Road test: 2012 BMW 3 Series

My apologies. This won’t be the standard, authoritative road test expected from your resident loud-mouth shnook. You know, the one where — after exhaustive combing of the media kit, not to mention a kilometre or two behind the wheel — I definitively state that, yea or nay, this car is the cat’s meow. Instead, this evaluation will be filled with the ifs, ands and buts of the possible and probable as I grapple with both the car BMW will be immediately offering, what it will offer in the future and what it all means for the brand in the long run.

I hardly need to remind you that the 3 Series is BMW’s bread and butter. Yes, in recent years, the company has diversified into Sports Activity Vehicles (its semi-pretentious name for SUVs), fortified its larger cars (such as the 5 and 7 Series) as well as started an entire new entry-level line (the 1 Series). But it still remains that whither goes the 3 goes BMW.

Almost as obvious is that the 3, like the rest of the BMW lineup, is undergoing significant changes. As complex as the automotive world may be, these influences can be summed up in two simple categories: one represented by BMW’s recent (and now defunct) Joy marketing campaign that saw the company trying to broaden its audience, and the other forced upon it by governments legislating increasingly stringent fuel economy standards. The latter has seen BMW drop its traditional high-revving engines in favour of turbocharging when seeking more power (i.e., in topline trims and M-badged models), while the former still sees BMW paying as much attention to comfort and comportment as it does to the handling and steering for which it is legendary.

Indeed, the 328i I recently tested is a perfect example of both influences. Immediately recognizable as a BMW 3 Series despite its styling revisions, under the hood is yet another of BMW’s increasingly ubiquitous N20 turbocharged four-cylinders. Already tested in the X1 and more recently in the up-market 5 Series, the four-banger punches well above its weight, its measly 2.0 litres pumping out a boast-worthy 241 horsepower and an even more impressive 258 pound-feet of torque. Compared with the naturally aspirated 3.0L in-line six it replaces in all cars with the “28” suffix, that’s a gain of 11 hp and 58 lb-ft of torque respectively.

It shows. The new 328i four-cylinder is actually one second faster to 100 kilometres an hour than the previous 328i six. Most noticeable is the surfeit of low-end power, the combination of the turbo four’s abundant torque and the new eight-speed automatic transmission making the new 328i feel much more robust. Launch is forceful (BMW Canada claims a creditable 6.3 seconds to 100 km/h) and, when passing on the highway, the 2.0L feels twice as large. No need for high revs or gnashing of valves, the 328i scoots past traffic with ease. And did I mention that Transport Canada rates the new 328 at 6.8 L/100 km overall, a 22% improvement over the outgoing model?

On the other hand (and did I not promise a whole passel of “buts”), the four does not feel as smooth or as sporty as the replaced in-line six. It’s difficult to express with words the concept of a faster car being less sporty, but BMW in-line sixes are happy little engines, just bursting with eagerness to rev their hearts out. Meanwhile, the new four, while displaying some enthusiasm for the entire process, is never quite as happy. Nor does it sound as good. That’s not so much a condemnation of the new N20 engine as reiterating that BMW’s in-line six is still one of the sweetest-sounding engines in the biz.

BMW is betting that most who shop the 328i simply won’t care. In its quest to broaden its clientele, the spinning propeller company quickly determined that not everyone shopping in its showrooms is an enthusiast. Indeed, the vast majority are just looking for a luxury car. For them, the loss of two pistons and the resultant somniferous exhaust note will not be noticed. That they’re getting more horsepower with at least the promise of better fuel economy is far more important.

The same can be said of the 328i’s comportment. Each successive generation of 3 Series has focused on improving the car’s already-stellar handling. No mass-market four-door sedan has ever compared with the compact BMW’s road holding. Plus, its steering precision is legendary and the balance between ride and handling is almost magical.

What’s obvious is that, in broadening its audience (for the 328i, at least), BMW has tilted that balance to the ride side of the equation. Not that the new 328i handles worse than the old car or worse than any of its competition, for that matter — only the obviousness that, in redesigning the 328i, it’s applied its prodigious talent to optimum bump absorption rather than maximum grip. Indeed, no other compact sedan can romp over a set of train tracks with quite the aplomb of the new 328i; the sharp-edged tracks might as well be a minor frost heave so assiduously does the car’s dampers absorb their impact.

As laudable as that is, however, it does not fit in with BMW’s reputation as a performance sedan non-pareil. For that, one has to move from the $43,600 328i (up $2,100 despite two less pistons) to the $51,200 335i, which sports, among other things, two extra pistons. BMW says the 3.0L — with 300 hp and 300 lb-ft — scoots to 100 km/h in 5.7 seconds. This, if you’ve been paying attention, is just 0.6 seconds quicker than the four-banger. It feels like more. Perhaps BMW switched stopwatches. Or perhaps I’m just a diehard six-cylinder fan, but it feels more powerful than the numbers would indicate. There’s something languid about the way a turbocharged BMW in-line six makes power, cresting early but then revving so sweetly that you’d swear it could go on forever. Drive the 328i by itself and there is nothing wrong with it. Drive the two back to back and there’s no comparison.

My 335i tester was also equipped with the sport suspension, which tidied up its handling quite nicely. But — and this is the “if” part of equation I mentioned earlier — there’s some question as to whether this option (Adaptive M sport suspension to be exact) will be coming to Canada. While both the 328 and 335 will be offered with a more basic M Sport package, the adaptive version adds adjustable damping to the basic system’s 10-millimetre lower ride height and stiffer springs. According to BMW Canada, however, the Adaptive M’s “sport” setting is almost identical to the optional suspension that will be offered here. BMW’s new electrically boosted, rack-and-pinion-based Variable Sport Steering was also part of the 335i tester’s benefits — and is also recommended. I get that some might not appreciate the difference in steering feel and road holding, but this is where BMW truly shines. The automaker may have some competition when it comes to coddling passengers with the cushiest ride, but it has no equal when it is allowed to focus on building the best-handling performance sedans on the planet.

In the end, those looking for a specific, concrete conclusion will have to deal with a bit of ambiguity. If you’re a performance purist, you may lament that BMW is now playing in the same turbo-four entry-level luxury sedan market that Audi and Mercedes have been in for so long. On the other hand, BMW still offers — for a higher price tag — all that six-cylinder/handling goodness enthusiasts have always craved.

If this is just an indication BMW is being more inclusive without losing sight of its core values, then it’s a smart move. However, if it thinks, since 75% of its 3 Series sales now come from four-cylinder owners, that it can shuck all this performance/handling nonsense, it would be good to remember that history is littered with the remains of companies that abandoned their core values. BMW needs the 328i and 335i in equal measure. (You knew I was going to get to the final piece of the puzzle eventually.)

Photograph by: BMW, handout