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.

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January 13, 2012

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.

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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.

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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.

It’s also fairly light, allowing the 328i to undercut the weight of its 335i counterpart by 133 lbs. At 3,461 lbs. when equipped with the ZF 8HP45 eight-speed automatic, 3,406 with the I-350 Turbo six-speed manual, it’s 33 lbs. heavier than the outgoing 328i, but most of that can probably be attributed to the automatic transmission. Comparing the E90 335i with the F30 335i, both with the same N55 six and either a Type G (E90) or K (F30) six-speed manual, the new car turns out to be 23 lbs. lighter, an impressive feat considering that it’s gotten considerably larger, as well. More on that later; for right now let’s focus on how the new 3’s lack of avoirdupois allows it to feel agile and responsive, to change direction readily without feeling like it’s shifting a tremendous mass.

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Surprisingly light on its feet

On the street, it feels nearly as light on its feet as a 1 Series, especially when the turns come in sequence like they do on the magnificent road around Montserrat near Barcelona. That impression is confirmed on the track, where pushing harder reveals a car with outsized enthusiasm for tackling each corner. A left-right series requires a slight pause, to be sure—our Sport Line 328i’s suspension was a little on the soft side for track use, but not by a huge amount, and the M Sport that follows will likely fix that—but turn-in is precise and the car is fun to fling into corners.

There’s a safe amount of understeer in both slow and fast corners, but it’s easy to correct by getting off the throttle ever so slightly. With the four-cylinder engine, the new F30 achieves a perfect 50/50 weight balance front to rear—by comparison, the 335i carries 51.5 percent of its weight over the front axle—and that precise balance makes it easy to adjust the car’s attitude mid-corner. Good brakes help, too, and the 328i has what are probably the best brakes ever fitted to a 3 Series. (The 335i will get four-piston fixed calipers up front; the 328i gets BMW’s typical but still effective single-piston floating calipers all around, with rotors of unspecified size.)

The 328i has a playful attitude that makes it a joy to drive on track. It might not be the fastest car you’ll ever drive, but its lighthearted attitude makes it a lot of fun to push to the limit—yours or the car’s. That’s a classic BMW trait, and the car has a classic BMW feel, as well, one that can trace its lineage back to the venerable E30 of the 1980s even as it’s evolved considerably from that era.

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To aid the F30’s handling, BMW widened the front track to 60.3 inches from 59.1 in the E90. Rear track now measures 61.9 inches, up from 60.2 in the previous-generation 328i. (NB: To compare specifications, we’re using the numbers provided by BMW of North America for its 2011-model 328i.)

Widening a car’s track will increase traction and stability—as does lengthening its wheelbase, which BMW has done here by 1.96 inches—and it also makes a car look that much sportier, especially when its exterior dimensions are similarly increased. The F30 sedan has a low, wide stance and aggressive proportions that recall the E92 coupe more than the E90 sedan, which is a good thing for those who found the E90 proportionately too tall for its width. Inside, however, it’s all sedan, now with 0.71 inch of additional legroom to accommodate rear-seat passengers. Drivers get 0.6 inch of additional knee room, and everyone gets 0.31 inch more headroom, which the new car’s proportions cleverly conceal. It is, in fact taller, but you’d never suspect that unless you saw the two cars side by side.

Functional improvements for fuel economy … and fun

The exterior design is handsome if a little busy thanks to a new character line that extends from the front fender to the rear door and which sits above BMW’s traditional side-body crease. The interior is ergonomically sound but also a little cluttered, especially where the center console meets the dash. In that, it recalls the interior of the new M5 we drove a month earlier—both designs are just fine, but neither will entrance the eye every time you drive the car, unlike the dashboard/console on the 6 Series or Z4.

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Functionally, however, many aspects of the interior are improved, including those handled through iDrive and which are shown on an iPad-like display that protrudes from the center of the dashboard and doesn’t retract. The graphics are gorgeous and genuinely useful, allowing the driver to access navigation and entertainment functions as well as the EfficientDynamics features that are the car’s true raison d’etre after sheer driving pleasure.

As mentioned earlier, BMW launched the F30 with the 328i rather than 335i. As fun as it is to rev that N20 four to redline, the engine’s real purpose is to save gasoline, and to help BMW meet government requirements for emissions in Europe and fuel economy in the U.S. EPA figures weren’t available by the time this issue went to press, but EU estimates show the new 328i returning 27.5 mpg city and 45.3 mpg highway with a manual transmission, 28.6 mpg city and 45.3 mpg highway with the eight-speed automatic. Since the test cycles differ, we can’t expect the EPA mileage estimates to replicate those figures exactly, but they nonetheless reveal a car that’s poised to make a big dent in BMW’s fleet consumption along with the electrified i3 and the newly fuel-frugal M cars.

The engine isn’t alone in achieving that, of course. It gets a big boost from the eight-speed automatic already used to similar effect in the 5 and 7 Series cars. It’s a good match for the smaller engine, ready to drop down a gear to access the N20’s horsepower whenever the occasion demands. The driver can demand, too, by shifting manually using the console-mounted lever or the steering wheel-mounted paddles that come with the Sport Line and M Sport packages. Those options also include sportier programming for the transmission itself, which can be made to shift faster and more aggressively by selecting Sport or Sport+ via the new Driving Dynamics Control switch on the center console.

DDC functions a little differently on the new 3 Series than it does in other BMW models. (The car we drove at the press launch wasn’t equipped with Adaptive M Suspension; presumably, that feature will also be accessible via DDC.) As configured here, DDC allows the driver to choose from Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and a new ECO PRO mode to govern throttle response, engine mapping, power steering characteristics and Dynamic Stability Control intervention, plus shift points for the automatic transmission if applicable. Comfort is the new “normal,” while Sport and Sport+ quicken things up and the latter activates Dynamic Traction Control (a less-intrusive DSC) in the familiar fashion.

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ECO PRO is a new mode designed to strip the fun out of driving in favor of extreme fuel economy. Well, not really, but it does dull the throttle response to the point of making the car feel distinctly less BMW-like, and it isn’t a mode we’d be likely to engage unless we were driving across Kansas or running low on gas. In addition to changing the fuel mapping, shift points and throttle response for maximum frugality, ECO PRO also limits the output of the car’s heating and cooling functions to reduce electrical consumption and thus keep the alternator disengaged. BMW says that ECO PRO can reduce fuel consumption by up to 20% while extending driving range by a similar amount, which should be a boon on cross-country road trips and the daily commute, or any time fuel economy is prized over driving pleasure.

In a nod toward the gauges said to fascinate Prius drivers, displays on the instrument cluster and iDrive screen allow the driver to monitor consumption in real time and on a cumulative basis. And if that’s not enough, a hybrid version of the F30 is soon to appear, though we’re told it will be more BMW-like than Toyota-like, with superb performance and the ability to run solely on electrical power for at least a few miles.

As the presence of a hybrid 3 indicates, the F30 is a very different sort of BMW than the 3s that have come before it. At the same time, it’s also a very familiar sort of BMW, one that possesses all the dynamic qualities that have defined these cars since the first E21 appeared back in 1975. Quick, responsive and fun to drive, the new 328 is a fantastic BMW. That it’s also a fuel-efficient BMW is just the icing on the cake.

Second Opinion
by Ian Kuah

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FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT, and I was very taken with the sleek and dynamic appearance and fine detailing of BMW’s latest 3 Series. It is, without a doubt, the best-looking car in its class right now, and I would not be at all surprised if it turns out to be the best-selling 3 Series of all time.

Dynamically, the greater poise and stability conferred by the 50mm longer wheelbase and wider tracks can be felt immediately. The new 3 Series feels more grown-up and more mature, but this does not reflect adversely on its agility since it is also 40 kg lighter (88 lbs. in Euro spec, which differs from the car’s weight as measured in the U.S.).

This newfound agility can clearly be felt on both road and track. Coupled to the excellent new electromechanical power steering system and cabin ergonomics, it gives the car a directness that puts you at ease very quickly. I have always found it strange that while BMW’s first-ever electric power steering application on the MINI a decade ago had great feel, feedback and weighting, the company hasn’t been able to match it since. The all-time low point of this technology was reached with the Active Steering system on the 640i that I drove last summer. The remote and non-linear feel of its steering seemed decidedly out of synch with what the seat of my pants was telling me, and it left a serious question mark over BMW’s ability to devise an electric power steering system to match its legendary hydraulic ones.

Thus, I was actively looking for flaws in the electric power steering system of the new 320d on my first drive. To my immense relief, within a couple of corners my fingertips told me that the electric power steering on the new 3 Series works very well indeed. Near-perfect in both gearing and weight, it has a similar level of feel and feedback to a good modern hydraulic power steering system. Importantly, it does not give any of the weird output I felt from the 640i’s helm.

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This intuitive steering also allowed me to comfortably extend the 328i I drove at the Catalunya Circuit on the second day. With the chassis and engine set in Sport+ mode, I found that the new 3 Series chassis has such progressive and linear breakaway that it allowed me to drive right up to and beyond the limit with no fear of nasty surprises.

Once past the point where the rear tires relinquished their considerable purchase on the tarmac, the resulting slide was well telegraphed and easily gathered up or prolonged at will. I felt that I could have drifted this car all day long, and this confidence window also highlighted the fact that the latest generation of run-flat tires has finally made the cut in both ride and handling.

My subsequent laps found the car’s intrinsic mild understeer building up slightly as the tires got hotter. I also noticed that even when the tires were not working beyond their peak temperatures, the back end had more mechanical grip than the front. BMW has obviously set the car up to keep the average driver out of harm’s way, and to counter the understeer I simply modified my line, aiming inside the apex on turn-in so that the understeer then took the nose to the clipping point. Overall, however, the car has terrific mechanical grip, and as the basis for the forthcoming F30 M3, this is one very accomplished chassis.

While the standard brakes stood up to this ill treatment pretty well, BMW will offer an M Sport brake system with larger vented discs and four-piston alloy calipers in front and two-piston calipers at the rear. This will be standard on all 335i models sold in the U.S., as well.

The limit handling exercise at Catalunya also highlighted the willingness of the eight-speed automatic to play its part in extracting the best possible performance on track.

While the new 1,997cc twin-scroll single turbo, four-cylinder N20 engine redlines at 6,800 rpm, its (Euro-spec) 245 hp are actually delivered between 5,000 and 6,500 rpm, with 258 lb-ft of torque from 1,250-4,800 rpm. I generally prefer to “float” a car along on its torque curve rather than eke out the last screaming horses at the top end, so I was using the paddle shifts in Manual mode to shift between 6,000 and 6,500 rpm. However, the gearbox was having none of it, and if I short-shifted to fourth coming out of a fast turn with my foot flat on the floor, the ECU would scratch its head, see that there were still 500 to 800 rpm in hand and drop back down a ratio to make full use of the rev range nearly to the limiter! As automatic gearbox software normally frustrates the keen driver by upshifting too early, it was an unusual experience to be second-guessed like this on the race track.

Having first driven the smooth and punchy balancer-shaft N20 in an X1, I was looking forward to trying it in the lighter and more aerodynamic new 3 Series. If anything, the sound insulation is even better in the 328i, and so silky smooth and potent is this motor that it is hard to tell most of the time that it is a mere four-cylinder. All round, the N20 has the edge over the naturally aspirated N52 in the E90 328i. It also proved to be a blissfully smooth companion capable of gliding down the motorway at three-figure speeds with ridiculous ease.

Of course, hardcore BMW six fans will want the twin-scroll, single turbo straight-six N55 in the 335i, which delivers 300 hp from 5,800-6,000 rpm, along with 300 lb-ft of torque between 1,200 and 5,000 rpm. However, the N55’s real world advantage over the four is not as great as you would imagine. The bigger engine’s extra horsepower and torque are partially offset by the 335i’s additional weight, and the 335i ends up being just half a second faster in the zero-to-60 mph sprint than the 328i.

The new 3 Series is a highly accomplished all-rounder. Its extra interior room is very welcome, especially as it brings no weight penalty, and its suspension and engine performance are state-of-the-art for this class. Considering that the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class are exceptionally good cars, pipping them to the winning post is no mean feat.

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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