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. Itís a word product manager Oliver Ganser used over and over during the carís media introduction in Monterrey.Since when is the adjective ďvalueĒ used to describe a BMW? If youíve ever priced a 3 Series and wondered why youíre 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?
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 itís the four-cylinder, first introduced on the latest Z4 roadster, thatís making news. This engine in the 328i puts out 240 horsepower from just 2.0 liters.
Iím all for the four-cylinder. It didnít disappoint on the track at Laguna Seca or on the ride back to Monterrey. Itís just a good car, plus I love that 260 lb-ft of torque kicks in at just 1,250 rpm. Repeat after me: ďAll hail low-end torque.Ē Itís 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 Ė 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.
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 canít wait to try. All-wheel-drive models -- a staple in New England -- are also on hold.
By the way, while itís odd to think of fuel economy and a BMW, the ďeco proĒ driving mode (basically the econobox function) works seamlessly. Itís 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.
Thereís so much more that can be said about the 3 Series sedan that space wonít 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 firstname.lastname@example.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
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
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
About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee