2012 BMW 3 Series Driving Impressions

The new 3 Series sedans are pleasant to drive, whether motoring slowly through a neighborhood, cruising on a highway, winding down a backroad, or sliding around a racing circuit. Both engines are more than up to the task as are both transmissions.

The 328i delivers great acceleration performance, which we experienced in Northern California's Carmel Valley. The 328i gets to 80 mph quickly. The turbocharger provides boost through a broad torque range, delivering 255 foot-pounds of torque from 1250-4200 rpm. We found ourselves giving little thought to the engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (one turbo with twin scrolls). The only time we really thought of it being a four-cylinder rather than a six was when we got out and walked to the front of the car when it was running. That was when we noticed the 328i engine clatters away like a diesel when idling. The 335i six-cylinder engine purrs like a contented cat.

The 335i has more torque, and this is most noticeable going up steep hills or accelerating from a standstill. We found the 335i could rocket up the long, steep hill between Laguna Seca's Turn 6 and the Corkscrew, while in the 328i it felt more like we were chugging up the hill, albeit we were chugging enthusiastically. The differences were more subtle on the road, where the 328i never felt lacking. While the 335i is slightly more enjoyable, we heartily recommend the 328i. The 335i comes with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. It uses a single twin-scroll turbo, which offers better fuel economy than the earlier twin-turbo version. It makes 300 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 300 pound-feet of torque from 1300-5000 rpm, a broad power band that gives the 335i strong response to throttle input at all engine speeds. In other words, just stand on it and she goes. Turbo lag is nonexistent, and 0-60 mph comes quickly, just 5.4 seconds with either transmission, according to BMW.

An automatic Stop/Start function comes standard on both the 328i and 335i. We found it to be an annoying feature, likely installed to satisfy government regulations more than any real-world benefits. Auto Stop/Start shuts off the engine whenever the car is stopped. The re-start is rough, reminiscent of manually cranking the key to re-start the car at every intersection. It lacks the elegance of the system in, say, a Buick Regal with eAssist, where the restart is so smooth and seamless that it's difficult to discern when it occurs. On the BMW, the restart feels more comparable to that of a 1950s-era vintage pickup truck. Strangely, we grew used to it. Fortunately, the feature can be completely overridden by pressing a button, whereupon the engine continues to idle like a normal car whenever stopped. How much fuel this idle-off feature on the 3 Series saves is a question only a BMW engineer can answer, but car manufacturers aren't eager to say anything that could harm their relationship with the government. Today's engines idle at much lower rpm than they did in the not-too-distant past, and they burn little fuel while idling. However, installing an idle-stop feature earns credits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that an automaker can use toward satisfying the federal government's tightening Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements. However, the system probably does reduce emissions slightly and leaving it on may be slightly less harmful to the environment. The 3 Series is also equipped with an Eco Pro system that coaches the driver to help achieve better fuel economy. Some people may want to be coached, but we don't want to be coached, so we didn't use it.

The new 8-speed automatic works very well. Some drivers prefer to shift semi-manually, but it often seems just as effective to put it in Drive and let it do its thing. We enjoy the manual transmission. The connection through the manual allows the driver to more thoroughly exploit the car. Clutch-pedal effort makes taking off easy, without having to think about it, and the gear ratios are perfectly spaced for either engine. Choosing between the two transmissions comes down to personal preference. The automatic is easier for stop-and-go commuting.

Handling is excellent whether in the 328i or 335i. These cars offer a good balance of ride quality and handling response. The steering is light at low speeds, with proper resistance and feedback at higher speeds. Nearly equal front/rear weight distribution, aided by locating the engine behind the front axle, leaves the driver in full command. It's an easy car to drive fast. We drove hard up a primitive mountain road, overdriving the tires, allowing the active safety features to limit speed around the bumpy switchbacks. At Laguna Seca, we strapped on helmets, switched off the electronics, and pushed hard around the turns. These cars are very easy to control at the limit, giving the driver confidence, delivering joy.

The 328i comes with 225/50VR17 tires on 7.5×17-inch wheels, while the 335i gets 225/45VR18 tires on 8×18-inch wheels. In theory, this should yield a harder ride and sharper handling for the 335i, but we were hard pressed to tell much difference. The wheelbase on the new 2012 BMW 3 Series is longer than that of the previous generation, and the track is slightly wider. There are many upsides to this, the downside is that the new model needs another foot of space to make a U-turn.

Traction control kicks in when accelerating hard out of low-speed corners, eliminating wheelspin and reducing the chance of a spin. When driving hard, on a race track, for example, we found it beneficial to switch the system off, allowing the car to slide more and the tires to spin to achieve higher cornering speeds and more responsive acceleration performance coming out of the turns. Traction control is useful on an unfamiliar mountain road, but won't help you win an autocross. The active safety features can be switched off or dialed back in degrees, allowing the driver to tune the system to conditions and his or her preferences.

Braking is excellent in both models. The large brake calipers and rotors deliver more clamping force than most competitors. And thanks to BMW's electronic management, the brake pads move within a hair of the rotors if the driver suddenly releases the gas pedal, even if the driver hasn't yet considered slamming on the brakes. The pads also lightly sweep the rotors every few seconds if it's raining, just to be sure there is no significant moisture build up.

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