2012 BMW 328i Quick Drive

Good. Very good. But maybe no longer the best.

We've already expressed our like -- no, make that love -- for the 2012 BMW 3 Series. And why shouldn't we? It's better in almost every respect than its predecessor, which was already pretty darn good: more precise, better looking, roomier, more powerful (for the most part), and more fuel efficient.

But we can't help but notice that there are other cars out there that are nipping at BMW's traditional "ultimate driving machine" tagline. With that no longer the 3 Series ace-in-the-hole, the 2012 BMW 328i's flaws suddenly become more noticeable, its liabilities less forgivable. The love is still there, but with stiffer competition than it has ever had, the 3 Series can't rely on its good looks and reputation anymore.

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Model and Price

The 2012 BMW 328i ostensibly starts at a modest $35,795, including the $895 destination charge. That's not too terrible, but things escalate quickly. Our particular car was a Sport Line, which right off the bat added $2,500 for things like a leather-wrapped steering wheel, adjustable suspension, and fancier wheels. A Premium Package added keyless entry, a moonroof, power front seats (they aren't standard), and a garage remote. Then there was the $550 paint job; the $950 audio system; the $2550 technology package, and a bunch of other individual options that pushed our "entry level" sedan to a whopping $50,870. Granted, they're called "options" for a reason, but that's a whole Kia Rio's worth of additions.

Safety and Key Features

As expected in a modern luxury car, the 2012 BMW 328i comes with a wide array of standard safety equipment: anti-lock brakes; stability control; multiple airbags; LATCH points for the kids; etc. But there were a couple others. Park Distance Control -- parking lot sensors -- were a $750 option, and a head-up display that shines important information on the windshield was part of the technology package. Crash scores are good, too: it's a Top Safety Pick for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and it gets five stars in federal crash tests.

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Family Friendliness and Utility

One key advantage that the 2012 BMW 328i has over its rivals is its rear seat. Once an Achilles heel for the 3 Series BMW, it's now a strength. Kids can get in and out easily, and there's even room for full-size adults. The trunk is also good sized; although not exactly huge, it can accommodate a week's worth of groceries for a small family, as long as you're willing to stack lighter objects on top of heavier ones.

But unless you rely on passengers to hold items for you, storage space is in short supply here. The center console bin is essentially nonexistent, with most of the space taken up with replaced with a bunch of iPod inputs and an iPhone holder that can't accommodate a phone case. The glovebox is similarly small, the door pockets aren't much better, and the cupholders are nearly useless. It's an assembly of not-quite-big-enough storage that, ultimately, is useless.

There's more. The shifter is a stubby lever that pokes out from the center console; it doesn't follow the typical "PRNDL" automatic, and it requires you to push a button to put it in Park. BMW's iDrive infotainment system is much better, but the initial learning curve can be steep. Some buttons and switches are also oddly placed, too, and if you're new to Bavaria's finest, it takes some getting used to.

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Comfort and Quality

You'd expect a $50,000 luxury sedan to be exquisitely assembled with the finest of materials. You'd be right. There was not one single panel out of place, not one gap that was too wide, and everything we touched felt expensive. Granted, not all of us liked the bright red leather, and at least one of us felt the black-on-gray-on-silver color of everything else was oppressive. But there was no getting around the fact that this car is screwed together as tightly as anything in its class.

How it Drives

The 2012 BMW 328i comes with the first generation of BMW's new start-stop mechanism for its engine. The idea is that the engine will automatically shut itself off at stoplights, then turn back on when you need to move, all to save gas at the pump. It works, but everyone on staff complained -- loudly -- about the unrefined rumble and shake that accompanied the engine when it revived. Once running, the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder delivers a seamless idle and smooth power delivery. But the uncomfortable start-stop mechanism forced a two-step startup routine: Press the start button, then immediately press the "off" button for the start-stop. It was that bad.

And...that's about it for gripes. The powerful engine delivers excellent fuel economy for this class, although it's not the happiest sounding engine. The eight-speed transmission shifts smoothly when you're cruising, swiftly when you're driving briskly. The steering and suspension all come together to remind you why BMW is the go-to brand for driving enthusiasts; if you want to know exactly what "good steering feel" means, take one of these for a test drive; while the 2012 Cadillac ATS may be better, the difference between the two cars is negligible. The driver-selectable suspension let us switch between a stiff-feeling "Sport" mode to much more comfortable settings, surprising considering BMW's must-be-sporty reputation. Even the Sport mode wasn't so firm that you'll visit the chiropractor after a drive.

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Summary

As we said, there's a lot to love about this car, and those that buy it will surely be happy. But there's an important caveat here: This car, as it sits, cost about $50,000, and that's with the "base" four-cylinder engine. Granted, it's pretty loaded, and you can skip some things and keep it below that mark. Yet you'd be hard pressed to pay that much for a 2012 Cadillac ATS with a bigger V-6 engine, more power, and just as many luxury trimmings. Is this BMW really thousands of dollars better than the Caddy? Objectively, the answer is no; the Cadillac can do just about everything as well as the BMW, except accommodate rear seat passengers. But objectivity has a small role to play when it comes to luxury brands, and even when it's not backed up by pure substance, that white and blue badge on the nose is worth the extra price for some. If you're shopping with your heart, you won't be dissuaded anyhow; enjoy your 2012 BMW 328i. But if you're shopping with your head, remember that Ultimate Driving Machine isn't quite what it used to be.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $50,870 Fuel Economy EPA City: 24 mpg EPA Highway: 36 mpg EPA Combined: 28 mpg Estimated Combined Range: 442.4 Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average

Notebook Quotes "I only have one glaring issue with this car: the start/stop is crude. I didn't know what the hell happened the first time. Did it die? Battery? Engine? Can you stall an automatic?" -Matthew Askari, Associate Editor
"The Harman Kardon audio sounded great -- AFTER it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to set it up. And that's the thing with the interior and dash controls. If you're not familiar with it, then it's a strange world and takes some getting used to. But once I figured it out and got comfortable, it seemed rather intuitive." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor
"The exterior styling is sweet too. I still think the C-Class has it beat though. Both the C-Class and 3 Series are so close in every category that I think choosing between one will come down to brand loyalty." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

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