Hard to believe, then, that this car has been around for so long and held on to remain so successful for so many years on end. With the 2012 model year, it’s 37 and counting. In automotive terms, in an industry where fads—whether mechanical, aesthetic or otherwise—come and go like the autumn leaves, 37 years seems an eternity.
And it’s even longer when you consider the Series’ roots. Thirteen years before the first 3er the company dabbled with the sport passenger concept through the release of the Neu Klasse—compact, nimble cars that imbued the holistic driving experience with something that had been largely absent in many passenger vehicles: real, sporting fun. The 3 Series was the logical evolution from this basis, and the concept became something even more sporting and utilitarian, a seeming contradiction in terms.
And for some three and a half decades, the BMW 3 Series, through its successive generations, has remained the epitome of the classic German sport sedan. You might even say it invented the term.
The 1975 E21 was the first 3 Series branded as such. This, the 2012 F30, is the latest. In North America, it will be offered in two flavors: 335i, propelled by the familiar 300-hp TwinPower Turbo inline six (N55), and this, the all-new 328i, powered by a brand-new TwinPower Turbo inline four (N20).
Before we go any further, note that the TwinPower Turbo engines are not twin-turbo power units. Both rely on a single, dual-scroll compressor unit to drive induction flow into the combustion chamber. Just to avoid any confusion.
Compared with the outgoing E90, the F30 is 3.6 inches longer, with 2 more inches of wheelbase, 1.5 more inches of track in front and nearly 2 more inches of track in the rear. However, the car belies these expanded dimensions with a curb weight that’s a claimed 90 pounds less than its predecessor, according to the company.
With the new generation, the BMW 3 Series has really grown up—all clichés aside. For the first time, both the 335i and 328i will be available with an eight-speed automatic transmission like that in the 5 and 7 Series. This gearbox is the first of its kind offered in this market segment and comes as standard equipment, although if you must have a manual transmission there’s a six-speed unit available as a no-cost option. According to BMW’s numbers, a 328i equipped with a clutch and stick will shave two-tenths of a second off the zero-to-60 mph run (5.7 seconds vs. 5.9) over the automatic. Then again, it’s likely the automatic will net more favorable fuel consumption numbers, although at press time the EPA jury is still out.
Each car also features the run of BMW’s EfficientDynamics technology systems, including an Auto Start-Stop function that shuts the engine down when the car comes to a standstill and wakes it back up with a snap of your fingers when it comes time to motor away (throttle tip-in on the automatic, engaging the clutch on the manual). EfficientDynamics also includes Brake Energy Reduction—charging the system when the car decelerates under load—and need-based ancillary component operation (the air conditioning compressor, for example) to help lower fuel consumption.
Like its 5 and 7 Series brethren, the new 3 Series now features a Driving Dynamics Control selector that allows the driver to alter vehicle dynamics on the fly—chassis stiffness, throttle response, gear change characteristics (on the automatic tranny) and more relaxed stability control intervention in the most extreme setting. The three standard modes—Comfort, Sport and Sport+—are now combined with a new ECO PRO mode that actively monitors the pilot’s style of driving and offers visual aids to help procure the most efficient method of driving possible. ECO PRO also dials back accessory operation—the climate control system, for example—to maximize efficiency.
Also like the 5 and the 7, the 3 Series is now available with a Head-Up Display as part of a larger technology package, in full color, to project key driving information (like vehicle speed and navigation information) directly onto the windshield, in high resolution, directly in the driver’s line of sight. Used in conjunction with navigation, which is also included in the tech package, it’s a really convenient thing.
The new 3 Series offers the range of optional safety features, including exterior cameras that allow you to view your environment, including a bird’s eye perspective of the vehicle and its immediate surroundings. Information from these cameras is also the basis for Active Blind Spot Detection that monitors traffic at the rear, Lane Departure Warning to gauge the vehicle’s position between the lines and a camera-based Collision Warning system to identity potential upcoming hazards. All of this information is available through the Head-Up array.
In addition to the standard bare-bones trim level, the new 3 Series can be specified in one of three pre-packaged equipment lines, Sport, Modern and Luxury, each designed to emphasize one aspect of the 3 Series’ personality with unique body and interior trim and wheel options. There’s also an M Sport package with a more aggressive body kit, among other things, slated to be available this summer.
The dynamic portion of the test was arranged at the Circuit de Catalunya outside of Barcelona, Spain. Apparently deciding the world press was already familiar with the 335i’s turbo six from the last (E90) generation, all the test mules were Melbourne Red 328i cars. And you know… we were pretty much fine with it. Power delivery from the N20 turbo four is such that you really aren’t missing those extra two cylinders, especially considering peak torque hits at a low, low 1250 rpm and extends all the way to 4800 rpm. The eight-speed gearbox, with which all the test cars were equipped, makes dropping your gear into the middle of the powerband’s tenderloin a cinch. Considering the $7,500 gap between the two petrol-powered models, if you’re in the market, the 328i could be the 3 Series to get.
There was one other model present at the world launch event: the diesel-powered 320d. The U.S. won’t be getting this car, of course—at least not yet. That car uses a 2.0-liter turbodiesel pushing 280 lb-ft of torque. Considering our experience with the outgoing 335d and upwards of 40 mpg from the turbodiesel six, we can only imagine the economy returns from the newer car.
For the time being, at least we can dream.
2012 BMW 328i
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
2.0-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged
Double-joint aluminum spring strut front axle, five-link rear
Single-piston swing caliper with vented rotors
Length/Width/Height (in.): 182.0/71.3/56.3
Wheelbase: 110.6 in.
Curb Weight: 3,461 lb
Peak Power: 240 hp @ 5000 rpm
Peak Torque: 255 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm
0-60 mph: 5.9 sec. (DCT)
Top Speed: 130 mph (limited)