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BMW has completely redesigned its 3 Series sedans and the new ones are better than ever. The 2012 BMW 3 Series sedans are slightly bigger, slightly faster, slightly more fuel-efficient than last year’s models. They are more technologically advanced yet the technology doesn’t get in the way of their being the ultimate driving machine. In short, the new BMW 328i and BMW 335i sedans improve on the previous versions in every way.
The 2012 BMW 3 Series sedans represent the sixth generation of these cars. The 3 Series began with the 1975 BMW 320i, a small, premium sports sedan that appealed to the young and upwardly mobile. The groundwork had been laid here in the U.S. by the popular BMW 2002 and related models that came before. You could even go back to the swoopy pre-war BMW 328 designed for well-to-do gentlemen. However you look at it, the 3 Series is an icon for the brand and remains to this day the quintessential BMW. The 3 Series is the most important product line for BMW and the benchmark for its class. We think the 3 Series is the car BMW does best, and the sedan is the most important iteration.
Though completely changed, the new 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan looks similar to the 2011 model, and it will be recognized by everyone as a BMW 3 Series. Whether it will generate attract additional attention for being new is another matter, although BMW aficionados will have no trouble spotting it. Park a 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan next to a 2011 model and the differences become obvious to casual observers.
For starters, the new sedans are slightly larger in nearly every dimension. The distinguishing styling difference of the new 3 Series sedan is the area around the headlights and grille. Most noticeable is that the headlights now connect to the grille. The grille on the new 2012 3 Series sedans still uses BMW’s trademark twin-kidney design but it’s shaped differently. The design changes freshen its appearance and add character. Functionally, the new fascia design affords bigger air intakes through the grille and under the front bumper. The sides of the new sedan has broader shoulders, giving it a more muscular stance.
The back seats are a bit roomier on the new 3 Series sedans. We found them cozy but comfortable for two adults, with slightly more headroom and legroom. Also, trunk space has been usefully increased by 1 cubic foot, bringing the 3 Series up to the modest standards of the class.
While the 2012 BMW 3 Series sedans are all-new, the 3 Series coupes and convertibles will continue on the previous-generation chassis through the 2012 model-year. Look for the coupe and cabriolet to be redesigned and introduced as either 2013 or 2014 models. This fall, BMW will introduce a high-performance 3 Series M Sport model with a sports suspension, an all-wheel-drive 3 Series xDrive model, and an ActiveHybrid 3 powered by an electric motor and a 300-hp six-cylinder.
The BMW 3 Series is one of the lightest cars in its class, and the new 2012 BMW 328i sedan weighs 3,406 pounds. That’s 88 pounds lighter than the previous 3 Series, says BMW, 99 pounds lighter than a comparable Audi A4, and 22 pounds lighter than a comparable Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The biggest news for the new 3 Series sedans is a return to the four-cylinder engine. The 3 Series was introduced with a four-cylinder engine 37 years ago, but for many years these cars have been powered by inline six-cylinder engines. The new 2012 BMW 335i is indeed powered by an inline-6, but the new 2012 BMW 328i uses a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4. The twin-scroll turbocharger helps the 2.0-liter four-cylinder generate 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. The 3.0-liter six-cylinder, also turbocharged, produces 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque for the 335i. We found both engines to be responsive and willing partners and either is a good choice, their advantages and disadvantages subtle. Each model offers a choice between the new 8-speed automatic transmission or a 6-speed manual gearbox, and we enjoyed all combinations, testing them out on a variety of roads and on a race track in dry and wet conditions.
BMW says the 328i can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds with 8-speed automatic or in just 5.7 seconds with the 6-speed manual. This same feat takes the Mercedes-Benz C250 a full 7.1 seconds, the Audi A4 2.0T 6.5 seconds (both equipped with 6-speed manuals). The BMW 335i is quicker, claimed capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds, with either transmission. We found the power advantage of the 335i over the 328i to be negligible in most situations. We discovered the 335i can accelerate more strongly up long, horsepower-robbing grades, important for winning lap times at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Greater torque gives the BMW 335i a more easy-going robustness when cruising around town, on back roads and on the highway. One difference: The BMW 335i purrs like a kitten when idling, the four-cylinder in the 328i clatters like a diesel. But you’re usually inside the car, so you may not care.
Fuel economy for the BMW 328i is an EPA-estimated 23/34 miles per gallon City/Highway with 6-speed manual, 23/33 mpg with the new 8-speed automatic. The BMW 335i rates just 20/30 mpg with 6-speed manual, but an impressive 23/33 mpg with the new 8-speed automatic. Premium gasoline is required for all 3 Series models.
The new cabins can be upgraded from base to three distinctive themes, Modern, Sport, and Luxury. The new 3 Series models are loaded with technology but are easy to operate. iDrive comes standard. The technology is deeply integrated yet doesn’t get in the way when you don’t want it. When you do want it, you can listen to New York radio stations in California. You can locate your car with your iPhone. You can plug into Pandora and MOG. There’s a head-up display in color.
The 2012 3 Series sedans are more comfortable than last year’s versions, offering significantly more front headroom than before (an increase of more than 1.5 inches). Back-seat riders will benefit from more rear legroom and slightly more rear headroom (like you care what they think).
Whether on the road or on the track, we found the handling response sharp and precise and braking capability excellent. Well-tuned active safety features step in to assist should you overdo it. Exterior dimensions for all 3 Series models are relatively compact, making them good cars for crowded city centers. The four-door sedan is the most familiar of the 3 Series body styles, and among the most passenger friendly.
The BMW 3 Series is the benchmark among entry-luxury sports sedans, a class that includes the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, and Lexus IS. This class is mostly rear-wheel drive, though Audi is the exception with its all-wheel drive. Front-wheel-drive entry-luxury cars, such as the Lexus ES, are comparable from a features standpoint and are similarly sized but don’t offer the sporty dynamics of the rear-wheel-drive sports sedans. All are superb cars, but the new 2012 BMW 3 Series sedans reconfirm themselves as the benchmark for their brilliant balance of performance and driving pleasure with technology and rationale.