2014 BMW 3 Series Driving Impressions

The BMW 3 Series sedans are pleasant to drive in practically any situation, and all the available engines are more than capable. There are differences, however.

The BMW 328i is perfectly able on the road but doesn't sound refined when parked and idling, where the clatter of the direct-injection engine is noisy. It could almost be mistaken for a diesel. This is a minor nitpick, however, as there is nothing wrong with it underway, especially at higher speeds. The turbocharger provides boost through a broad torque range, delivering 255 foot-pounds of torque from 1250 to 4200 rpm. We found the torque of this engine gives it plenty of power to climb steep mountain terrain at freeway speeds, where the cars around us were struggling to keep up. The 328i offers strong acceleration performance for passing maneuvers at highway speeds, and getting from just about any speed to 80 mph is a breeze. BMW says the 328i can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, which is quite quick.

The BMW 335i's turbocharged six-cylinder engine purrs like a contented cat when idling. But in most situations, we found the power advantage of the 335i over the 328i to be negligible. 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. While driving the 328i and 335i at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, California, we noticed the six-cylinder engine delivered noticeably more thrust up the steep straightaway to The Corkscrew at the top of the circuit. Turbo lag is nonexistent. Acceleration performance from 0-60 mph comes in just 5.4 seconds with either transmission, according to BMW.

The 8-speed automatic works very well. Some drivers prefer to shift with the paddles, but most will simply put it in Drive and let it do its thing. We still enjoy the manual transmission available on the gasoline-powered sedans; clutch-pedal effort makes taking off easy, and the gear ratios are perfectly spaced for either engine.

Handling is excellent on all variants of the sedan, and all 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 hard up a primitive mountain road, overdriving the tires, allowing the active safety features to limit speed around the bumpy switchbacks. At Laguna Seca Raceway, 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 and serving up generous helpings of automotive 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, on a racetrack, for example, we found it beneficial to switch the system off, allowing the car to slide more and the rear tires to slip 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. Most of the time you'll want all this stuff switched on.

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, ready for the driver to slam on the brakes. The pads also lightly sweep the rotors every few seconds when it's raining to reduce moisture buildup.

The new diesel engine found on the 328d is surprisingly smooth and quiet. There is still an audible ticking noise at lower speeds and the slight rumble characteristic of all diesels, but it's refined in comparison to the old rough, smelly diesel engines of years past. Although torque is a healthy 280 foot-pounds, the 328d is still the slowest 3 Series of the bunch, with a 0-60 mph time of more than 7 seconds, according to BMW. There's sufficient thrust off the line, but you won't win any drag races. Tall gearing designed to maximize fuel economy keeps the 328d running at low rpms most of the time.

The new xDrive Sports Wagon uses the same engines as the 328i and 328d, and are both paired with the 8-speed automatic transmission. Sports Wagons boasts similar driving dynamics to their sedan counterparts. We found the 328i xDrive Sports Wagon every bit as nimble as the sedan. Around corners, you'd be hard-pressed to remember you have a copious rear end bolted onto the back (that is, if it weren't for the visibility issues caused by the wide D pillar and rear center-seat headrest).

An automatic Stop/Start function comes standard on all sedans. While it helps fuel economy, this feature annoys us. Although the latest version doesn't shutter quite so violently as the first iteration, it continues to be invasive and, in our opinion, kicks in too soon. After only a couple of seconds of idle, even if you're just pausing briefly, the engine shuts off. We found this especially disconcerting to crossing pedestrians who looked startled when they heard our car fire up just as they crossed our front bumper. The system can be turned off. Similar systems from Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and other brands are more refined.

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