. Subjective is the way this new 3 Series looks. I liked the old 3 Series better.
This new design certainly isn’t ugly. The front flirts with avant-garde, with the depth of the chrome that surrounds the grille exposed where it intersects with a smaller headlamp opening. The sheet metal on top of those headlights has been pulled down low.
This gives the 3 Series a prominent brow and the impression that it’s either concentrating hard on being stylish or it’s about to sneeze. In my week with the car, I did come to appreciate it more, but it still looks a bit flat and two-dimensional.
Meanwhile, the rear of the new 3 Series is handsome and sleek, though it’s a near clone of the larger 5 Series sedan.
The car as a whole is 3.7 inches longer than its predecessor and rides on a 2-inch longer wheelbase. It’s well put together, as you’d expect BMWs to be. In fact, maybe a little too put together; the doors and trunk lid needed practically a full body-blow to shut properly. Trivial, but annoying.
Inside reveals another questionable design, but fortunately this fumble can be avoided.
In addition to the base 3 Series, three trims are offered, each with specific aesthetic elements inside and outside the car. The Sport line goes for $2,500 and comes with an excellent sport-tuned suspension, while the Luxury and Modern lines are $2,100.
The car I tested was a $50,245 328i Modern that had possibly the oddest optional wood trim I’ve seen inside a vehicle. It was matte and heavily textured and gave the impression that you had ordered your BMW with decorative ripples of stale chocolate.
The confectioner’s-delight theme continued with the car’s dashboard and leather seats, which were a color BMW calls Dakota Oyster. “Delicious nougat” is closer. The entire experience was like driving inside a Three Musketeers bar.
Otherwise the interior was noteworthy for its solid comfort and lack of drama. The iDrive controller has been revised for greater intuitiveness, and it and a corresponding 6.5-inch screen are standard. Don’t count that as navigation, though, since that feature is part of a $2,550 technology package. Interior space is up, which enables rear passengers of normal and normal-plus height to sit comfortably.
Minor aesthetic foibles aside, the 2012 BMW 328i is a success because its performance and handling remain sublime. It uses as inspiration the best, and -- like Kobe or Orson -- the best just happens to be itself.
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
2012 BMW 328i
Base price: $35,795 (including destination charge)
Price, model tested: $50,245, 328i Modern
Powertrain: 2.0-liter, DOHC, direct-injected, turbocharged four cylinder; eight-speed automatic transmission with manual and sport modes
Horsepower: 240 at 5,000 rpm
Torque: 260 pound-feet at 1,250 rpm
0-60: 5.9 seconds
Curb weight: 3,461 pounds
Wheelbase: 110.6 inches
Overall length: 182.5 inches
EPA fuel economy: 24 mpg city/36 mpg highway
Final thoughts: BMW resets the standard.