Which BMW 3 Is Best? It Just Doesn’t Matter
2013 BMW 3-Series Review:
A lot of things can change between the time you test a car at its new-car introduction and the time you get to spend a week living and/or coexisting with the same car. The BMW 3-Series, however, always seems to be the exception that proves the rule.
When BMW introduced the 3-Series, I wrote that it wasn’t fair; the car had to generate rave reviews, because first it is an icon, second it was unveiled during a two-day stint in California, with the first day devoted to driving the car around Mazda Laguna Seca race track, one of the finest road-racing circuits on the planet, and the second involved driving down the Coast Highway to Big Sur, one of the most scenic highway drives this side of Lake Superior’s North Shore.
Even then, however, I couldn’t wait for the chance to test-drive a 3-Series ON Lake Superior’s North Shore. The chance came in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record in Minnesota, where it seemed like half of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area drove to the North Shore every weekend to escape blistering temperatures.At that, I was not fully prepared for what was to come. I was scheduled to drive both the 6-cylinder 335i and, two weeks later, the 4-cylinder 328i. From the introductory tests, it seemed to me that the turbocharged 4 had sufficient power that nothing more was needed to power the BMW 3, and it must be more economical too, right?
That was just before my pre-test assumptions were turned upside down and back again.
First, we had the chance to drive the 335i version of the car. That’s with the priceless BMW inline 6-cylinder, measuring 3.0 liters, and with dual-overhead camshafts operating the 24 valves. The sticker shock reads $42,400 base, with options pushing the final tag to $55,870.
While “just” a 4-door sedan, the 335i may lack the pizzazz of the flashier coupe or convertible, but it has something of a menacing look on its own, and the drivetrain remains its inner jewel. One of the world’s truly fine engines, the 3.0 has TwinPower turbo technology, high-pressure precision direct injection, Valvetronic valvetrain, and Double VANOS t variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves. The 3-Series can be had with any flavor of 3.0-liter engines. The test car is twin-turbocharged up to 300 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque, and it zips around with power and class.
Driving on metropolitan highways and streets, the 335i exudes a certain class that approaches hotter sports cars and is far above the normally recognized sporty sedans. Handling is flawless, and while the car is smaller than most midsize and qualifies more like a compact, rear seat room is certainly adequate.
Performance is smooth and precise, harnessed by the Sport Line’s adaptive suspension off the M3 design, and with the Sport automatic transmission. With eight speeds, drivers can control things with paddles mounted within thumb’s reach on the steering wheel. I only really pushed the car once, and that was coming easterly on I-610 north of Minneapolis, and taking the Duluth exit north. That road curves gradually to the right, then more sharply, finally hooking in a decreasing-radius arc that is not what traffic engineers could possibly have thought would be the safest alternative.
Knowing the curve well, and having the pleasure of nobody around me, fore or aft, I went into the last part of the turn where the sign advises 25 mpg, and I was going 47 mph, and accelerated hard the rest of the way around.You can cheat with the console controls, pushing a button to engage “sport,” or clicking it again to get “sport plus.” I would recommend sport plus only on perfectly smooth surfaces, or at a race track. But sport works just fine.
It was filled with features to aid connectivity, and it was easy to hook up my iPhone to the system, allowing me to make and receive calls through the audio system, without taking my hands off the wheel.
Driving back from Duluth to Minneapolis, I cruised within the speed limit, and through the highway construction maze that reduced much of the speed to a crawl. I didn’t expect great fuel economy, but I reset the computer and coaxed the number to creep upward. When I finally reached my planned exit, 160 miles later, the digital readout hit 36.0 on the ramp.
That’s right, a hot sporty sedan, capable of hitting 36.0 miles per gallon on a freeway trip. Suddenly, my whole anticipation for the two almost back-to-back BMWs took an abrupt detour. On to other things, I awaited the arrival of the 328i, fully intending to give it a fair test, but my idea of: “Why would anyone pay more for the 6 when the 4 is more than adequate?” had changed to: “Why would anyone spend a lot of money and settle for the 4, when the 6 will get 36 mpg.”
Then the 328i showed up. The 4 is not just a 4, but a 2.0-liter gem that also gets twin turbocharging, and delivers 240 horsepower and 255 foot-pounds of torque. That may not sound like much, but it’s plenty — especially in a lean and agile sedan, where the torque reaches its peak at a mere 1,250 RPMs. When full torque comes in that early, and stays there as if on a plateau, the feeling is more like having a much larger engine at work.
And when power was required, the twin-scroll turbo delivers, helped by direct injection and the sport suspension settings. The 328i will go 0-60 in a reported 5.7 seconds — approaching the 5.4-second burst by the larger twin-turbo-6.
The transmission is also the 8-speed, with a weird shift knob controlling it in one of the extremely unlikely counter-intuitive gimmicks that ranks as the worst idea BMW has had since the “I-Drive” console control that confused everyone for a decade in all BMWs. The problem is that the shift knob has a clear pattern that shows, from the top down, P, R, N, D. Simple. So you nudge the shift lever up from D, through N and R, and you might assume you’re in P, for Park. Wrong, Heinrich! It won’t go into P, until you click the special P button on the top of the shift knob. My biggest gripe was that I only had about 80-percent success when I did click that button, because it didn’t always engage.
The danger is that when you think you’re in P and you’re really not, you could hop out of your car to plug the meter and find that instead of P it is in R, and it is backing up toward that car parked behind you. Same with coming the other way, where you have to click a little electric switch on the left side of the shift knob to free the lever to go where you’re intending.
Ah, but once underway, all is well. In fact, it is more than well, because you have some other buttons at your command. There is an innocent little switch on the left edge of the console that identifies Sport, Comfort, or Eco. Click Eco, and the car’s shift points are slooowwed down, almost docile, for optimum fuel mileage. Comfort is pretty much normal. Click Sport, and you get a distinct change in shifting algorithm, suspension, and steering. Click the Sport button a second time and you get Sport Plus, which puts you into what I’d call race track mode.
Both cars, with their twin-turbo power, shut down the engine if you stop completely at a red light, and there is brake-energy regeneration.
The 328i was not up to the 335i for outright performance, but it was in the ballpark. For that, I was wavering back to favoring the 4, despite an extremely weird interior scheme, where the woodgrain has a 3-D effect, with the grain raised to the touch so dramatically that a fool might think it came with corduroy trim on the dash, doors and console. It was only the optional FineLine Pure wood trim.
Sticker price of the base 328i is a reasonable $34,900, although the test car came with leather interior, sports leather steering wheel, the parking package with distance control and side and top-view cameras, plus premium package keyless entry, moonroof and front seats, and a premium sound package by Harmon Kardon, with a navigation system and heads-up display. When it was all tallied up, including the $895 destination price, and the same strange shift-lever operation as the 335i, the sticker showed $49,870 — more than the base price of the 335i, but thankfully less by $4,500 than the 335i sticker.That, again, caused my comparison-minded brain to do another flip-flop. In answer to my own question about why anybody would choose the 6 when the 4 was a better bargain was reduced to what is basically car-buying pocket change.
The coup de grace, however, was still to come. My wife, Joan, gives me valuable input on all test vehicles, and at great personal sacrifice, I asked her to drive the car on the next run between Minneapolis and Duluth. She said that she, too, was caught in the various construction slowdowns, and she confessed that when free of such obstacles, she found traffic flow was sailing along at about 76 mpg. So she fell in with that hustling weekend crowd. To her amazement, when she got to Duluth she checked the on-board computer, which she had zeroed.
“It said I got 42.5 miles per gallon!” she said.
Amazing, once again. I have driven a number of contemporary subcompact economy cars, and even some hybrids, that wouldn’t get 40 mpg even when pampered. And here’s a hot, sporty, twin-turbo BMW sedan hitting 42.5.
So the question remains, and gets a trick answer: “What could match a BMW 335i twin-turbo 6 that is capable of getting 36 mpg?”
Answer: “A BMW 328i with a twin-turbo 4 that is almost as quick and is capable of getting 42.5 mpg.”
The question for what car might best entice entry-luxury or sophisticated sporty-sedan customers is not as complex. The answer is simply “A BMW 3.” Doesn’t matter which one you pick.