All new, yet totally familiar

Despite a fresh emphasis on frugality, the new F30 is as fun to drive as any 3 Series, a classic BMW through and through.

January 13, 2012
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IT’S ALL NEW, but the F30 3 Series feels as familiar as an old glove from behind the wheel. Sure, its technical spec has changed almost completely compared to the outgoing E90, but if anything it’s gained more “BMW-ness” in the process.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, one we experienced just a few weeks earlier at the launch of the F10 M5. While that car, too, is changed utterly, it manages to feel more BMW-like than its E60 predecessor—less hard-edged, more feelsome, better balanced, just like the new F30.

Some will surely disagree, citing the new F30’s rather numb electrically assisted steering as evidence that BMW has lost the plot. Yet although BMW’s interpretation of this energy-saving technology hasn’t yet reached the level of tactile perfection reportedly achieved by Porsche in its new 911, the electric steering used in the F30 is far better than that in other BMWs, and it certainly isn’t bad enough to ruin the car. (It also bears mentioning that BMW delivered truly awful hydraulic steering on some early E46s; fortunately, that was subsequently fixed.)

It may send more of it through the seat than the steering wheel, but the new F30 delivers plenty of feel from the chassis, letting the driver know exactly what’s happening where the rubber meets the road in classic BMW style. If that’s something you’ve been missing lately, this is your car.

A base model that’s anything but

In an ironic twist, the new F30’s sweet driving dynamics took a back seat to its efficiency features at the press launch. The electric steering pump falls under that category, and so does the new N20 four-cylinder engine that powered the cars on hand (along with the N47 diesel four in the 320d).

Normally, BMW launches a new model in top-of-the-line configuration, i.e. with the most powerful engine under the hood. For the new 3, BMW introduced us instead to the 328i, the car that will serve as the base model in the U.S. (The N55-powered 335i will remain at the top of the 3 Series lineup.)

It was a calculated risk, given that the world’s automotive press is more readily seduced by big power than by fuel economy. It worked, however, because the N20 four is a great engine.

The numbers alone are impressive: 240 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, 255 lb-ft of torque from 1,250-4,800 rpm. That’s a big increase from the outgoing N52 six-cylinder’s 230 hp at 6,500 rpm and 200 lb-ft at 2,750, yet the engine has two fewer cylinders and a full liter of displacement less than the N52. Turbocharging makes that possible (along with direct injection and Valvetronic), and it also allows both figures to peak at lower engine speeds than they do in the naturally aspirated six-cylinder.

In actual use, however, those low peak rpm are a bit of a deception, because they imply an agricultural quality that the N20 doesn’t have. Sure, it’s got plenty of grunt for getting the 3 Series off the line—the new car will go from zero to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds, a full 1.0 second faster than the E90 328i—or up a mountain road, but it’s also got an unexpected ability to rev.

As we discovered while driving at the Circuit de Catalunya, getting the most out of this engine means letting it run well past 5,000 rpm. Redline is set at 7,000 rpm, but horsepower doesn’t really start to taper off until 6,500 rpm, giving a driver a good 1,500 rpm range in which every one of those 240 hp are available to blast between corners. Torque is great for getting things moving—a car won’t accelerate very well without it—but horsepower is what makes an engine fun, and the new N20 is a very fun engine indeed.

Also from Issue 105

  • All-original, aluminum 3.0 CSL
  • Interview: New BMW NA CEO Ludwig Willisch
  • Market Update: E90 3 Series
  • History of Munich up to F30 3 Series
  • Choosing and buying new tires
  • E82 1 M Coupe: Kelleners Sport KS1-S
  • E30 3 Series-based Alpina C2
  • 150th Climb to the Clouds: Mt. Washington
  • Paying homage to the E30 M3
  • Synergies between M and Motorsport
  • News about BMW Motorsports
  • Six cylinders: BMW K1600GTL motorcycle
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