2012 BMW 3-Series Review
Yet again, BMW raises the bar for the sports sedan segment.
- Punchy new engine a perfect fit
- Still the best steering in the segment
- Loads of new tech features
- New nose shape is awkward
- Interior more confusing than before
- Colored interior accents are tacky
As one of the most iconic and significant vehicles ever made, the BMW 3-Series has been the exemplar of German automotive engineering for decades, the sports sedan that all other sports sedans aspire to be.
For 2012, BMW has made the 3-Series faster and more powerful than ever before. It has also packed it with more standard features and given the 3-Series a refreshing yet obvious style update, both inside and out. This new 3-Series is exactly what we expected from BMW. It's also exactly what we'd hoped for.
Like its predecessor, the new 3-Series sedan comes in two primary models, the 328i and the 335i. The top-thrill M3 will arrive later, as will the all-wheel-drive xDrive variants. The new models deliver luxury and style with a strong emphasis on driving enjoyment.
For 2012, the 3-Series models are given three optional trim lines: Sport, Luxury and Modern. Each of these offers the expected assortment of relevant equipment, design and materials. As before, a host of packages and options are available.
All 3-Series vehicles are available with either a 6-speed manual transmission or an all-new 8-speed automatic.
Wheel sizes have been increased by 1 inch over 2011 models, with the base 328i now coming standard with 17-inch rollers (wrapped in 225/50 rubber) and the base 335i with an 18-inch set (225/45). Each trim line gets its own unique wheel design, which increases size another inch as well, to 18 inches and 19 inches, respectively, and wrapped in lower-profile tires.
Like the previous generation, neither model's alphanumeric nomenclature represents the size of its engine — a relatively recent change after decades of strict BMW model-naming rules. Another significant change this year is the death of the 3-Series coupe — technically, at least. From here on out, the 2-door variants will be known as the 4-Series. It's a logical change, but one that will take some getting used to.
Under the Hood
The new 328i comes equipped with a brand-new engine, a turbocharged a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder dubbed the N20. First seen in the latest Z4, this mill is the first 4-cylinder that BMW has brought to the United States in over a decade, replacing the previous N52 inline-6 engine of 2011's 328i. The new engine produces 240 horsepower at 5000 rpm over a broad spread of 260 lb-ft of torque that starts at just 1250 rpm and lasts until 4800 rpm. Compared to the previous unit, peak figures are up by 15 horsepower and a whopping 55 lb-ft of torque, an increase in power that's evident in the car's performance. When equipped with the 6-speed manual, zero to 60 mph occurs in just 5.6 seconds. The 8-speed automatic transmission slows this figure to 5.9 seconds.
The engine carries over from last year largely unchanged in the top 335i model, meaning it's the same vaunted N55 mill, the latest evolution of the turbocharged inline-6 cylinder. It's good for a clean 300 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque, which plateaus from 1200 rpm to 5000 rpm. While not excitingly new, it's a world-renowned engine and its presence in the new 3-Series is obvious. While the performance of the 328i is now getting dangerously close to the 335i's, the bigger 3 still takes the lead, getting from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds with either transmission.
While the new interior is functional, modern and a welcome change over the Spartan cabin of the last generation, it's not without fault. The instrument cluster and primary driver controls are excellent, logically placed and of high quality. However, confusion begins as we explore toward the center panel and passenger areas, and intensives as we delve deeper into the car's computerized settings. This car is actively doing quite a lot, perhaps more than is really needed. We wonder if that will translate to "just more stuff that can go wrong," a trend we began to see in the BMW E90.
Still, we enjoyed playing around with many of the new features, particularly the Driving Dynamics Control, which enables drivers to switch between various drive modes, including an Eco Pro mode, which tracks efficiency on the fly and reduces the power of gas-guzzling bits like heated seats and the air conditioning to maximize fuel mileage. Needless to say, high-tech features abound in the new 3-Series, including an available heads-up display and 6.5-inch iDrive display.
As for interior style, it's a good blend between function and form. Some of the design elements we could've done without, particularly the anodized, colored stripes of the Sport trims. When equipped with the piano black accents, the vibe is surprisingly reminiscent of a Japanese vehicle, albeit a nice one. Aside from style, the sport seats are well designed, comfortable and supportive during spirited driving. Frustratingly for this segment, genuine leather upholstery remains optional, as do power seats.
On the Road
True to form, the new 3-Series is a great drive, and the new N20 engine is a perfect fit for the application. Although we recently experienced the same engine in the latest Z4 roadster, it inexplicably feels better in the 328i. It revs happily to redline, with a high-rpm rush that surprised.
While we didn't have the opportunity to sample the 6-speed manual, there's no reason to doubt it'll feel as slick as ever. The 8-speed automatic is a surprising star here, providing the right gear ratio whenever needed and shifting quickly and smoothly. Also appreciated are proper shift paddles, which are a big improvement over the previous setup. The new transmission includes an automatic start-stop feature that, while noticeable, is not intrusive and did its job without issue. We expect this to be a strong selling point in the U.S. market.
As automotive journalists, we take an oath to gripe about today's electric power-steering systems whenever possible. But truth be told, the steering in the new 3-Series is almost as good as electric gets. It's certainly the best in its class — smooth and communicative with immediate turn-in, although it did require a bit more micro-adjustments than we'd like, and it could have been a bit weightier. Regardless, the car feels well composed yet lively around even the tightest curves. There's just no denying the handling prowess of a BMW.
Right for You?
The BMW 3-Series has sold over 12.5 million units since its introduction decades ago. It's a wildly popular vehicle, and it's hard to imagine it not suiting anyone in the market for a sedan. It truly does everything well, ranging from legitimately track-worthy performance to gadget-laden luxury cruising. While it isn't some revolutionary new breed, its uncanny ability to balance everything results in a near-perfect product. This has long been the 3-Series' successful formula, and despite the inevitable toll modern technology and design has taken on "soul," this claim to fame won't be changing for 2012.
It's worth pointing out that the 3-Series' competition is not lacking, though — not even close. The C-Class from Mercedes-Benz has also just received a mid-generation update, and Audi's A4 models are very much on the fast track to challenging BMW's crown. In fact, the brilliant Audi S4, which competes with the 335i, remains the fastest in its class, and has many other admirable attributes.
Although the $36,650 starting price ($44,150 for the 335i) is a slight increase over the 2011 models, the new cars do include more standard goodies to compensate. For those looking for a do-everything sedan, there's no denying the allure of the 3-Series, and we'd waste no time in recommending it. It's simply the standard by which luxury sports sedans are measured. Sorry if you've been reading that line for decades, but the fact is, it's true.
(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, BMW provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trendand European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.