2013 BMW 3 Series Driving Impressions

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

The BMW 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 like a diesel when idling.

The BMW 335i six-cylinder engine purrs like a contented cat when idling. But we found the power advantage of the 335i over the 328i to be negligible in most but not all situations. The 335i has more torque, with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. 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. While the 335i is slightly more enjoyable, we heartily recommend the 328i. We noticed the 335i powered up the power-robbing steep back straight at Laguna Seca that leads to the Corkscrew better than the 328i.

An automatic Stop/Start function comes standard on all sedans. Although it helps to save fuel, we found it to be an annoying feature. 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. For those who would sacrifice gas mileage for a smoother ride, the Start/Stop feature can be completely overridden by pressing a button, though you'll have to press that button every time you start the car or every time you are annoyed by the re-start. Our guess is that the feature is there primarily to garner credits from the Environmental Protection Agency to help BMW with U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy ratings. In other words, the feature is more useful to BMW than to the car owner.

Choosing between the manual and automatic transmissions comes down to personal preference. The 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 still enjoy the available manual transmission, though. 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.

Handling is excellent, and all 3 Series models 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. Near-50/50 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 a 328i 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 in both the 328i and 335i. These cars are very easy to control at the limit, giving the driver confidence, delivering joy.

Traction control kicks in when accelerating hard out of low-speed corners, eliminating wheelspin and reducing the chance of a spin. When driving hard, for example on a racetrack, 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 can help the driver stay out of trouble on an unfamiliar mountain road, but it 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 all 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.

We have not yet driven a 320i.

The ActiveHybrid3 is an impressive machine. It allows driving at low speeds in electric-only mode but most of the time it drives like the other 3 Series models.

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