Take any near luxury sports sedan on the market today, any one, and I would bet the farm that from concept to production, the car was benchmarked against the segment standard bearer, the BMW 3 Series. For decades, the 3 Series has ruled the roost. Yes, the Audi A4, Lexus IS, Infiniti G, Cadillac CTS and Mercedes C-Class all are superb cars, but on the road, none of them feel like a BMW.
We tested the mettle of the newest member of the “Ultimate Driving Machine” family on the Pacific Coast Highway near Monterey, California, and on the track at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, which features the infamous “corkscrew” turn where the road seems to literally fall away from you when traveling at speed. Also on display at Laguna Seca were several earlier iterations of this great car, now in its sixth generation. Yes, the car I lusted for, a late 70’s 320i, was there in perfect, 12,000 plus miles condition. It’s the car that put the “3,” and indeed BMW on the sales map in the U.S., and the company has wisely improved each generation without sacrificing the pure driving experience that is the hallmark of the series, and indeed, the brand.
For 2012, the new 3 Series is available in three trim levels: Sport Line, Luxury Line and Modern Line. Outside of mechanical differences depending on your engine choice, each offers subtle changes in interior and exterior appointments.
At the press introduction, the 335i six cylinder and 328i four cylinder turbo were launched. As a special treat, I got the chance to drive the other-worldly M3 with its fire breathing V8 at Laguna Seca under the watchful and instructive eyes of Jim Davis from the BMW Performance Driving School based in Spartanburg, North Carolina.
I spent 95% of my “regular” 3 Series time driving the superb 335i. It’s my kind of car: powerful, well appointed and incredibly fun to drive. Ride quality is sporty yet compliant, and the only noises you’ll hear are the noises you want to hear in a BMW – the sweet sounds of a BMW engine under power. Speaking of power, motive force for the 335i comes from a legendary line of straight six engines, and this 3.0-liter unit features dual scroll turbocharging and outputs 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Zero to sixty miles per hour sprints come up in a rapid 5.4 seconds. Top speed varies depending on trim level, with 130 mph the top speed for Modern and Luxury Line models, and 155 mph for Sport Line. Both top speeds are electronically governed. No matter your choice of gearboxes, a six-speed manual or state-of-the-art eight-speed, the gear changing experience is crisp.
Back to Laguna Seca, I drove the 335i six speed and the M3 manual automatic. This new generation of automatics is so good, your shift speeds are actually faster with the automatic. Without having to focus on changing gears (my instructor kindly set it in full auto mode), I was able to concentrate on my line through the corkscrew! While driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, my driving partner and I were able to exploit the adaptive settings the 3 Series offers. Using the console mounted Driving Dynamics Control switch, we were able to customize accelerator response characteristics, engine response, power steering characteristics and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) thresholds by choosing between Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes. Each of these modes activates different settings for engine and suspension components. In Sport mode, for example, throttle response is sharp and the steering becomes even more direct. On vehicles with an automatic transmission, the shift points are altered to provide a significantly sportier drive. Case in point, without moving my foot on the throttle, I switched from Comfort to Sport mode and the car surged forward as if I had engaged a booster rocket.
The system also allows the driver to change the DSC settings. Selecting Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) mode, for example, makes it much easier to start off on loose surfaces or in deep snow. In this mode as well as in Sport+ mode, the Dynamic Stability Control thresholds are raised and Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) is activated. It is also possible to shut off DSC altogether. The electronic limited-slip function for the rear differential can then provide extra-sporty acceleration out of corners or hairpins. On the racetrack the DSC function was limited, but wisely not completely switched off. This allowed for tail hanging drifts through corners without a loss of control.
Eco Pro mode supports a fuel efficient driving style. It does this by changing the accelerator mapping so that the same pedal travel delivers less power than in the standard mode. Also in this mode, the automatic transmission control strategy is modified to upshift sooner and to delay downshifts, while intelligent energy and climate management reduces the mechanical power consumption and also the consumption of electrical systems such as heated mirrors and seats. But the biggest potential for improving fuel economy comes from the driver’s own personal driving habits. Special displays in the instrument cluster let the driver know by how much the driving range is being extended, show fuel consumption history, or, with reference to the specific driving situation, provide tips and incentives on how to develop a more economy-conscious driving style. Eco Pro mode allows average fuel consumption to be reduced by up to 20%, with a corresponding increase in driving range.
The new Driving Dynamics Control function is standard on all 3 Series models. Other significant fuel saving technologies include intelligent lightweight design, brake energy regeneration, auto start-stop function, and low drag aerodynamics, including the “Air Curtain,” which improves air flow around the front wheels, enhancing aerodynamic efficiency and reducing fuel consumption at higher speeds. All of these technologies are part of the 3 Series’ “EfficientDynamics” portfolio.
On the super high tech front, the “3” also delivers. BMW ConnectedDrive offers a combination of available driver assistance technology and mobility systems. New for 2012 is a full-color Head-Up Display, which projects key information onto the windshield so it appears directly in the driver’s field of view. Also available is Surround View with Side View and Top View, which gives a bird’s-eye perspective of the vehicle and the area around it. In addition, an available Parking Assistant system helps the driver to parallel park. Among the other assistance technology available includes an Active Blind Spot Detection System and Lane Departure Warning System with camera-based Collision Warning system; a navigation system with real-time traffic information and an innovative comfort access function allowing hands-free opening of the trunk lid.
For those permanently wired to their iPhones, BMW ConnectedDrive also offers “apps” connectivity. The BMW Connected iPhone app offers a suite of entertainment and productivity applications for your 3 Series. My favorites are Pandora Internet Radio and MOG music service, with access to millions of songs that can be controlled through your iPhone and fully controlled via the iDrive rotary controller. You can also read Tweets and get Facebook updates at any time. Thousand of additional Internet radio stations from all over the world are accessible with the flick of the iDrive rotary controller. And “Last Mile” enables you to use your iPhone to continue to navigate on foot once you exit your 3 Series. At the end of our press drive, I asked my partner to drop me in a shopping district on the main drag in Monterey. Walking back to our hotel, I got a bit confused and Last Mile quickly got me back on point. It had been following me during my entire journey! Of course, this feature can be disabled should you want your privacy.
Stylewise, the 3’s dynamic proportions are shaped by the sweeping hood, short front overhang, long wheelbase and set-back greenhouse typical of BMW. As expected, LED Corona Rings make quite a statement day or night.
On the safety front, this is a BMW, so rest assured every major safety feature available is standard. BMW Connected also comes into play here should your airbags deploy in a crash, giving emergency services the severity of the crash and likely trauma levels so they can prep before they arrive. Obviously, it also tells them where you are using GPS coordinates.
Lastly, the new BMW 3 Series sports serious braking capability. Not once during our torrid runs around Laguna Seca did we experience brake fade, which is like not having any brakes at all. Superior cooling and materials meld to ensure your stopping power is as great as your accelerative power.
And if you are still not convinced, BMW’s comprehensive all-inclusive maintenance program continues. BMW’s Ultimate Service Plan covers all factory-recommended maintenance at no charge for the first four years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first, as well as specific items that require replacement due to normal wear and tear, including brake pads and wiper blade inserts.
Pricing for the 2012 BMW 3 Series starts at $34,900 for the 328i and $42,400 for the 335i. Expect all-wheel drive and updated M3 versions in showrooms soon.
On the consumer Web site for BMW North America, the heading on the page for the new 3 Series says “Consider the Bench, Marked.” Now this is really truth in advertising. Bottom line: This is the best 3 Series ever.