The Pinnacle

An enthusiast’s BMW par excellence, the 335is Coupe just might be the best 3 Series of its generation.

Photo: The Pinnacle 1
October 12, 2010

The 335is reminds me of my favorite BMWs of yore: an enthusiast coupe with a powerful engine, sporty suspension, effective aerodynamics and not much else.

As such, it represents the pinnacle of 3 Series Coupes, M3 notwithstanding. And even though the E92 body style will remain in production until 2013, this car will most likely remain at the top of the heap where performance is concerned—and reliability, thanks to the thorough de-bugging that comes with five years of development.

Everything about the 335is, from the ergonomics to the engine, the transmission gearing to the suspension speaks “Perfection in Detail,” a BMW marketing phrase that long predates today’s somewhat nebulous “Joy.” It reminded me of the Z3 M coupe: From the moment I cracked second gear, I was thinking, “I can’t believe they built this car!”

Profit doesn’t seem to have been the driving factor behind this particular model’s creation. Instead, it was built to appeal to enthusiasts like us, with a raft of special parts meant to enhance performance and usability for the serious driver.

The list starts with a souped-up version of the familiar N54 twin-turbo engine, which here puts out 320 hp at 5,900 rpm and 332 lb-ft of torque from a mere 1,500 rpm, though an overboost function can briefly raise torque to 370 lb-ft thanks to a turbocharger boost pressure increase from 11.6 to 14.5 psi.

Photo: The Pinnacle 2

Even before it taps into the overboost, this N54 exceeds by 37 lb-ft the torque output of the M3’s normally aspirated S65 V8, which I think makes the 335is Coupe a more enjoyable car to drive anywhere but the race track—and especially at high elevations. You live in Colorado and you’re a hotshoe? This is your car, period. Compared to normally aspirated engines, turbocharged engines are relatively unaffected by altitude, losing far less power as they go higher.

Unflappable at speed

On paper, the engine modifications drop zero to 60 mph time by 0.2 second, from 5.3 seconds in the 335i Coupe to 5.1 in the 335is when both are equipped with a six-speed manual. To make sure the additional power doesn’t also cause overheating, the engine gets an extra radiator behind the left air intake and an oil cooler on the right side. The extra cooling left no room for fog lights on the 335is, which can be a downer in some parts of the U.S., but they won’t be missed on the race track, where many of these dual-duty street/track hot rods are probably headed.

In fact, it’s hard to really wring this car out without a race track or at least a vacant mountain road; fortunately, I found many of the latter in Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. I also found a small amount of understeer at the limits of adhesion, but otherwise this car remains largely unflappable no matter what you do to it. I think in order to “flap” the 335is Coupe on the street you’d have to be a short time away from being handcuffed, so quickly and effortlessly does the 335is take a set and go around bends.

At extra-legal speeds, cruising is so uneventful that it’s almost anticlimactic—save for the startling discovery that there’s no wind buffeting to speak of with the windows open at 140 mph. More interesting was the realization that this car rides on the same suspension as the non-”s” 335i Coupe, which I suspect has been secretly tweaked over the years since that car was introduced.

Unlike the 335i Coupe I tested in 2007, the 2011 335is Coupe didn’t lose adhesion when pushed to eight-tenths and beyond in washboard corners. This effect is caused mainly by the super-stiff sidewalls of the run-flat tires, which make the car skitter through corners with DTC cutting in. [Stiff spring rates and an excess of high-speed compression damping don’t help adhesion over bumps, either.—Ed.] The weight of the run-flat tires and the wheels they require is also to blame, though the heft is reduced here thanks to the lighter Style 313 alloys (8.0 and 8.5 × 18s shod with 225/40-18 and 255/35-18 high-performance tires) that are part of the “is” package.

Photo: The Pinnacle 3

At lower speeds—e.g. in sharp corners and switchbacks—the 335is has a certain flickability that I found lacking in the M3. I find that hard to attribute to the weight difference alone, which is negligible at 3,593 lbs. for the 335is Coupe and 3,704 lbs. for the M3 Coupe. Instead, I suspect it has more to do with tires or suspension tuning. [Don’t forget that the six-cylinder 335is carries 57 fewer lbs. over the front axle compared to the V8-powered M3.—Ed.]

The weight of both cars, as with all modern BMWs, was felt mostly during high-speed braking. Both brake systems work great the first time you haul the car down quickly from high speed, but fade makes its presence known after that. In both cars, I literally felt the car straining against its suspension bushings as the binders converted kinetic energy into heat—lots of heat. BMW has done a great job of hiding weight, but concealing the physics of rapid deceleration from high velocity is a little harder than, say, hiding a few extra pounds under a well-cut sport coat.

The remaining upgrades over the 335i Coupe include functional M Sport aerodynamics (front air dam, rocker panel covers and rear valance panel) designed to reduce lift at high speeds and an almost magical exhaust system that’s exclusive to the 335is. Along with the extra power, the exhaust is one upgrade you’ll notice every time you push the Start button. Neither loud nor burbly nor droning, its sound is crisp and snappy, and it’s a performance benefit as well as an aural delight: It’s a lot easier to shift a car manually when you can actually hear the engine!

The best, at a price

On the road, every shift, every stab of the throttle and absolutely every corner results in the overwhelming feeling that you’re at the wheel of the best E90 that BMW will ever build, which may include the M3 should you consider that car’s thirst for fuel or its styling to be a mite overbearing.

Here’s the rub: This car lists for $7,875 more than a 335i Coupe, much more than it would cost to get the same or more power and performance out of the non-”s” Coupe with aftermarket parts. Why not simply go that route, then? Well, for one thing, the most important part of an N54 engine is arguably the BMW New Vehicle Warranty. I also expect the 335is to be the best-sorted 3 Series, electronically and mechanically, having been fitted with the latest version of parts like the notorious high-pressure fuel pump, for example.

Photo: The Pinnacle 4

The 335is Coupe might be a hard sell at its $50,525 base price, but I think BMW built it to set enthusiast hearts on fire, not the market. A collector car in the making, I think it will probably hold its value better than an ordinary 3 Series car, too.

The press fleet car I drove in summer 2010 was born in December 2009, with the word PRE-PRODUCTION glowing from the window sticker in a way that will probably make a future collector glow, as well. In addition to the Crimson Red exterior paint (no extra cost as a non-metallic color), the build configuration included gorgeous Saddle Brown Dakota Leather ($1,450), Dark Glacier Aluminum trim (no extra cost and the only interior trim available in the 335is Coupe), seven-speed Double Clutch Transmission ($1,575), Comfort Access keyless entry ($500), heated front seats ($500), iPod and USB adaptor ($400), navigation system including iDrive ($2,100), BMW Assist with Bluetooth ($750), satellite radio with one-year Sirius subscription ($350), Harman-Kardon surround sound ($875), plus a destination charge of $875. The bottom line is nearly a cardiac event at $59,900.

As always, I would have left a few of those items off the build sheet, and I felt that two in particular, DCT and iDrive, detracted from the street driving experience. Without question, the Dual Clutch Transmission is the way to go if you want to get around a race track as quickly as possible, and it makes the car particularly well-suited to enthusiasts who drive their cars to work in congested areas five days a week and to the track on weekends.

In that, it could almost be considered Version 3.0 of the old Sequential Manual Gearbox, though it benefits from the addition of an extra clutch that lets it shift more smoothly in automatic mode and much faster in manual mode with the Sport button pressed. It’s a much sportier alternative to a torque-converter automatic (which isn’t available on the 335is in any case), and BMW believes it represents the future of performance shift platforms.

A big rolling computer

Maybe so, but the traditional six-speed manual remains more engaging and more fun to drive, in my opinion—not to mention more durable, easier to maintain and less costly at clutch replacement time. In addition to lower long-term maintenance and repair costs, it’ll also save you $1,575 off the sticker price.

Photo: The Pinnacle 5

In fact, I didn’t really like DCT on the street, because shifting it manually required me to look at the instrument cluster to know which gear I was in—after all, there are seven of the buggers. By contrast, you know what gear you’re in with the traditional manual gearbox because you just shifted into it with your hand—your brain remembers the position of the shifter much more easily than it remembers how many times you clicked the paddles on the DCT steering wheel.

The solution on a twisty mountain road where you would actually want to shift the DCT manually is to just drive—or put it in automatic mode—and not think about it, something I had a hard time doing. Overall, I felt that the traditional manual gearbox would afford the direct connection to the engine that seemed lacking with the DCT, and therefore would provide the more engaging driving experience.

DCT also includes the now-ubiquitous Sport button, which speeds up DCT shift times and enhances throttle response when pressed. As I’ve said before, Sport mode ought to be the default mode—it’s tiring to depress the Sport button every time the engine is started, and the only time to drive a BMW in non-Sport mode is when you’re inching along in a traffic jam or driving on snow or another low-traction surface. At a minimum, the driver should be able to program Sport as the default mode—in iDrive, if BMW insists. [BMW tells us that making Sport the default mode would adversely affect the car’s CAFE rating, and that many of BMW’s testers preferred the Normal mode’s more progressive action on the track.—Ed.]

Where iDrive itself is concerned, BMW has absolutely and finally gotten this interface right. It is now as simple and easy to use as it is distracting and completely unnecessary. First, I prefer its default position to be “off” rather than “on” and wish it were programmable that way. Second, its major function, navigation, is perhaps better added to the car with a simple aftermarket device that will be less costly to replace when it wears out or the technology evolves.

Like many people, I do the brunt of my work at a computer. When I get into a car, the last thing I want to deal with or even look at is another computer. Of course, the car itself is a big rolling computer these days, and the combination of DCT, the Sport button and iDrive makes me feel like I’m back at my desk. Were I to order a 335is of my own, I wouldn’t want any of these options.

My own 335is would have only one option besides Le Mans Blue Metallic paint and Saddle Brown Dakota leather, and that would be Active Steering ($1,550). I’ve grown rather fond of this feature, and limiting options to just those three results in a more palatable sticker price: $54,075.

It’s still expensive, of course, but it also buys what is arguably the most perfect turbocharged BMW available to enthusiasts in 2011…and quite possibly until 2013.

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