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Quick spin: 2012 BMW 3 Series

Posted by Keith Griffin  March 6, 2012 03:13 PM

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(All photos: BMW). Click photo for larger version.

MONTERREY, Calif.—For its all-new 2012 3 Series sedan, BMW is thinking big and small: an 8-speed automatic transmission mated to a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It's an interesting gamble to combine fuel efficiency with spirited driving.

There's also something unusual the German automaker is bringing: value. It’s a word product manager Oliver Ganser used over and over during the car’s media introduction in Monterrey.

Quick spin

Since when is the adjective “value” used to describe a BMW? If you’ve ever priced a 3 Series and wondered why you’re forced to pay $1,450 for leather in a $35,000 car, you know the answer. This is a car you want, not need, to drive.

Except, oddly enough, the 2012 3 Series sedan is a value, a weird thing to say for a car that competes against the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Audi A4. BMW has managed to make a competitive sedan that performs well, has lots of luxury, and yet manages to be well-priced among premium compact sedans.

What is this world coming to?

2012-BMW-3-Series-rear.jpg

Click photo for larger version.

As Ganser pointed out, US fuel prices were up 300 percent from 1999 to 2011, which is why the previous 3.0-liter six-cylinder is gone. The turbocharged 300-horsepower six in the 335i is mostly unchanged, but it’s the four-cylinder, first introduced on the latest Z4 roadster, that’s making news. This engine in the 328i puts out 240 horsepower from just 2.0 liters.

I’m all for the four-cylinder. It didn’t disappoint on the track at Laguna Seca or on the ride back to Monterrey. It’s just a good car, plus I love that 260 lb-ft of torque kicks in at just 1,250 rpm. Repeat after me: “All hail low-end torque.” It’s what really puts the zip in this engine, which BMW says can do 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds.

Power is delivered to the rear wheels either via a standard 6-speed manual transmission or, optionally, via an eight-speed automatic, which is unique to the sport sedan market on a four-cylinder engine. However, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe will also offer a four-cylinder, turbocharged engine mated to an 8-speed automatic.

BMW has managed to grow the size of the 3 Series enough to be a comfortable sedan both for both front and rear adult passengers – not a distinction that could be made before. Its width is up nearly two inches; the wheelbase is also stretched by about two inches; and the overall length has grown 3.6 inches. Two inches in a compact sedan can make a significant difference. In spite of being larger, the 2012 model is actually 88 pounds lighter than its predecessor.

2012-BMW-3-Series-interior.jpg

BMW has done something interesting with the exterior design of the 3 Series, which now comes in three trim levels: sport, luxury and modern (an M sport package is also available). The buyer gets a different kidney-shaped grille depending on the package.

The luxury trim level gets the famous BMW kidney grille with 11 fine chrome slats, two slightly offset chrome trim strips in the front apron air intakes, and a high-gloss chrome trim strip running horizontally above the air scoop. The sport line has eight heavily contoured high-gloss black kidney grille slats in a chrome-colored surround. The modern trim level offers the BMW kidney grille with 11 satin aluminum slats and double trim strips for the air intakes in the same color. Get that?

The 328i sedan will be priced from $35,795 while the 335i sedan will be priced from $43,295. Both prices include $895 destination and handling. These represent a $320 and $370 base price increase over the outgoing models. However, in addition to the completely redesigned exterior and interior, the new cars include a significantly higher level of standard equipment.

This includes a 6.5-inch central display with iDrive controller, Bluetooth connectivity, USB/iPod interface, automatic start/stop, and brake energy regeneration. Both models also feature larger wheels and tires as standard equipment.

The new coupe, convertible, and wagon models will likely show up later this year, in addition to a hybrid sedan we can’t wait to try. All-wheel-drive models -- a staple in New England -- are also on hold.

By the way, while it’s odd to think of fuel economy and a BMW, the “eco pro” driving mode (basically the econobox function) works seamlessly. It’s only noticeable under hard acceleration when there is, well, basically, no hard acceleration. The start/stop feature, which shuts the engine off while the car is stopped, was also barely discernible.

There’s so much more that can be said about the 3 Series sedan that space won’t allow. Keep this one thought in mind: BMW has delivered a sports sedan that delivers value while not skimping on performance, technology, or luxury.

Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and can be reached at keith.griffin@nempa.org.

Note: BMW paid for the author's transportation and lodging to facilitate this initial test drive. We'll have a full review when we can test one independently in Boston.



2012 BMW 3 Series sedan

THE BASICS
Price, base (with destination): $35,795 (four cylinder) $43,295 (six cylinder)
Fuel economy: 23 city / 34 highway (four cylinder) 20/30 (six cylinder)
Drivetrain: 2.0-liter, turbo four-cylinder / 3.0-liter, turbo inline six
Body: Four-door, five passenger sedan

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 240 hp at 5000 rpm / 300 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 260 lb. ft. @ 1250 rpm / 300 lb. ft @ 1200 rpm
Overall length: 182.5 inches
Wheelbase: 110.6 inches
Height: 71.3 inches
Width: 71.3 inches

THE GOOD: An eight-speed automatic transmission mated to a four-cylinder, turbo engine is a powertrain combination that fuel economy dreams are made of.

THE BAD: The leather material on the luxury trim level has a cheap feel to it.

THE BOTTOM LINE: BMW continues to dominate the compact sports sedan market.

ALSO CONSIDER:
Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Volvo S60, Infiniti G, Cadillac CTS

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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