It was just two months ago that we first drove BMW’s all-new 3 Series on the sun-soaked roads of Spain. Of course, we only got to sample the new four-cylinder 328i back then (along with the not-for-us 320d), and every last one of them was equipped with a sport package and an automatic transmission. Last week, just before the newest 3-series range started rolling into American showrooms, BMW finally turned us loose with the six-cylinder 335i; they also let us do the shifting ourselves as we got reacquainted with the 328i on home turf.
Our trip to Spain last fall found us driving the 328i at Circuit de Catalunya, the famed road course that plays host to Formula One’s Spanish Grand Prix, as well as the scenic mountain roads that surround it. To complement the first spectacular drive, BMW chose none other than Laguna Seca Raceway (sorry, Mazda) near California’s central coast. Aside from the parallels between the two legendary road courses, the coastal and valley roads between Monterey, Salindas and Big Sur offer the same kind of undulating, winding asphalt that made the Spanish countryside perfect for first exploring the dynamics of the F30’s chassis and powertrains.
In keeping with a long tradition, the new 328i and 335i have more in common than not, engines being the major differentiator. We’ve already chronicled most of the F30’s new features – including the new Modern, Luxury, and Sport equipment ensembles – so we won’t cover old ground recapping them. Instead, let’s get you into the driver’s seat of the new 335i and head out down the road.
On the Road
While the new 328i gets its motivation from the all-new N20 four-cylinder, power for the 2012 335i comes from the same engine that powered the outgoing 335i. Namely, the single-turbo N55 engine, sweeping 3.0-liters of volume and making 300 horsepower at 5400 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque from 1500 to 4000 rpm. And just like before, the standard-issue gearbox is a six-speed manual. This combination is one we’ve become quite familiar with in the last couple years as BMW has gradually worked into the 135i, 535i and 640i. Clutch take-up is light but predictable and the shifter feels accurate, if not outright precise or completely sporty. Not surprisingly, the experience feels immediately familiar, even in the minty-fresh F30 chassis.
The optional automatic gains two additional ratios, however, for a total of eight. BMW refuses to break down the numbers on how many manual 3 Series it still sells, allowing only that it falls in the “double-digit percentages,” but suffice it say that automatics make up with vast majority (and growing) of sales. The new eight-speed is exceptionally quick shifting and seamlessly smooth in its delivery, while delivering significantly better fuel economy that the six-speed it replaces, and in sport mode is pretty flawless for an assertive road blast. Manual shifting is quick and precise, and the optional steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters actually speed up the shift times even more. For drivers forced to compromise on the third pedal, the auto ‘box is a really good choice (and a no-charge option), though manually shifting through all eight gears becomes tedious after a while. Equipped either way, the new 335i gets to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, one tick slower than the old manual and a tick quicker than the old auto.
The F30 chassis, as we already discovered, marks a decided improvement over the outgoing E90 platform. Its stiffer monocoque allows for more compliant suspension tuning without adding to body roll, an ideal combination for the definitive sport sedan. The added weight of the six-cylinder out front (133 pounds for manual, 165 pounds for auto) can be felt when compared back-to-back with the 328i, but otherwise the 335i feels like a sharper version of the model it replaces.
BMW figures it will sell one new 335i for every three new 328i’s here, but the bigger engine – particularly when paired with the automatic – makes the 3 Series feel more like the near-luxury car that its $43,295 base price portends. Paired with the new Luxury Line equipment ensemble, the 335i looks and feels like a compact 5 Series, which it very much is. With the Sport Line equipment – or better still, the M Performance package – it transforms into the kind of asphalt-kicking sport sedan that makes us pine for our own private stretch of Autobahn.
On the Track
As we discovered at Catalunya, the chassis of the F30 is exceptionally neutral for a five-passenger sedan, so long as you select the appropriate setting in the drive control menu. While “Sport +” may look like the right option – throttle response is sharper, the dampers stiffer and the steering firmer – you’ll actually want to go one step further and defeat the stability control to unlock the chassis’ true brilliance. While Sport + certainly makes the 335i a more engaging machine, allowing less experienced drivers to flirt with the idea of steering the car with the throttle, it ultimately errs on the side of understeer when cornering forces approach the limits of adhesion. A few degrees of slip angle are allowed, but not enough to even begin to impress a Formula D judge.
Once the cheat codes are entered and its potential is fully unlocked, the 335i becomes a track animal, eager to exit corners and attack long straights. Enter a corner quickly, and the additional weight of the six makes itself known compared to the 328i. Thankfully, bigger brakes (13.4-inch versus the 328i’s 12.8-inch rotors in front, 11.8-inch versus 13.0-inch in back) are better able to deal with additional speed it picks up between corners, and there’s always an ample supply of torque on hand to help address any missteps coming out of a turn.
At the track, the six-speed manual really shines. Not only is the direct engagement more satisfying, but also the absence of those two extra gears means less shifting. On most of Laguna Seca’s straights, the automatic-equipped car needed one final upshift (to fourth in most cases) just before reversing course with a downshift following hard braking into a corner. The six-speed, by contrast, was just able to hold onto third (as in corners 6 and 7, for instance) negating the wasteful upshift-downshift scenario.
Naturally, the Sport Line makes a big difference at the track as well, benefitting from staggered front and rear tire sizes, not to mention stickier summer-compound performance tires. Luxury Line models were on hand for track excursions, and without the aid of the upgraded rolling stock, well, it just wasn’t the same car.
The Bottom Line
The 2012 BMW 335i remains the very definition of a German sport sedan: powerful, agile and balanced with an air of sophistication and just enough luxury to remind you of its provenance. It will remain the model of choice for those who demand the power and prestige that come with the top model, as well as those looking for a blank slate on which to build an all-out hot rod of a BMW. On the open road, it edges out the 328i for refinement, though not by a lot. But drivers who value chassis dynamics as much as outright power may find the lighter, better-balanced 328i is a more entertaining car to drive, particularly at the track.
Note: This review comes courtesy of our good friend Bryan Joslin who ‘s day to day job is running the show over at Kilometer Magazine