[Review] Less Is More in BMW’s Complacently Excellent 3

WSJ notes: When in the course of human events someone asks you which fresh-off-the-boat BMW 3-series you want to drive for the week, you say, “The fast one,” naturally. And so I did. But I was wrong.

The correct answer was, the slow one. I hereby invoke air quotes.

The “slow” one is the 2012 328i, the base model for the new generation of the legendary 3-series (the F30 chassis, in nerdspeak, replacing the E90). How about some numbers? The F30 is longer (3.7 inches) than its predecessor on a 1.9-inch longer wheelbase, with wider front and rear tracks (1.5 inches and 2 inches, respectively) and is most readily identified by new LED headlamp assemblies that reside on the face of the car like Poirot’s pince-nez.

The marquee hardware in this, the company’s most consequential automobile, is a new twin-scroll turbo four-cylinder engine, code-named the N20 because, well, BMW engineers code-name everything. I’d like you to meet my youngest daughter, the Alpha-Heidi-5.

The high-pressure turbo 2.0-liter puts out a stout 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque in a vast swath of tachometer—anywhere from 1,250 rpm to in excess of 5,000 rpm. BMW puts the 328i’s 0-60 mph acceleration at 5.9 seconds, which is pretty darn snappy for a 3,461-pound four-door. Paired with the standard eight-speed automatic transmission and the auto stop/start feature, as well as a driver-selected fuel-saving program called “Eco Pro”—are there “Eco Amateurs,” I wonder?—the N20 also posts an astonishing 36 miles per gallon on the highway. Look for that number to be blazed across the advertising firmament in months to come.


I do so wish this story were about that car.

The fast one, the 335i delivered to my hotel in Los Angeles, is a more familiar construct, with BMW’s excellent N55 single-turbo’ed 3.0-liter in-line six held over from the previous generation (300 hp/300 pound-feet). This engine is likewise wondrously free of stiction and internal inertia and is smoother than hot-buttered sin. With the same eight-speeder, the 3,594-pound car sprints to 60 mph in about 5.4 seconds—i.e., a half-second quicker than the 328i—but its fuel economy is a little less mind-blowing: 33 mpg on the highway. There’s also the not-inconsiderable $7,500 delta between the price of the four- and six-cylinder models, or $3,750 per cylinder.

So that’s the showroom calculus: $7,500, 0.5 seconds to 60, 3 mpg on the highway, and about 133 pounds of curb weight. Real-world car buyers should prefer the four-cylinder car, reasoning that the fractional loss of horsepower is more than compensated by the 328i’s price, the fuel economy and the comparative lightness. As an enlightened car guy, I should have been among them.

But no. In that moment when the functionary at BMW offered me any 3-series I wanted, I succumbed to maximalism. Maximalism is the mostly male mind-set that assumes “more” is better. Spare me your relativism on matters of weight/price/performance/fuel economy. I will not measure out my life in coffee spoons. I want wider tires, bigger brakes, harder suspension, faster windshield wipers. I want the El Presidente, the Venti, the subzero sleeping bag, the full-frame CMOS, the triple-core processor. This is straight out of Thorstein Veblen, the University of Chicago economist who coined the phrase “invidious comparison.”

Take care not to confuse Veblen with his contemporary Max Weber, the inventor of the carburetor.

How was the 335i? I have to say, a little disappointing. Let’s take styling. The F30’s enlarged headlamp openings are pointless, functionally and aesthetically, and because the familiar glowing irises of the instruments appear unchanged, the car looks like it’s flaring its eyes in haughty, Joan Crawford-like insanity. The owner’s manual recommends no wire hangers.

This mild revision of the sheet metal is altogether timid and unaffecting: The side light-line has been pulled up from the rocker panel into the doors; the Graf Zeppelin-like sculpting on the hood has been toned down. A bore, in other words. Frankly, I like the old body style, and headlamps, better. Also annoying: The F30’s sweeping interior redesign leaves the 6.5-inch LCD display clumsily thrust through the top of the dash, like an electronic Pop-Tart leaving the toaster.

New for 2012 are three trim packages: Sport, Luxury and Modern. Being the very model, I chose the Modern trim level—think Scandinavian hotel lobby—with the strikingly weird “Fineline Pure” textured wood trim. It means to suggest driftwood. It suggests topsoil erosion. If you want leather seats with that, it’s a punishing $3,600. Porsche and BMW are currently competing to see which can better rake consumers over the coals on optional upgrades. On the 3-series, the navigation and multicolor heads-up display is $2,550. You’ll pay $3,600 for the Premium package (basically moonroof and leather seats). The Sport Line package (adaptive M suspension, some trim and nice steering wheel) is $2,500. Oh you want the leather Sport seats? That’s another $1,450. The good Harmon Kardon sound system? $950. Oof. BMW appears to be getting procurement lessons from the Pentagon.

2012 BMW 335i Modern

  • Base price: $47,145
  • Price as tested: $53,645
  • Powertrain: Turbocharged and intercooled direct-injection DOHC 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder with twin-scroll single turbocharger and variable valve timing; eight-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower/torque: 300 hp at 5,800 rpm/300 pound-feet at 1,300-5,000 rpm
  • Length/weight: 182.5 inches/3,594 pounds
  • Wheelbase: 110.6 inches
  • EPA fuel economy: 23/33 mpg, city/highway
  • Cargo capacity: 13 cubic feet

Of course, dynamics are the 3-series stock in trade, and here the car delivers. The test 335i—with 18-inch all-season radials gripped in the fender wells—practically glided over the crumbly asphalt in the Malibu canyonland with a deeply settled stance that largely quelled bounding and oscillation. The struts-and-multilinks suspension is largely carry-over, but the elastomerics have been tuned to greater ride compliance and better NVH. There’s a small trade-off in play here. In hasty corner-to-corner transitions, the car rolled and pitched more than I had expected.

Yet the BMW-patented liveliness is still there, that sweet connectedness with the driver. The revised speed-sensitive electric steering offers excellent feel and feedback. The fixed four-pot front brakes are also impeccable. And, as usual, the bounteous torque in first through sixth gears and at any rpm gives the car a hugely willing and enthusiastic character. Love that.

I would like to drive this car with a proper set of sport tires on it, though. I frequently found less turn-in bite and more understeering in corners than I’d like, and when I’d try to get the car to rotate with the throttle it balked, even though I had it in the most liberal performance setting, Sport+, which allows quicker yaw rates and less traction intervention. Over and over again, the car seems to be waiting on the tires to regain purchase.

The 3-series is still, and again, an excellent car: state-of-the-art driver-assist technologies, great switchgear and materials, flawless dynamics, stellar fuel economy, even with the six-cylinder. Heck, even the trunk is bigger. And yet the F30 project still manages to convey a certain privileged incumbency and laurel-resting about it, if not raw profit-taking. The pace of excellence definitely has slowed with the F30.

Unfortunately for BMW, it’s happening just as the competition is speeding up.