We’ve heard it said before that BMW has never built a great four-cylinder engine. Oh sure, the company earned its reputation building great little cars with four cylinders, but those early M10 engines didn’t offer nearly the entertainment as the 02-series chassis they were dropped into. Even the original M3’s mighty S14 16-valver, while a joy to the ears on full throttle, was rough in its road-going manners. Still, judging by the 20-story, four-cylinder shrine that serves as its headquarters, you’d think the four-banger was the exclusive domain of Bavarian Motor Works. Thankfully, executives refrained from adding two additional cylinders to the HQ building during the last couple decades of six-cylinder domination — after all, BMW has built some truly awesome sixes in recent years — perhaps because they knew they’d eventually build an engine worthy of the iconic edifice. That engine, the first great BMW four-cylinder, is christened N20 and has been in our presence for several months already, but it’s about to be delivered to the masses in the form of the new 328i.
We’ve covered the nuts and bolts of the N20 in depth before. In short, it’s a wonderful piece of modern engineering that takes advantage of all the latest technology — direct fuel injection, high compression, turbocharging, internal friction mitigation, lightweight construction, on-demand ancillaries, advanced thermal management, automatic start-stop, the works. Uncharacteristically smooth, suitably torquey and exceptionally powerful, it’s everything the old ‘six was, but with the added benefits of being both lighter and more efficient. The 2012 328i isn’t the first BMW to get the new engine — it debuted last summer in the Z4 and arrived quietly last fall in the 528i — but it is undoubtedly the most important model in terms of sheer proliferation. In other words, we expect to see a lot of new 328i’s on the road.
That’s a safe assumption based on the past success of the 3-series in general. The newest version (internally designated F30) represents six generations of expertly managed vehicle evolution, building on previous generations’ strengths with a gradual dose of refinement for ever-changing market demands. This careful progression is the reason the 3-series remains such a benchmark car, a serial award-winner and a perennial favorite of motoring cognoscenti the world over. BMW knows better than to mess with the secret sauce, and so this new 3er is almost predictable in its goodness.
Design Evolution, Not Revolution
For a car that is wholly new, the sixth-generation 3-series looks an awful lot like the car it replaces, particularly the greenhouse. The resemblance makes it instantly recognizable as a BMW in general and as a 3-series specifically — less so as the latest and greatest. There are new details to be sure. Most notable and perhaps controversial is the new front-end treatment, which pulls the headlights all the way inward to the widest kidney grilles ever to grace the nose of a 3. This new graphic, combined with the pedestrian-friendly sloping hood profile, visually widens the front end, making it look at some angles like the current 5-series.
Inside those wide but vertically slight headlight openings, the distinctive twin-round units are squared off at the tops and bottoms; the signature halo rings around them are now lit by LEDs, the luminous fashion element of the moment. The taillights likewise use LEDs to set the elongated L-motif light bars aglow behind the red lenses.
The basic 3-series form remains otherwise intact, with only minimal editing to the major surfaces to bring the whole look in line with current family aesthetic. What’s not immediately obvious is that while the proportions remain essentially the same, the dimensions have grown in every direction except for width. Despite the larger looking front clip, the F30’s bodywork (not including the side mirrors) is actually 0.2 inches narrower (71.3) at its widest point. Overall length is up to 182.0 inches (+1.8) on a 110.6-inch wheelbase (+1.9) and it’s taller by 0.4 inches at 56.3. Not that anyone will likely notice.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
All the creative design energy was apparently reserved for the interior, which wears considerably more flair than the exterior, especially when you choose one of the more emotional themes (Sport or Modern, more on that in a minute). In standard form, the interior is elegant and refined, a bit less “cold” than before, and even more spacious. BMW has upped the quality of the materials a notch, particularly the touch points where elbows and fingertips fall most often. Controls are simple, uncluttered and driver-oriented in BMW tradition, but the highlight of the cockpit is the large iPad-like full-color display perched atop the dash; it’s a radical, contemporary departure form the former double-hump screen enclosure of the previous model. We approve.
Adding to the modern cockpit feel is an optional full-color head-up display, the first-ever HUD offered on a 3-series. Another cool option is the 40:20:40 split folding rear seat, allowing the entire center section of the seatback to fold nearly flat for larger loads (snowboarders rejoice!) while retaining two full places for passengers.
So on to these optional themes. BMW’s design team set about combining complementary interior and exterior styling elements into three different trim lines — Luxury, Sport and Modern. Rather than going traditional with hierarchical base, middle and top levels, each of these packages was designed with different owner profiles in mind. American buyers have been served pre-packaged options for years, but the concept is kind of new for European buyers who typically choose options a la carte.
The Luxury theme is a trim level Americans have known for a while — richly colored leather seats and glossy wood trim inside, classic wheels and restrained, chrome-trimmed bodywork outside.
The Sport theme starts with the basic German sport sedan formula in the cockpit (black everything) and lays down a splash of red across the dashboard. We suspect an inspired interior designer once owned a second-gen VW GTI, but nevertheless it works, and the theme is carried over to the seats as well, which get red piping between the main cushions and the bolsters and red thread on the French seams around the upholstery. Outside, sportier bumpers and wheels play well against the more aggressive interior.
The Modern interior palette takes a monochrome, almost Scandinavian approach, bedecking an ordinary, light tan dashboard with funky three-dimensional, satin-finished wood veneers. Pictures can’t convey the full effect of this trim, which is clearly not for the timid but definitely makes a style statement. The exterior trim is similarly muted and absent of chrome, wearing satin-finished aluminum instead.
On the Road
As we suggested at the beginning, the 2.0-liter turbo four will likely be a popular choice for may new 3-series buyers. With 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, it’s all the engine the car really needs to be entertaining, and it’s expected to deliver overall fuel economy in the upper 20’s (EPA figures are still pending, but the 528i is rated at 22 mpg city/32 highway). Paired with the efficient new eight-speed automatic transmission, the 328i is equally comfortable squirting eagerly through traffic or calmly cruising the open road. Sixty miles per hour can be dialed up in 5.9 seconds (5.7 with the standard six-speed manual), a full second less than the outgoing 328i’s sprint.
As we’ve already experienced in the Z4 with this power train combination, the engine’s personality can either be coaxed out or tamped down at the whim of the driver. In its default settings, the engine is smooth (like, six-cylinder smooth) and quiet, emitting a slightly diesel-like tambour at idle that quickly hushes to a muted hum once under way. Certain engine speeds and loads (part throttle, ~2500-4000 rpm) elicit notes reminiscent of an aircooled boxer engine. In sport mode, the song is similar to competitors’ 2.0T engines, with a techy, multi-valve growl accented by the slightest whistle of a small turbo breathing heavily. There’s a lot going on under that hood, and the car sings any of a variety of tunes depending on the work at hand.
On the winding roads of Spain, where we got our first opportunity to drive the new 328i, the two-liter left little doubt that the future of internal combustion lies in small-displacement, force-fed mills. But what good would a powerful 3-series be without a balanced chassis to back it up? Surprisingly, the new engine even contributes here as well; since there’s only two-thirds of the old six-cylinder hanging in front of the transmission, there’s also less weight hanging out ahead of the front wheels. Front-to-rear weight balance is remarkably close to the ideal 50:50, though overall weight has crept up to just over 3400 pounds, even with the extensive use of lightweight body components and the smaller engine.
The essential layout of the previous 3-series chassis lives on in the new model — struts up front with a multilink arrangement in back. The big difference is the addition of the double-pivot front strut design brought over from the bigger 5- and 7-series. Many of the underside components are rendered in aluminum to minimize unsprung (and overall) weight. The result is a very competent chassis setup that delivers the kind of driving experience that earned the 3-series its Ultimate Driving Machine reputation. Few competitors come close to matching BMW’s ability to combine a supple, sophisticated ride with such precise handling and control.
Unlike the previous 3-series, whose chassis seemed determined to understeer at the limits regardless of what you threw at it, the F30 chassis is almost completely neutral at the limits, so long as the stability control nannies are fully defeated. In the Sport + mode, the system will allow only the slightest bit of slip angle from the rear wheels before taking over and reining the driver back in. On the track, this meant that just as things started getting good, the car began fighting the driver in an effort to save itself. Great for the car, but no fun for a more skilled driver out to find the limits of adhesion. The procedure to fully defeat stability control takes several tedious seconds, but once it’s done, the car immediately stops fighting the driver and falls into an amazingly sublime groove where it just wants tear up the asphalt.
Electronically assisted power steering is now standard, eliminating the inefficient belt-driven hydraulic system of the past. At low speeds, assistance is dialed up for easy parking, with just enough resistance left in the wheel to remind you you’re still driving a German car. Steering effort remains consistent as speeds rise, and the feel of the road is faithfully synthesized in most conditions; the harshest stuff is edited out almost completely. But as the driving becomes more intense, the system shows its weakness in terms of response. There’s a slight delay in the time between the flick of the steering wheel and when the front wheels actually respond that in more extreme circumstances leaves the driver feeling numb in the hands. We noticed this more at the track — the legendary Circuit de Catalunya, no less — where small mid-turn adjustments resulted in exactly nothing in terms of tracking adjustments from the car. We’re probably being overly picky here, but we hope the system evolves a bit before BMW unleashes the next M3 with this feature.
Brakes are another key element in BMW’s secret recipe, and the new 3-series upholds the tradition faithfully. The 328i’s binders are plenty adequate for the street, though less than ideal for track duty. Surprisingly, the pedal remained firm despite repeated laps at the same track that hosts F1’s Spanish Grand Prix, though the front rotors sounded like they were grating the backing plates of the stock pads as they dealt with the task of absorbing and dissipating all that heat. BMW insists our test cars were fitted with factory pads for the event, which not only held up to the track time but also left almost nothing on the wheels in terms of brake dust.
The newest 3-series is the latest in a long line of well-balanced, fun-to-drive sport sedans from the company that created the category some four decades ago. The 328i is particularly talented as the entry-level model, delivering levels of performance and efficiency not previously seen on American-spec BMW sedans. The more powerful six-cylinder 335i sedan will bow at the same time the new 328i hits the market in February, but the 328i is the one we expect the masses to flock to, especially with a starting price of $35,795.