BMW 335i — Still the Ultimate Driving Machine

By Jim Meachen and Al Vinikour

One of the most memorial automotive catch phrases in history, "The Ultimate Driving Machine," got the green light from then BMW marketing chief Bob Lutz in the 1970s reviving a flagging German brand and helping make BMW cars wildly popular in the U.S.

What has made this ingenious tagline stick through the decades is that BMW has consistently backed it up with outstanding products led by the popular 3-Series — the ultimate driving machine, if you will.

BMW has wisely reincorporated the famous tagline into advertising for the all-new 2012 3-Series. The new television spots, out since the first of the year, include the line,  “We don’t make sports cars. We don’t make SUV’s. We don’t make hybrids, and we don’t make luxury sedans. We only make one thing, the ultimate driving machine.”

When it came time to redesign the legendary 3-Series — the epitome of BMW's driving machine reputation — engineers and designers may have been given one basic set of instructions — don't mess up a good thing, don't mess up the "ultimate driving machine."

There are a few auto reviewers nit-picking aspects of the newest BMW such as its loss of feel with new electric assist steering and its stop-start technology, but we are here to report that the newest BMW, which has undergone only the slightest of exterior styling modifications, and carries on with the silky smooth twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six making 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, is every bit the ultimate driving machine of its predecessor. It has lost none of its driving credentials.

The competition may be catching up, but those aforementioned engineers were wise not to re-invent the wheel, to continue to fine tune the 3-Series. Catching a long-standing leader that sticks to its proven formula of success is not an easy task.

The first indication the company felt they had it right was the driving program early this year for automotive journalists. It wasn’t just a straight, here-to-there interstate; Bavarians don’t play that game. Rather, half the day was spent running the vehicles on the legendary Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. The course is about 2.5 miles of challenging bends and twists. The last-half of the day was spent driving the curvy mountain roads of Big Sur, one of the most awesome drives in the hemisphere.

The 3-Series, we discovered, was equally at home traversing both.

For 2012, the BMW 3-Series comes in two sedan models: the 328i and the 335i, and in four trim levels; Sport Line, Luxury Line, Modern Line and M Sport package.

The 2012 is initially offered with two high-torque, refined and exceptionally fuel-efficient engines, both featuring the latest BMS TwinPower Turbo technology. The 328i is powered by a new 2.0-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine, delivering 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. It’s the first 4-cylinder 3-Series model since 1999.

The 335i is powered by an inline 3.0-liter 6-cylinder that pumps out 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Both are mated to either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic. As good as the automatic transmission is there’s still no beating the feel of a smooth manual gear box.

Zero-60 mph times for the 328i with equipped with the manual is 5.7 seconds; 5.9 seconds with automatic. The 335i 0-60 is 5.4 seconds with either transmission.

Gas mileage is on nearly everyone's mind — even owners of performance machines — in this era of perpetually high pump prices. And BMW has turned the newest 3-Series offerings into two of the most fuel efficient sub-six-second performance cars on the planet. The 335i is rated at 23 city and 33 highway with the automatic, astounding numbers. The smaller 4-cylinder in the 328i reaches 24/36 with the six-speed automatic.

Some of the fuel mileage is derived from a new automatic stop-start feature. When the BMW comes to rest such as at red lights, the engine cuts off — rather abruptly, we thought. It restarts instantly when the driver takes his foot off the brake. Add that to a the new Driving Dynamics Control Switch that allows the driver to choose between Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and ECO PRO mode, enhancing mileage even further. We think the "energy-optimizing" eco mode is far to intrusive to make it worthwhile on a regular basis.

The new BMW face features elongated headlights reaching out to the BMW signature kidney grille giving it a sense of width, and strengthens its overall athletic profile. LED accent lights are positioned like eyebrows above the twin headlights with corona rings. The contoured rear view of the new 3-Series sports twin, chrome exhaust extensions and shouts out that this isn’t a mass-produced “people’s car.” The 328i sits on 17-inch wheels; the 335i has 18s.

Slide in behind the wheel and it’s obvious the 3-Series is a driver’s car. The cockpit wraps around the driver and puts all the important controls within easy reach. The cockpit itself is angled towards the driver by seven degrees. Four circular dials (fuel gauge, speedometer, tachometer, and oil temperature) come with a black panel display.

The freestanding iDrive monitor with a slim, trans-reflective high-resolution display resembles the latest flat-screen televisions. While the system has fewer critics we did encounter physical interference with the controller caused by inadvertent bumping from both the driver’s and passenger’s position. While it’s not the end of the world it still can be an annoyance.

Considering its legendary status and reputation, the 2012 3-Series is in a sense surprising affordable. Including destination and handling of $895 the base price of a 328i Sedan is $35,795, and $43,295 for the 335i.

But be forewarned, a large selection of options and packages are available, which can make the base price just a suggestion. For instance, our test car was loaded up with options — most of them falling into the "very desirable" category, which ran the bottom line up to a whopping $53,645.

The plethora of technologies available include a new generation head-up display; an active blind spot detection system; Parking Assist and Lane Departure Warning Systems; and a Collision Warning system.

The venerable 3-Series has proven through its past five generations that its owners aren’t just buying a car; rather, they’re making an investment in a lifestyle. Nothing has changed in 2012.

Base price: $43,295; as driven, $53,645
Engine: 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline 6
Horsepower: 300 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 300 foot-pounds @ 1,300 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.6 inches
Length: 182.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,571 pounds
Turning circle: 37.0 feet
Luggage capacity: 17 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.8 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 33 highway, 23 city
0-60: 5.4 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Infiniti G37, Audi A4, Lexus IS 350

The Good
• Solid performance
• Upscale interior
• Surprisingly fuel efficient
• Eye-catching exterior styling

The Bad
• Economy (Eco) setting too intrusive

The Ugly
• Options can quickly inflate price