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2012 BMW 3 Series Sedan First Drive

All-new 3 Series is more of a good thing

What It Is/ Who It's For
BMW's 2012 3 Series sedan is an everything-for-everyone entry-level luxury car that draws praise for its balance, poise, premium features, and everyday usability.

Best Thing
There's no compromise with this car being utterly sporty, yet practical and frugal, too.

Worst Thing
To get many of the premium features, you have a splurge on expensive option packages. Also, the Modern line's interior wood inlays are made from ugly sticks.

Snap Judgment
The previous BMW 3 Series was already the best all-around car in its segment. The 2012 3 Series sedan is simply better.


Introduction

The 2012 BMW 3 Series isn't radically different than the car it's replacing. The styling tweaks are subtle, the interior is a tasteful yet restrained upgrade, and even the top-line engine is virtually identical.If you were looking for a radical reinvention of BMW's perennial best seller, we're sorry to disappoint you.

But let's make one thing clear: The 2012 BMW 3 Series does everything its predecessor does, only much, much better. The 2012 3 Series isn't some sort of sports sedan revolution; it's just the latest result of finding a formula that works and sticking with it, refining it. Much like the Apple iPhone, it's what's behind the familiar styling that counts. The 2012 3 Series sedan feels familiar to anyone who has ever driven a 3 Series, yet it's filled with new features to keep happy customers coming back. It's still a compact sports sedan with rear-wheel drive, automatic or manual transmissions, and a choice of punchy engines. But for the first time since the 1990s, BMW is offering a four-cylinder engine in its U.S. models. Where last year's BMW 328i sedan sported a 3.0-liter inline six mated to an available six-speed automatic, this year's base 3 Series has a 2.0-liter twin-turbocharged four-cylinder and an available eight-speed auto, helping stretch fuel economy to a class-leading 36 mpg on the highway. The 3 Series introduction keeps in line with BMW's typical strategy to bring out its volume-selling four-door to the market ahead of the various other bodystyles; expect the rest of the line -- coupe, convertible, wagon, ActiveHybrid and diesel sedan, and the M version -- to dribble out over the next year or two.

We recently drove the 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan in its various varieties and flavors in the idyllic city of Monterey, Calif. But we were most interested in the base-engine four-cylinder 2012 BMW 328i; equipped with the Modern option package ($2,100), BMW anticipates it will be similar to what most people will buy. The word "base" might be a misnomer, though. With 240 horsepower, the smaller engine is more powerful than last year's six-cylinder 328i. And with a starting price of $35,795, including $895 for destination and handling, it's not exactly priced like your neighbor's Camry. But it is competitive with its German and Japanese rivals, getting plenty more expensive rather quickly with a few option boxes checked.

The Modern style package ($2100) decorates the interior in light colors and ribbed, matte-finish wood, looking like a German interpretation of IKEA's designs, albeit a bit homely. Our tester totaled $49,870 in all, coming loaded with goodies. Like all BMWs, options come a la carte, including the car's Imperial Blue Metallic paint ($550), Parking Package ($1550), Premium Package ($3600), Premium Sound system ($950), tech package ($2550), and several other options. Most are only available with one of the new model lines, though: Modern, Sport, or Luxury (the latter two having considerably more stylish interiors). Stepping up to the 300-horsepower turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine in the 335i will set you back at least $43,295. An optioned-out 335i can reach close to $60,000.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Walkaround

Compared to the conservative designs of BMW's past and the radical ones in the 2000s, the 2012 BMW 3 Series is a modicum of both schools of thought. It's tasteful, but wholly new-looking up front, with a wide, new "three-dimensional" grille that sits lower, flanked by wider, curvier headlights on a downward-sloping front end.

Differentiation on each car comes down to options and what model lines they're equipped with. The base model's only variances come by way of standard 17-inch wheels and a lack chrome brightwork found on the front of higher-end cars. The Luxury line has chrome window borders. The Sport model has blacked-out mirrors, and nine slats per "kidney" in its grille versus other cars having 11. The Modern has a brushed aluminum look instead of chrome. All of them have unique wheels and accents throughout, but the details are too subtle, and the different personalities are hard for the untrained eye to spot.

Sitting Down

Unlike the exterior, you'll know exactly which of the unique model lines you're looking at when you get inside. The base model sports fake aluminum on the dashboard, while the Sport has real aluminum and color-keyed trim coordinated with the seat color. Luxury models have glossy wood, and the Modern has ridged, matte-finish wood that complements the car's lighter interior color scheme. Of the three, the Modern was the oddest; the ribbed wood didn't match the rest of the interior, and stood out for all the wrong reasons. Luckily, it's optional.

Otherwise, we found the interiors of each 3 to be as plush as you'd expect for $50,000 cars, lined with leather and improved materials over the outgoing model. For the first time, all of the 2012 3 Series sedan models come with iDrive, BMW's scroll-wheel infotainment system. While iDrive has received much criticism in the past, BMW has simplified the interface, adding redundant buttons near the control knob to operate simpler functions and not alienate Luddites. In cars equipped with the Parking package, the 3 Series comes with sensors on the front and rear, a rear parking camera, and cameras on either front fender to see oncoming traffic without having to pull too far into it -- an option rarely available in this class. There are still cheap touches here and there -- the sun visors feel like they're straight out of a Chinese econobox, and we were disappointed by the hard plastics on the lower dashboard -- but it's otherwise well laid-out, clear, and easy to use.

One of the biggest interior improvements in the 2012 BMW 3 Series is a back seat that is at last legitimately large enough to comfortably house most anyone under six feet tall. Credit the new car's three additional inches in length, with the added space mostly going to rear-seat occupants and vast 17 cubic-foot trunk. That's bigger than most trunks in full-size cars.

Driving

After exploring the exterior and interior styling, it was time to drive. We started with the 328i, as the four-cylinder engine represents what will likely be the volume model. When you first start up the new turbocharged four-cylinder, the immediate sound is much closer to what you'd hear from a $15,000 economy car than a $40,000 luxury sedan. Ignoring the engine noise, it's a worthwhile engine option that'll reward the driver with a fantastic 24 city/36 highway mpg when equipped with the eight-speed automatic. Its turbocharged engine leaves us with the opinion that the six-cylinder 335i isn't really necessary to get the full BMW experience.

While driving the 328i on California's Pacific Coast Highway, it felt composed over smooth and bumpier roads, but never completely isolating. Unlike previous 3 Series models, steering feel is lighter and easier to steer at low speeds, but it's still direct, allowing the driver to feel the road's nuances. As not to alienate BMW traditionalists, it's also possible to sift through standard electronic menu to summon a sport mode that will stiffen the suspension, sharpen the gas pedal's response, and firm up the steering to a heft reminiscent of past 3 Series. All cars also feature a new Eco Pro mode that upshifts the transmission quickly, dulls throttle response, and does everything in its power to conserve fuel. It works well, helping us rake in nearly 30 mpg in our driving when combined with the car's new automatic start-stop function that shuts off the engine to save fuel at idle. But we would find it insufferable for normal stop-and-go driving.

On the open road, the 3 Series proved quiet and with just enough of the road's surface transmitted through the steering wheel to let you know it is still a driver's car. It doesn't coddle you so much as assure you that your wheels are pointed exactly where you want them. Driving at highway speeds, the four-cylinder engine droned, but it was easy to drown out with the 3 Series' excellent Harmon Kardon audio system.

Getting into the more powerful 335i, we noticed the car felt much the same as the 328i, but with a smoother feel and deep, guttural engine growl that tickled the senses -- a sound the 328i just can't match. The 335i's power is wholly unnecessary for most drivers, but we couldn't help but guffaw in delight over its almost constant rush of power. For those craving even more, a sportier M Sport model will hit production in July with the next-generation M3 sports car debuting shortly thereafter.

On Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where we had a chance to sample each car at speed, it only got better, taking twisty turns and doing almost constant acceleration and deceleration runs from more than 100 mph down to 35 mph and back up. The cars handled it all with little stress, with the brakes never fading after excessive use. While most drivers will rarely ever face such circumstances, it's nice to know the 3 Series in all its engine and transmission combinations was able to handle the conditions with ease.

Overall, it's a package that summarily reminds us of the fun-to-drive characteristics of last year's car, albeit you have to play with the electronic doodads to get it all there. But it's also an easier, more livable vehicle.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Summary

We mostly sampled a 2012 BMW 328i Modern with the automatic transmission, although we tested both automatic and manual 328i and 335i models of all different equipment levels on the road and racetrack. BMW's accurate, crisp-shifting manual with a forgiving clutch pedal is so easy that even a non-experienced driver could pick up quickly. So we're able to recommend the manual or the eight-speed automatic, both being smooth, flexible, and quick-shifting. It's a case of different strokes for different folks.

That's the beauty of the BMW 3 Series, as it's always been: It's an everyman's luxury car, with a price that can both entice social climbers and coddle the well-to-do at the top. BMW says cars leaving showrooms are mostly 328is, priced between $40,000 and $42,000. Whether getting a base model or a top-of-the-line model, though, they all share that blue and white roundel on the hood, making the 3 Series accessible for many a socioeconomic class with plenty of cache throughout.

After testing the breadth of the 2012 BMW 3 Series, it's clear it continues to be the fantastic and communicative drivers car it always has been. We're convinced it raises the bar over the previous version. The question is, does it raise it high enough? Cadillac's upcoming ATS is aiming directly for the 3 Series. Audi, Infiniti, and Lexus are going to be revising or redesigning their entry-level cars soon, too. No competitor is standing still.

The 3 Series has a lot going for it: the badge, the panache, and appeal the world over. It's exactly what it needs to be right now. But as BMW keeps its cars on seven-year model cycles, we're wondering if it has the goods to keep its crown in the real world, outside of the picture-perfect Monterey and closely coordinated environments, and in the face of its competition. We can't wait to get it back to Los Angeles and find out.


Spec Box
2012 BMW 328i Sedan: $35,795 (Base), $37,895 (Luxury), $37,895 (Modern), $38,295 (Sport); 240-hp 2.0-liter twin-turbocharged four-cylinder; 23 mpg city/34 mpg hwy (manual), 24 mpg city/36 mpg hwy (automatic)

2012 BMW 335i Sedan: $42,295 (Base), $44,695 (Luxury), $44,695 (Modern), $44,995 (Sport); 300-hp 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder; 20 mpg city/30 mpg hwy (manual), 23 mpg city/33 mpg hwy (automatic)

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