Sometimes in life reaching the top can be the easy part — it’s managing to stay there that proves more difficult. The same can be said for the automotive world, where BMW has happily enjoyed success with its 3 Series for over 35 years. Of course, the importance of the 3 Series cannot be overstated. The car accounts for roughly 50 percent of all BMWs sold worldwide. So when the German automaker decides to redesign its bread and butter… well…it’s more than a big deal.
For 2012, the engineers at BMW were tasked with redesigned the 335i sedan — no easy task given the almost-mythic status the car enjoys. Nevertheless, we imagine members of the team went many a night with little to no sleep, and suffered turbocharged engines and kidney grilles haunting their dreams when they did get manage some shut-eye.
We recently put the redesigned 2012 335i through its paces, and walked away with a whole host of emotions. Did those sleepless nights pay off? Read on and find out.
A subdued sexiness
On its face, the 335i retains much of what has characterized and defined it over the years, albeit with a sportier accent. The new front end features headlights that flank the iconic, widened, twin-kidney grille. Expressive character lines can be traced all along the hood that provides greater visual depth and strength to the 3 Series’ elongated body. Our review unit’s turbine-styled, 18-inch alloy wheels lended a greater degree of athleticism to an otherwise sleek profile.
Around back, we’re treated to the same clean lines that adorn the rest of the 335i’s frame. And keeping with previous iterations, the L-shaped taillamps have remaind, albeit with smoother sketch work and a subtle restyling.
For the record, the 2012 3 Series sedan is the only variation to receive a facelift, so don’t be disappointed (or confused) at the coupe, convertible, and wagon’s familiar face. That said, the 3 series sedan’s exterior is undeniably impressive and exactly what you’d expect from the Bavarians. While there are those that claim BMW has become rather boring, we simply can’t see it. If anything, the 3 Series offers a refined, if not restrained, beauty that most car lovers will appreciate. It’s a beautifully crafted car that manages to turn heads six generations into its lifespan.
Sadly, the interior doesn’t quite stack up as well as we’d expect. BMW’s have, by nature, always evoked emotion. They’re meant to deliver a visceral buffet to your senses both on and off the road. The 2012 BMW 3 Series’ aesthetic excellence, readily apparent throughout its exterior, fails to seep into its lackluster cabin. Don’t get us wrong — there are plenty of slick touches and salivating electronics to be had, but the sterility is disheartening. We can’t quite put out finger on it, but the interior just never seemed to wow us. It was smart, comfortable, and filled to the brim with all the gadgets we could ask for, but it failed to truly impress visually. Think of an iPhone — or Samsung Galaxy S 3 for all you Android lovers — housed inside a Motorola Dynatac 8000X phone from the 1980s and you’ll understand what we’re getting at.
Of course, there are plenty of positives to take away. It might not look especially riveting — the imperious use of beige trim in our review unit certainly didn’t help, nor did its questionable inclusion of faux-wood that ended up looking more Wal-Mart than Wall Street — but the cabin itself is quite cozy. As you might imagine, stepping into the 335i will not exactly try your patience or sap your appreciation for German engineering; there is a lot to like here, our nitpicking aside.
Clearly BMW has aimed to deliver a driver-centered experience. The rich leather seating is comfortable. And the eight-way power adjustments will help you find the ultimate driving position for your ultimate driving machine. Instrumentation is deftly positioned, with a cluster of gauges and displays tucked behind the 3-spoked leather wrapped steering wheel that features a mixture of analog and digital displays. A bit of Teutonic trickery is employed here; it all appears flush, giving the impression that you could pluck the speedometer right from its resting position should you so wish. The driver and passenger seat are separated by a central high tunnel that extends all the way to the back and happens to house the excellent iDrive controller.
For the most part, button placement is smartly done. While it’s always convenient to place audio controls on both the center stack and steering wheel, which BMW has, the location of the audio control to the right of the steering wheel felt foreign and consistently out of place — a minor gripe, but a gripe all the same.
A heap of effort has been made to keep drivers focus and attention on the road. Our review unit’s optional technology package ($2,550), which includes BMW’s iDrive system with 6.5-inch flat-screen and ever-so-cool heads-up display (HUD) in the windshield, is a testament to that. However, it’s ultimately marred by an easy-to-use, but slightly-out-of-reach iDrive dial that served as a constant distraction.
Speaking of technology, specifically the iDrive system: BMWs latest version is simply one of the best we’ve encountered. It utilizes a hard drive for map storage, offers up crisp and clear views in both 2D and 3D, and gives drivers the option of split screen so that both navigation and anything from trip information to music playback is easy to view and manage. What’s more, both the radio and route guidance integrate into the HUD display excellently, making it one of the more impressive features we’ve seen so far. BMW also offers Google search through its subscription-based telematics service, and gives drivers the ability, through its ConnectedDrive app, to access Facebook and Twitter feeds, which get displayed on the car’s LCD. Unfortunately, this feature is only compatible with the iPhone, so Android users are of luck.
In the end, the interior proved to be polarizing. On the one hand, we loved the driver-focused layout and excellent tech features. On the other, the relative dullness of the cabin in its entirety spoiled what could have amounted to a much more impressive experience. Some will find it clean and subdued; others will find it dull and dreary.
At the heart of the brand new 335i sedan is a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six that produces 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque mated to standard six-speed manual — though our review unit, much to our chagrin, sported the automatic variety. Throttle response is lightning fast and calling upon that extra spool of torque requires very little pressure placed on the accelerator. For the N55 engine, BMW has incorporated two small turbos for every 3 cylinders, resulting in virtually unnoticeable turbo lag and quicker response to load demands. BMW estimates a 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds, but we found during our performance testing that to be conservative figure.
Fuel economy is surprisingly impressive given the 2012 335i is slightly larger than last year’s model. EPA estimated returns for the rear-wheel-drive sedan with automatic transmission number it at 23 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, with a combined mile per gallon rating of 26.
If that doesn’t meet your fuel efficiency needs, a new automatic stop/start feature has been introduced for the 2012 model year similar to what Ford has planned for the 2013 Fusion. At a complete stop, the engine will, as you may have guessed, shut off, and start back up again once you take your foot off the break. It’s a novel idea and one we wish would have worked better, though it never really did. During our testing the engine would shut off completely, which required a manual restart. This became increasingly frustrating and embarrassing to the point where we decided to disable it altogether. Unfortunately it defaults to on every time you enter the vehicle, so continuously disabling it only compounded our frustration.
Dynamics in driving
Road handling for the 2012 BMW 335i is on par with what we have come to expect from the Germans, delivering a drive experience that proved equal parts engaging and dynamic, yet effortless. Part of that is aided by the car’s Driving Dynamics Control system, which allows for three different modes: comfort, sport, and eco pro. Comfort is the default setting and where you will spend most of your driving hours. Here we’re given an all-around experience with throttle, suspension, and steering options set to default. Sport mode improves throttle response and does away with the pesky auto stop/start feature, while stiffening up suspension. And finally, eco pro scales back throttle response and energy-sapping operations like climate control and on-board electronics.
With all its driving modes at our disposal, tackling every bend and curve was never a chore, as the new 335i cleverly adapts to each driving situation. Up top we find MacPherson strut front suspension, while a five-link system is employed in the rear. However, feedback does begin to feel a little stifled, and some of the wind has been taken out of its sails due to its slightly elongated wheelbase. Despite its lankier proportions – and if you can live with the fact that this version will drive more like a sedan than a sports car – the newly designed 3 Series sedan is strikingly agile, exhibiting sharp reflexes and excellent road manners, both on the highway and more demanding road conditions.
The 2012 BMW 335i sees a $350 increase from last year’s model, bringing the base price to $42,400. Our review model — which included various comfort additions such as the previously mentioned technology package, Harman Kardon premium sound system, cold weather package with heated front and rear seats, and eye-catching 18-inch alloy wheels — rockets to an unforgiving MSRP of $53,645, including destination fee.
Is it steep? Sure it is. But in all likelihood, if you’re concerned over such trivialities such as your bank account, then the entry-level luxury segment should not be your base of operations.
In the end the 2012 BMW 335i is more of an evolution than a revolution for the 3 series sedan. It’s not the gigantic leap forward that purist and consumers would have liked. But for a company that has notoriously played it safe, it’s not in the least bit surprising. That might suffice for now, but the entry-level luxury segment is no longer the barrel in which BMW can simply shoot fish. Mercedes-Benz continues to rival BMW with its C-Class. Audi, with its A4, has been resolute in cementing its own place in the luxury sphere. And now Cadillac is looking to stage a coup and dethrone the Bavarian brand with its new ATS. For BMW, the necessity to deliver something truly innovative is surely around the corner.
It might be easy to scoff at the implied arrogance in BMW’s advertising mantra of building the “ultimate driving machine” — but it’s no lie. There is a real reason why the 3 Series has evolved into the monolithic lineup it is today. And six generations on it’s still considered the benchmark for which every other entry-level luxury sedan is judged. And rightfully so.
- Brilliant handling dynamics
- Powerful engine
- Exceptional iDrive system
- Dull cabin visuals
- Terrible auto start/stop system
- Not the leap we were hoping for