Disclosure: Travel to Spain, accommodations, meals, drinks, test vehicles and a pre-determined driving route were provided to the writer by the automaker.
There are few automobiles in the wide world that say, "I've arrived," quite like a BMW 3 Series - and that really ticks me off. It's become the go-to status car of the junior executive set, a symbol to flaunt in front of co-workers, neighbours and the opposite sex that the owner has reached a certain station in life.
Do I begrudge them this success? Absolutely not.
What sticks in my craw is that some who acquire a '3' do so only because of the enviable badge on its nose and the attainable lease payments. It's a marginalization of what is reputed to be the best small sport sedan on planet earth. Originally launched in 1975, it's the car that the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 have nightmares about and the Bavarian the Lexus IS, Cadillac CTS and Infiniti G were created to best with no outright success - yet.
In short, the 3 Series is engineered by zee Germans for drivers that hanker for a sedan that's properly first-class, but more importantly, poised for open-road athletics like few others.
This push-and-pull of buyer's priorities is largely what's shaped the all-new, sixth generation, 3 Series set to land in Canada this February as a 2012 model. On one side, it now packs more hee-haws, do-dads and eco-focused tech than ever before. While on the other front, its performance is still inspiring, if down from its previous lofty perch.Performance
I can hear the fanboys on the internet forums chastising BMW already: For 2012, the entry-level 3 Series has dropped its signature straight-six gasoline engine. The 328i is now powered by a 2.0-litre, direct injection, turbocharged four-cylinder - the same mill found in the (heavier) base Z4 roadster and 528i sedan.
As I discovered on and around Spain's Cataluya F1 circuit, it still makes for a properly quick, rear-drive German sedan. The exhaust note may not always be brimming with machismo, but horsepower's rated at a fine 240 ponies and torque is pegged at 260 lb-ft of twist. Thanks to BMW's trick twin-scroll technology, which gets the turbo spooling up fast, that power's on tap from low speeds, meaning 0-96 km/h in 5.7 seconds and fast exits from any corner. That, plus average fuel economy is rated at a just 6.3 L/100 km.
It makes me wonder why you'd step up to the more expensive 335i model now. Yes, it still rocks that beautiful 3.0-litre, turbocharged straight-six engine making 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, but it's only 0.3 seconds quicker to 96 km/h and returns worse average fuel economy of 7.9 L/100 km.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the 2012 3 Series, while a new-for-this-segment eight-speed automatic is optional. As is increasingly the case, the modern auto-box helps performance and fuel economy so much, even I might forgo the shift-it-yourself unit. With the available paddle shifters and rev-matching when you drop down a gear, the eight-speed makes you feel like a racing champ - when not smoothly wafting you through rush-hour traffic, of course.
All 3 Series' now come with BMW's Driving Dynamics Control system, with Comfort, Sport, Sport + and Eco Pro modes (more on the latter later). At the press of a button, you vary how aggressively the car accelerates, how hard it shifts gears, how it steers, how much of a safety net the stability control gives you and how firm the suspension is set.
It's the same computerized trickery we've seen increasingly built into new cars - even the 2012 Porsche 911
. My feelings on the results are mixed: On one hand, it's incredible the new 3 Series can be programmed to be either remarkably cushy or sport-sharp, depending on your mode. It's two cars in one. On the other hand, it thins out what this Bimmer's supposed to be all about. Its reputation was built on being the ultimate sporting sedan, but now, unless you delve into those settings and buttons, it feels like any other German car. Then again, BMW is sure to attractive a whole new group of customers to the car now, so I'm obviously no marketing genius.
Another issue: the new electric power steering. Like the Porsche mentioned above, the 3 Series adopts this technology for 2012 as a way to boost fuel economy (it takes burden off the gas engine). The issue is, the magic steering feel the BMW was known for is diluted. In full Sport+ mode the car's no less sharp, it just doesn't talk back to you, inspiring confidence the way the old analogy steering used to.
So, partly because competitors like the M-B C-Class have upped their game and partly because the BMW's tamed its slightly, the sedan's now neck-and-neck with rivals instead of the clear leader.Ergonomics/Comfort/Quality
The 3 Series is 47 mm (1.8 in.) wider and 93 mm (3.7 in) longer for 2012, but down about 40 kg (88 lbs.) Note the mix of new styling details like the headlights that now intersect with the kidney grilles and old trademark cues like the "Hofmeister kink" in the rear side window shape. On the road, the Bimmer looks wider, a miniaturized 5 Series. Stretching the wheelbase 50 mm (1.9 in.) brings more rear leg room, a want from the last model.
Though its road manner may be a tad less aggressive, this is still a car with a "driver's" cockpit. Finding an at-the-wheel position where I felt like I could set a lap record at Catalunya (and still work the climate controls) was a cinch. Riding shotgun, the foot well is noticeably blessed with stretch-out room.
The new interior's a touch busier than the last model, but materials and especially build quality are A1. Insert remark about driving an isolating German bank vault here.
Taking a page from Mercedes-Benz's play book, the 3 Series now offers three equipment lines, no matter which engine you choose: Sport, Luxury and Modern. They're largely differentiated by small details: alloy wheels and colour and trim highlights inside and out of the car. Bonus: Even the keys are uniquely coloured for each model. A separate M Sport package is also offered with more aggressive suspension and styling.Functionality/Usability
You can no longer order the 3 Series without the iDrive control screen and its click-scroll control wheel on the centre tunnel. Luddites may complain, but at least the widescreen looks stellar, is easy to read and the infotainment system is simpler to use than ever before. An optional, full-colour head-up display, that projects info like your speed and sat-nav instructions on the windscreen, also makes it to this segment for the first time in the Bimmer.
Back to that Eco-Pro mode, standard on all models: It's a new feature for BMW and part of a wider push to make the 3 Series more efficient (there's a standard stop-start function now too, which isn't that smooth surprisingly...). Anyway, Eco-Pro's basic to use and meant to teach you that full throttle's not needed to inch ahead in the Starbuck's drive-through, saving fuel. Special displays give real-time tips, like lift off a tad while accelerating, and shows how much range you've gained by behaving at the wheel. Eco Pro also gives less power from the same gas pedal travel, makes the transmission shift for economy and dials back the consumption of the electric and mechanical bits. BMW says it'll boast fuel economy up to 20 percent.
As if the change in how it can drive was not enough for the 2012 3 Series, it can also be loaded with a massive amount of new technologies. Under options lists like "BMW ConnectedDrive" the Bavarian can be festooned in sensor and sci-fi kit. There's nothing all-new, but a bunch of gear migrates downmarket from the lofty heights of BMWs like the flagship 7 Series. A partial list includes a new hands-free trunk lid, a new semi-auto parallel parking system, an Active Blind Spot Detection System, a Lane Departure Warning System and revised Automatic Collision Notification which fills in the EMS remotely on the location and severity of your crash.Conclusion
We don't yet have official pricing on the new 3 Series, but Canadian reps at the car's launch in Spain hinted that the current $40,000-$50,000 range for the 328i and 335i will be maintained. A BMW ActiveHybrid 3 is coming next year as is a base 320i model with a detuned version of the 2.0L turbo-four. As is tradition, it will be the $35,000 favourite of said junior executive set.
Sold in 132 countries and with 12.5 million built so far, the 3 Series is BMW's number one selling model globally. I don't see that changing, though this segment - and this Bimmer - have evolved. The competition's ever better now and the 2012 3's trying to be more universal, no longer content just being the best small sport sedan on planet earth. I wonder how this will all play out?