BMW has redesigned the 3-series sedan for 2012 -- not that you'd know it from the photos. Although it looks like its predecessor, the new 328i is bigger, lighter, and motivated by a high-tech 4-cylinder engine. So does it live up to the 3-series' lofty reputation? Read on.
First Glance: Please, Lord, let this be the one!
Every time I review a 3-series, I make a solemn promise to myself that I am not going to fawn all over it like every other automotive journalist. Surely, such an over-the-top praise-fest is going to kill my credibility with my readers, who will assume that I am simply kissing BMW's corporate feet so that they will let me drive more BMWs. No, I assure myself, I am going to tell the truth about this car, find all of its flaws, and duly report on each and every one of them.
And then the car arrives, and it's really good, and I write a review saying so. And then I feel dirty. I try to comfort myself by booking a Toyota and writing about how dull it is, in a vain effort to convince myself that I really am an objective critic... but that only masks the pain, it never really cures it.
Once -- just once -- I wish BMW would design a lousy 3-series, a real turkey, so that we hacks can prove that we aren't just worshiping at the Altar of the Blue and White Propeller. Just one car with terrible steering, or not enough power, or maybe a really complicated control system that uses one single dial to control nearly every function on the car. (Oh, wait.)
Maybe some day that will happen, but not this time. From the photos, it would seem that, aside from the new front fascia and taillights, the all-new 3 isn't much different than the old car. In fact, there are changes a-plenty -- to the sedan, at least; the coupe, convertible and wagon are unchanged for now -- but the basic formula remains the same.
"2012 BMW 328i dashboard"
I'll be honest: From the inside, I can barely tell most BMW models apart. There are subtle differences here and there, like the new 3's LCD monitor mounted atop the dash rather than integrated in it, or the sharper creases and lines that could well be the harbinger of a shift in Bimmer's interior design direction. But such changes happen at a glacial pace, and for the most part, the look, the feel, and the touchy-feely bits will be familiar to any BMW driver. Given the straightforward layout and the good ergonomics, I suppose that's not a bad thing... at least, until you get halfway to work and realize you're driving your spouse's 328i instead of your own 535i.
Still, I found quite a lot to like. My car had red leather seats, which spruced up the all-black interior quite nicely -- although it still irks me that leather is an extra-cost option ($1,450!!), even if BMW's standard leatherette (no one likes to say "vinyl") is a convincing imitation. Those red seats are exclusive to the "Sport Line" trim. (If you really want something out of the ordinary, check out the "Modern Line" trim, with its all-beige -- sorry, oyster -- seats, dash, steering wheel, and gauge faces and optional pinkish-pearl trim, a color scheme straight out of a 1960s sci-fi movie.) Color aside, I found the seats themselves quite comfy, and I was pleased to see an extendable thigh bolster, which means that taller drivers can get the same thigh support usually reserved for us short guys. I've come to like the single-dial iDrive controller; once you get the hang of it, it's actually pretty slick. But I'm baffled as to why the 3 has automatic rain-sensing wipers that you have to manually turn on every time you start the car. If they're supposed to be automatic, doesn't that defeat the purpose?
On the plus side, the 3's extra size has been put to good use with a generous back seat, while the trunk is up to 13 cubic feet, still not a class leader, but better than before.
On the Road: New engine, new steering, same experience
Here's where we find one of the biggest changes: the 328i is now powered by a 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, which replaces the inline six in the old 328i. (The 335i still gets six turbocharged cylinders.) I've sung the praises of this engine in my 528i review; at 240 hp and 255 lb-ft it produces more power than the old six and plenty of muscle for the 328i. My test car had a 6-speed manual transmission, which I found a bit clunky; the optional automatic has 8 speeds. With either trans, the 328i will jump to 60 MPH in under 6 seconds. The EPA rates the 328i at 23 MPG city/34 MPG highway with the manual trans and 23/33 with the automatic, with a driver-selectable "Eco Plus" driving mode that dampens throttle response and helps the driver get better mileage. My car delivered as promised, averaging 26.5 MPG during my week-long test drive.
I have only two complaints about this engine, the same gripes I had with it in the 528i: First is the lousy soundtrack. BMW's six-cylinders are music to a car buff's ears, so why can't they make their turbo four sing the same way? (If Honda can do it, surely BMW can.) Second is the "auto stop" mode, which shuts the engine off at stoplights and restarts it with a most un-luxurious shudder. This is half-a... sorry, half-hearted engineering at its best.
Another big change for the 3 is the move from hydraulic to electric power steering (EPS), which is more fuel efficient. (EPS only uses juice when power assistance is needed, while hydraulic requires a full-time engine-driven pump.) Getting EPS to emulate the steering feedback we're used to isn't easy, but it's no surprise that BMW has sorted it out pretty well -- there's not quite as much feel as the old 3's hydraulic system, but it still responds like a BMW should. Same with the suspension: While it's a bit softer and more compliant than the last 3-series, it still showed outstanding finesse and classic rear-wheel-drive balance on the Top Secret Curvy Test Road. Even Mrs. Gold gave it her "fun to drive" seal of approval.