328i Wins Cars.com Sports Sedan Comparo – We Go Behind the Scenes

Our friends at Cars.com had an idea. Bring together the best of the current crop of mid-size sports sedans and pick a winner. But it ‘s not the normal buff-book test. Instead Cars did what they do best; looking at the question from the consumers point of view while not forgetting the intent of the sports sedan. You can read the full story here.

Naturally, the line-up was impressive: Acura TL, Audi A4, BMW 328i, Cadillac ATS, Mercedes-Benz C250 and the Volvo S60. The winner?

As you might have expected, the 328i walked away with the crown. Great for us BMW fans, right? But what about the rest of the story. How did it win? Why did it win? And what did the folks at Cars really think about it versus the competition? These are auto writers who don ‘t live and breathe BMWs like we do. We wanted to know more, so we reached out to Cars.com Managing Editor (and long time BimmerFile friend) Dave Thomas to get his take on the test and on the 328i.

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BimmerFile: First off thanks for joining us and giving BF readers a deeper glimpse into the test. Can you tell us more about attributes of the test?

Cars.com / Dave Thomas: “Our test involved five other experts besides myself and I don’t want to speak for them and their findings. We were all asked for our favorite and least favorite attributes about each car for the results so what you see there are things that we noticed, but might not have impacted the scoring significantly. “

BF: Did the 328i surprise you?

DT: It didn’t surprise me specifically as being the best of the group and certainly many of us guessed at its mileage prowess from past experience. But many of us were surprised at just how big a difference the M Sport package made to the car’s all-around performance. Not just at the track.

On area roads it was the only one that turned mundane driving around suburbia into something that resembled fun. When we were done with tests it was the car I grabbed the keys to for driving to dinner or the drugstore.

BF: Over the years we ‘ve heard that the A4 and ATS were closing or have closed the gap on the 3 Series overall if not performance. What did you find?

DT: The A4 is a terrific all-around car and I liked it on the track more than others did. It still feels light and spry and the turbo is one of my favorites. It is showing age now as you’d expect, especially in the interior. Audi probably needs to boost power or offer a slightly better performance model or packages below the S4 to compete with what the 328i is doing. I’m not sure their available Sport Package would have helped enough here.

The ATS dynamically comes really close to the 328i. The weight distribution, steering and handling were all really remarkable. For them it is just refining the turbo and the transmission and then they’ll be right there. It is small though inside. I see it and perhaps the CLA offering these driving dynamics but sacrificing practicality.

BF: How does the price premium of the 328i effect its place in the market. Do you think its justified?

DT:The cool thing about our test is we found a price that was the average for 328i sedans listed on Cars.com. A huge sample actually. We then asked all the automakers to come in under that price and equip the cars as they saw fit. The challenge was a $46,000 challenge. Cadillac and BMW equipped their cars to that price as close as they could and Acura was not far behind. I was surprised Audi left over $5,000 on the table. It really showed in our evaluations in terms of features.

We really rate value highly in all of our challenges and for this one it was if you were getting your money’s worth. That’s why we have payment comparisons listed too.

The automakers are pretty smart about what cars they bring so the least expensive Volvo S60, which was still second fastest in 0-60 and 1Ž4 mile, had a ton of equipment like keyless entry, start, nice leather etc. It wowed the real-world couple we had.

For the BMW if you’re not an enthusiast you’d save nearly $4k on the M Sport option and fall quite nicely in the middle of the pack with a decent slate of features.

BF: You mentioned an uneven interior. What specifically did Cars.com feel could be improved upon?

DT: Again, I’m only going to speak for myself, and we were asked to list our least favorite attributes. I thought it was a perfect interior for this price. Interior quality is one of those things auto experts routinely disagree on. I mainly focus on them in terms of the price of the car or the segment they are in. None of the other cars there had a decidedly “better” interior than the 328i. Your tastes however may have you preferring the S60 or ATS more, like our test couple.

BF: We agree BMW hasn ‘t quite perfect the auto start-stop – especially on the N20 four cylinder. Who does it right?

DT: No one really does it well. Some of the better integrations are on hybrids which obviously have advantages. Trust me, the CLS AMG auto start-stop is the most disturbing thing I’ve ever encountered in a car. Feels like the car just died at the stop light with a loud clunk and stutter. Turn it off and you have zero complaints about that car.

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BF: Finally you mention the lack of feel within the controls and how BMW has lost that little by little each generation. Do you believe that today ‘s average consumer notices that and feel the same? Do you think that BMW is in danger of losing its unique position as the ultimate driving machine by that loss of a textured driving experience or do you think that most simply look at grip and acceleration?

DT: That was another comment from a single expert of the group. In fact, I really think what BMW has done with the new 3 series is remarkable. I thought the model I tested after it initially came out was a great compromise and something I’d recommend to anyone in terms of ease of driving and comfortable ride. And it had plenty of backseat room for my kids’ car seats.

Throw in the M Sport package and it is a driver’s car that is entirely livable… but might not be for everyone. So BMW has really addressed two markets with a $3,850 option. Plus… now I don’t recommend anyone opting for the 335i and its $6,000 price premium over the 328i with M Sport.

And as the test proved, it was the ultimate driving machine versus the other five we had on hand.

A big thanks to Dave Thomas and Cars.com for giving us a bit more insight. Often we read these kind of tests as consumers and take away just the results. But the reality is that, when you get a bunch of automotive writers together for a story like this, there ‘s quite a lot more that goes into the final piece. And it ‘s often more interesting for enthusiasts than what is presented to the common consumer. We also like the fact that they too agreed with our view that the 328i is the better car- something we ‘ve gotten grief for over the last year!

All photos above are courtesy of Cars.com and Joe Bruzek

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  • BimmerFile_Michael

    Love it! Drives home BMWNAs point though that the 328 is no longer “entry” level and the need for the 320i was felt (that and MB bringing the CLA).

  • Jack Black

    I don’t get why people bash on BMW, especially the 3 Series. It is the best in class and is actually a value when you compare driving dynamics and fuel economy. Volvo is the big surprise here to me, they are making a great product it seems and there is no marketing to help it along.

    My M6 represents a great deal as well considering anything comparable is a lot more money with in most cases less actual performance. That is what really matters not the cache the competition tries to sell buyers on.

    Would love to see a similar setup like this for the 5 series AFTER the refresh- that is the one car I think BMW should worry about as its dynamics really have suffered.

  • lavardera

    impressive, bringing home the best performance and the best fuel economy.

  • Evan

    Not surprised by the result. I think the F30 has taken a lot of heat for its relationship to the E90 and not so much to the competition. It’s certainly better than the competition, even if not to the obvious degree it used to be.

    The issue is that it’s not better than the E90 in terms of absolute driving dynamics- it’s this change that has caused much consternation among the BMW faithful since it appears to be making concessions in the Ultimate Driving Machine for sales with lighter steering and the like. Part of the reason I ordered an end of production E91 was that after driving the F30 back to back with my then E90, it didn’t drive as well so I didn’t want to lose the E9x chassis and wait for the F31.

    Now, when I go to buy a second car next year, the question will be if the F30/31 is better than what’s available then to win my purchase. With the 328d the chances are greater…. They’d be greater yet if they make the 320i’s sport package an option on all levels. Or at least sport seats as an individual option…