Pretty much every automaker selling cars in the US makes a four-cylinder sedan. That said, the majority of those sedans are truly nothing special. The common Camry/Accord/Sonata/Fusion/Altima genre doesn’t tend to inspire much excitement. Of course, most of those also tend to be front-wheel drive commuter cars.
For 2012, BMW is backing up its “Efficient Dynamics” tagline by bringing four-cylinder power to its 3 Series (and 5 Series) sedans. Whereas last year’s 328i was powered by an inline six-cylinder motor, this year’s 328i uses a 240 HP, 2.0 liter turbocharged four, paired with an eight-ratio automatic. Still, with rear-wheel drive and a chassis tuned for driving pleasure, the 328i is much more engaging to drive than the other automatic, four-cylinder sedans mentioned above.
The new 3 Series sedan has styling which is better described as “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary.” That said, the new car is handsome, though it does seems to suffer from the overused “same sausage, different length” syndrome that plagues German automakers’ sedans. While you are unlikely to mistake it for anything other than a BMW, the new 3er is quite likely to mistaken for a 5 Series sedan.
You’ve probably already read about the three trim “lines” BMW is offering with the new 3er for 2012; note in addition to the Modern, Luxury and Sport lines, 2013 sees the addition of the M-Sport Line (so that your 328i can have the appearance of a not-yet-available M3). I spent a week with a Modern Line 328i sedan, liveried in a metallic brown called Mojave Metallic, with a Dakota Oyster leather interior- otherwise described as brown-over-beige.
Entering the very beige interior (keeping the beige locking fob in my pocket, thank you very much), perhaps the most striking feature was the “Fineline Pure” Textured Fine Wood trim. Finished in a natural brown, the heavily-grained trim would have been believable as a natural finish if not for the subtle contours leading up to the iDrive controller. Still, BMW describes the trim as Fine Wood, and surely they’re telling the truth… right? In any case I thought it looked great, but my wife and other passengers thought it looked like an oddly-molded plastic trim finish.
The driver’s seat is comfortable, fitted with power adjustment and memory positions. Controls are logically positioned and work as expected. The car was equipped with navigation in its large, high-resolution iDrive screen, which dominates the top of the dash. Instruments are clear (though unexpectedly have beige instrument faces), with a nicely integrated TFT display at its bottom showing navigation commands, efficiency information, and other user-configurable displays.
I found BMW’s latest iDrive system easy enough to use, despite its myriad submenus and different screens. Manually dialing a phone number or entering an address using the controller was a bit frustrating as the selector knob must be twisted around throughout all 26 alphabetic characters as well as several punctuation markings, but most commands can be given by speaking, including entry of destination addresses in the navigation system.
The test car was equipped with BMW Apps, an iPhone integration tool that pairs the iDrive system to an app on your phone (which requires the phone to be placed into a dock inside of the small center console). I set this up on my iPhone and was then able to do silly things like post pre-composed tweets and Facebook status updates like “It is 63 degrees F and I am driving my BMW near Seattle, Washington.” The BMW Apps also had a news reader service, which downloaded news stories (BMW Motorsports was the default) and read them aloud in a disembodied, very computerized voice (imagine a Speak ‘n Spell reading news about BMW’s F1 team and you’ll get the idea). The same voice can also read your friends’ Facebook status posts aloud to you. After trying it once, I didn’t feel the need to do so again.
Climbing in to the back seat, passengers are greeted with significantly more legroom than was offered in the previous-generation 3 Series. Even at 6’4” tall, I can comfortably “sit behind myself.” The rear legroom is close enough to that of the 5 Series to nearly render that car superfluous- at least with the four-cylinder engine. (Yes, the 528i is now also offered with a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine. Really).
The spacious second row is accessed through generously-long rear doors which provide easy entry. On the vehicle I tested, both rear doors were difficult to close, usually requiring a slam after failing to latch shut on the first (somewhat less vigorous) close. A tall drivetrain hump separates the two rear footwells, and despite my best attempts I was unable to fit two Graco TurboBoosters a full-sized adult in the back seat. When my kids were in back in those booster seats, they had a difficult time buckling their seat belts because they buckles sink into the cushion recesses when the tongue is pressed into the buckle. Even with my help, it was nearly impossible to latch the seatbelts, as the buckle slid down below the booster seat’s bottom edge and into the recess in the seat-bottom cushion.
On the road, the 240 HP turbocharged four-cylinder powertrain in the 328i has admirable performance, with respectable performance both in traffic and on winding country roads, though it is admittedly let down by an underwhelming four-cylinder soundtrack in many conditions. Happily, wide-open throttle is not one of those conditions, as the revving turbocharged four actually sounds good higher in the rev range.
A switch on the console allows the driver to toggle among three different Driving Dynamics modes: Eco Pro, Comfort, and Sport. Comfort is the default mode, and most unexpected among the user-selectable modes is Eco Pro mode. I say it is unexpected, because most recent-modern cars that used the term ‘Eco” have worn “hybrid” badges, and because “Hybrid” has tended to mean the opposite of “fun to drive” in mainstream hybrid offerings. (Note that for 2013, BMW is offering an ActiveHybrid 3 Series, though it uses a six-cylinder powertrain). The 328i’s Eco Pro mode softens throttle response and programs the transmission to shift more quickly to higher gears (all while displaying a blue-themed Eco Pro fuel economy gauge in the TFT display below the speedometer). Sport mode improves throttle response, alters the shift algorithms to hold gears longer before shifting, and also increases steering effort.
The most noticeable “eco” feature in the 328i is the car’s auto-stop function, which is actually available in any Driving Dynamics mode. Depending on the battery’s state of charge (along with a bunch of other variables like engine temperature, HVAC and electrical loads, etc) the motor will shut off when you come to a stop, with the car in Drive and your foot on the brake. When this happens, the tachometer needle moves to “READY”, which takes the place of the numeral “zero”. Taking your foot off of the brake, even just to creep forward at an intersection, causes the engine to re-start. That restarting is not as smooth as in hybrid vehicles, (indeed, it is among the least “premium”-feeling aspects of the car), and is much more like the car’s initial startup, with the exception that when the car restarts you start moving forward almost instantly, depending on throttle position. It’s worth noting that the engine management software is self-preserving, meaning that if the engine itself needs additional cooling – as it did after my spirited drive through the foothills near Seattle – the engine doesn’t switch off at a stop, despite being warmed up and sufficiently charged. While the feature does save fuel that would otherwise be wasted idling, it can be turned off with the push of a button on the dash.
On the road, upshifts are quick in normal conditions (for purposes of fuel economy), but are also quick when manually commanded in manual mode. When the car is in Sport mode the transmission holds gears longer, but not to the extent that some competing cars do (the Mercedes C350 and Audi A5 come to mind here). As expected in a gearbox with eight ratios, gears are closely spaced, to the point that when manually shifting, I really had to work the downshift lever to get from, say, 6th gear to 3rd or 2nd gear to slow for corners during spirited driving. I found shifting in manual mode to provide nicely rev-matched downshifts, executed very quickly.
During my spirited driving on country roads, I found myself wishing for paddle shifters instead of having to shift with the manual gate on the console-mounted shifter, though in reality paddle shifters would seldom be useful in typical commuting conditions. Some of the 328i’s economy comes from the fact that with eight speeds in the transmission, the engine is turning just 1600 RPM when cruising at 60 MPH.
I never felt a particular amount of turbo boost or lag from the 328i’s turbocharged 2.0 liter four, power delivery was far more linear than I had expected. Part of that is likely due to the fact that in any of the automatic shifting modes, the eight-speed gearbox can always select the appropriate gear to take advantage of the engine’s power delivery characteristics. Response to throttle inputs was always predictable.
In both spirited driving and around town, I was impressed by the feedback through the steering wheel- it was better than in either the A5 or C350 I’ve spent time in. The suspension on my Modern line car was great around town at providing a balance of comfortable ride and above-average handling. That said, when driven closer to the car’s limits on my favorite backroads, it felt too softly sprung, with several instances of bottoming the suspension or over-travel (rebound). It was my too-short back-roads romp that convinced me I would want the Sport suspension rather than the standard one if I was to buy a 328i for myself.
With the 328i’s default setting meant to balance driving experience and fuel economy, the 328i sedan has a fuel economy rating of 23/33/26 MPG city/highway/combined. During my week with the car, I saw an average of 26.0 MPG (according to the trip computer), having covered just over 350 miles at an averages speed of 29.4 MPH. The Efficient Dynamics display within the iDrive trip computer showed that I did have some highway segments with fuel economy above 45 MPG. In addition to the four-cylinder powerplant and eight-speed automatic, on the underside the 328i are flat panels made of tightly woven fiber (rather than molded plastic), which serve the dual purpose of improving underbody aerodynamics and providing sound isolation from road noise. Wheel arch liners are made from the noise-absorbing lightweight material too.
Design, materials, and assembly of the 3 Series all fall solidly into the premium segment,and the 328i is priced accordingly. MSRP for the base 2012 328i sedan is $34,900 (it has risen to $36,500 for 2013), which includes the STEPTRONIC eight-speed automatic transmission (a six-speed manual transmission is a no-cost option). The test vehicle included $550 Mojave Metallic paint, $2100 Modern Line package (Sports leather steering wheel, 18” light alloy wheels, “Fineline Pure” fine wood trim; Pearl-highlight trim finishers); $1350 Cold Weather package (Heated steering wheel; split fold-down rear seat; heated front seats; heated rear seats; retractable headlight washers); $1550 Parking Package (rear view camera; park distance control; side and top view cameras); $3600 Premium Package (Universal garage door opener; Comfort Access keyless entry; moonroof; auto-dimming mirrors (interior and exterior); power front seats; lumbar support); $950 Premium Sound package (satellite radio with one-year subscription; Harman Kardon surround sound); $2550 Technology Package (Navigation system, head up display); $900 Xenon headlamps; $650 BMW Assist with enhanced Bluetooth and USB; $250 BMW Apps; and $895 Destination charge, for a substantial suggested retail price of $50,245.
In reality, the 328i is plenty fast and I thought it was fun to drive, though there are often non-premium noises coming from the engine room. While expensive for a mid-sized four-cylinder sedan, the 328i is priced competitively against competition from other luxury automakers like Audi and Mercedes-Benz, and I prefer it over the four-cylinder offerings from those competitors. And although BMW tried to make the 328i I drove as beige as possible, it is far from a mundane transportation appliance.
BMW providded the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.