The new look is crisp and the interior is roomier, but a quartet of design trims and a bunch of changes underneath that affect its legendary handling mean that this new 3-Series is bound to raise a few eyebrows.
To get a better look at BMW's new sedan and to determine how it carries on the blue-and-white roundel's legacy, we set out in one of the more enthusiast-oriented variants you'll find: A 335i with the standard six-speed manual
What is it?
Now in its sixth generation with a 3 badge, the sedan you see here owes thanks the two-door 2002 of the late 1960s and 1970s. That brainchild of BMW importer Max Hoffman combined a two-liter four-cylinder with the company's remarkably advanced two-door "sedan." The rest, as they say, is history.
Today's 3-Series rides on a two-inch longer wheelbase and stretches a full four inches further than its predecessor, but the biggest news comes underhood of the mainstream 328i. The U.S. market's first four-cylinder 3-Series in more than a decade, the 328i is nearly as quick as the turbocharged 335i's inline six-cylinder.
But BMW is hoping that buyers will pick the 335i for more than just its performance boost; the higher price point means that buyers are probably more likely to select one of the three optional trim packages, or "Lines," the automaker is offering for 2012. In addition to a standard model, BMW buyers can opt for Sport, Modern and Luxury trims. Sport brings with it copious black and red trim, Modern adds satin aluminum and an oddly overdone three-dimensional wood, and Luxury adds plenty of extra chrome and glossy wood trim.
Our tester was further upgraded with radar add-ons to help drivers stay in their lane, see their blind spots and not bump into other cars while parking. Theoretically, at least. Those and a few other goodies inflated the price to a sky-high $54,745, but it's worth noting that our fully-kitted tester was about as loaded a 335i as you're likely to find.
What's it up against?
The 335i's most natural rivals come from its home market: The Audi S4 and Mercedes-Benz C350.
But Volvo's S60 T6, Cadillac's ATS 3.6 and Infiniti's G37 are all worthy competitors, each bringing to the table its own flavor of performance-oriented luxury.
How does it look?
For the most part a natural evolution of the 3-Series line, the latest model is conservative and tasteful, if derivative of the larger 5-Series.
Up front, complex projector-style headlamps spill over into the BMW-signature kidney grille for the first time, a look that works well with the chrome-studded lower grille opening. At the side, BMW's trademark c-pillar kink is in place, but only a trio of character lines add much excitement. The rear is barely distinguishable from the 5-Series save for the badging.
Luxury Line-equipped 3s like our tester add tasteful chrome accents to the grille, the faux rear diffuser and around the side windows; base and Sport models use mostly black rubber or plastic. In addition, the 18-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels on our tester are Luxury Line-specific; we think they're great looking, but we also found them to be very time consuming to clean.
And on the inside?
Dominating the newly redesigned dashboard is a 6.5-inch full-color screen, which is styled to look something like a tablet computer. Controlled by a knob and a few buttons on the center console, it contains BMW's latest iDrive infotainment system, which isn't as easy to malign as it once was. Though still menu-intensive, it is much faster-reacting than ever before, and it combines with an excellent satellite-style map interface.
From there, the dashboard sweeps down to include a typical smattering of buttons, including BMW's handy 10-button presets, which can be programmed to pull up more than just radio stations (think navigation screens and destinations).
Firm and nicely bolstered sports seats grip the front passengers, while rear-seat riders have more space than ever before in a 3-Series. A larger trunk accessed by a wider aperture swallows plenty of luggage.
For the $1,400 the Luxury Line package adds, we were a little disappointed to find that the only real styling item of tangible value is a burled walnut wood trim with a tasteful inlay. Otherwise, the leather trim and interior plastics - which seem like a step down from before around the center console - don't really scream "high-end" like we've seen on some rivals.
It might be the roomiest and most comfortable 3-Series yet, but the outgoing model felt a little more special inside.
But does it go?
Let's get this out the way quickly: We're big believers in BMW's twin-scroll turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine. Used in virtually everything the automaker sells here short of the mega-buck 6 and 7-Series models, the 3.0 is rated at 300 horsepower and, more importantly, 300 lb-ft. of torque.
Why is that torque figure so important, you ask? Because it's spread across a wide range from 1,200 to 5,000 rpm. That's essentially from initial throttle tip-in to as high up the rev band as you're bound to venture in normal driving.
As a result, the 335i rockets to 60 mph in a manufacturer-quoted 5.4 seconds with nothing in the way of discernible turbo lag. From any speed, the 335i channels its inner Olympic sprinter to zip ahead of traffic.
Aiding things is a buttery-smooth six-speed gearbox with a beautifully weighted clutch pedal. The proverbial "just right" of the three bears, this manual transmission should serve as a blueprint for any rival looking to be taken seriously.
But not all's well in this fairytale. To cut emissions - a noble cause - BMW has installed what's quite possibly the industry's worst start/stop system. At a complete stop, the engine shuts off, taking with it any chilled air to emerge from the air conditioning system. Push the clutch in or even move the steering wheel just a touch and the 3.0 fires to live with a noticeable thrum. Exacerbating the experience is the gear lever's inability to sit still while the engine is running; it's constantly shaking back and forth until the engine turns off.
A dashboard-mounted button turns the system off entirely. However, during our evaluation period, BMW's software mandated that the system default back to "on" with every key cycle. But a recent service bulletin will allow owners to override this tuning so that it retains the "last mode" used.
Of course, BMWs have long been about handling, not idling, so we were anxious to toss our 335i into the first corner we encountered. New for 2012 is an electronic power steering system that, you guessed it, saves some fuel. Again, that's a good idea, but the system proved light on feel and a little unnatural during abrupt maneuvers. It's leaps and bounds ahead of what we've experienced in the larger 5-Series, but BMW's magical steering feel seems to be on hiatus. If only there was a button to bring it back.
So too the suspension, which is softer and springier than before. The 335i takes impacts in stride, but we found more body lean and more wallow than we've ever expected from a small BMW. That's not to say that the 335i isn't precise, but it isn't quite as engaging, either. Opting for the extra-cost sports suspension that either comes bundled with adaptive steering or the Sport Line trim level does make the 335i noticeably more dynamic.
Still, ride comfort is stellar and the 335i proved exceptionally silent, not to mention remarkably fuel-efficient. We easily matched the EPA's 20/30 mpg ratings, and we even bested the 23 mpg combined figure.
It's an all-new 3-Series - and that term appears to apply to more than just the new car's looks.
Why you would buy it:
For most buyers, this sedan is the best 3-Series ever.
Why you wouldn't:
If you're a discerning enthusiast, you might be a little disappointed with the driving experience.
Leftlane's bottom line
A better car in virtually every way than its predecessors for the bulk of buyers, this roomier, better-riding, more fuel-efficient BMW 3-Series is absolutely at the top of its game.
But those among us who appreciate the ultra-precise handling, sublime steering and tossable nature of 3-Series sedans of yore might find that this new car comes up a bit short.
2012 BMW 335i base price, $42,400. As tested, $54,745.
Metallic Paint, $550; Cold Weather Package, $1,350; Premium Package, $1,900; Premium Sound Package, $950; Technology Package, $2,550; Luxury Line, $1,400; Driver Assistance Package, $1,100; Park Distance Control, $750; BMW Assist, $650; BMW Apps, $250; Destination, $895.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.