2012 BMW 328i Modern
2012 BMW 328i Modern. Click image to enlarge

Test Drive: 2012 BMW 328i Sport
Test Drive: 2012 BMW 335i Luxury

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BMW Canada

Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2012 BMW 3 Series

In some ways, BMW has become synonymous with inline six-cylinder engines, these Bavarians being among the last carmakers to use this particular engine layout. But in 2012, with the weight of expectations of improved fuel economy heavy on its engineers’ minds, the company has begun using its first four-cylinder engine since the late 1990s.

It’s not that a premium car can’t have four-cylinder power; Audi’s been using it in its A4 since 1996. But this is BMW, which might as well have started calling itself We Build Awesome Six-Cylinders a couple of decades ago.

The new engine is a turbocharged 2.0 L that first saw the light of day in the X1 crossover introduced last year (as a 2012 model), and then in the Z4 roadster. Any BMW whose model designation includes the number 28 now gets this motor in place of a non-turbo 3.0 L six-cylinder.

2012 BMW 328i Modern
2012 BMW 328i Modern. Click image to enlarge

So, our 3 Series test car’s 328i model name is familiar, but the engine at its heart is less so. Most buyers couldn’t care less whether the 328i (which is probably the most popular version of the 3 Series) has a four-, six-, or 20-cylinder engine, as long as it makes the car go the way a small luxury sedan should and gets reasonable gas mileage.

Some 3 Series shoppers, however, will miss the old six’s flawlessly smooth operation and fantastic mechanical soundtrack. The new four sounds good, and runs smoothly. It makes 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, increases of 11 and a big 60, respectively, compared to the 2011 model’s sixer. The buyers who do care what’s under the hood of their 3 Series will like the power – all that torque happens from as low as 1,250 rpm – but they may miss the wonderful sounds of the old six. This engine’s extra torque is more pleasing to the backside, but is less engaging to the ears; a Volkswagen Jetta GLI, with its own (less-potent) 2.0 L turbo motor, makes a more enticing aural accompaniment.

2012 BMW 328i Modern
2012 BMW 328i Modern. Click image to enlarge

An entry-level 320i model uses the turbo four too, but tuned for 181 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.

Also new to the 3 Series is an auto start/stop function that shuts the engine down when the car is stopped. Look for this to become a very common feature very soon (Kia is rolling out the same thing in its cars); if this BMW was any example, we can expect this sort of thing to get better, too, especially in $50,000-plus German sport sedans. My wife wondered why the car was stalling; later in the week, a friend of hers along for a ride asked if it was me “doing that” every time I stopped the car. There’s probably no way to make such a thing totally transparent, but many owners will appreciate the start/stop defeat button just above the ignition switch.

Also new here is an eight-speed automatic transmission. Eight gear ratios in a transmission begins to stretch the definitions of reasonable and necessary (six is enough), but if you want mechanical transparency, this ZF-built box is a model of it. Most of the time, the rise and fall of the engine note was the only thing giving away how much shifting was going on. Ratio excess or not, you can’t fault a transmission that spins the engine at just 1,500 rpm at 120 km/h.

You may be alarmed to know that the automatic is now standard spec in the 3 Series (a majority of buyers, even of a “driver’s” car like this, choose the self-shifter), but the usual six-speed manual is a no-cost option.

2012 BMW 328i Modern
2012 BMW 328i Modern
2012 BMW 328i Modern. Click image to enlarge

The combination of eight-speed transmission and the four-cylinder engine conspire to lower the 328i’s Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption estimates to 8.0 L/100 km in the city test cycle and 5.3 L/100 km on the highway; both figures are big improvements over the 2011 328i’s 11.0 L/100 city and 6.9 L/100 km highway estimates. The U.S. EPA’s more realistic figures for this new car and engine – 10.2 and 7.1 – are more in line with my experience, which showed an average of 8.6 L/100 km in a 50/50 mix of city and highway driving.

New to the 3 Series is a driver-selectable “Eco-Pro” fuel-saving drive mode that dials back throttle response, calls for the transmission to upshift early and often, and coaches the driver (fairly unobtrusively, which is nice) on how to drive efficiently. It also rewards such thrifty driving by displaying how many kilometres have been added to the car’s range on the current tank of gas.

When you’re done saving the world, choose Sport mode, and enjoy a quicker steering ratio, increased engine responsiveness and a sport transmission calibration that holds lower gears. (I originally, mistakenly, wrote that sport mode also firmed up the ride, but the seat of my pants lied to me.)

BMW claims a zero-to-100 km/h acceleration time of 6.3 seconds for the 328i fitted with the eight-speed auto, against the 7.3-second sprint for a 2011 328i with its available six-speed automatic.

2012 BMW 328i Modern
2012 BMW 328i Modern
2012 BMW 328i Modern
2012 BMW 328i Modern. Click image to enlarge

The way the 328i goes over the road is pure BMW. The ride is comfortable and well-controlled, and firms up nicely with the chassis set to sport mode; the steering delivers decent road feel to the driver’s hands, and it handles with the high-speed confidence expected from a Bimmer.

What’s less BMW-ish is what you see and feel inside the car when you’re not busy driving it. Take the iDrive display, perched on top of the dash like an afterthought. The screen that serves a similar function in the Cadillac CTS lowers out of sight when it’s not needed.

Swing the door closed after getting in, and it shuts with a cheap-sounding “thwung,” rather than the solid “whump” we’ve come to expect. I’d accept the less-solid sounding body if BMW had found a way to make this car significantly lighter, but the 2012 328i with automatic gearbox is actually 15 kg heavier than its outgoing equivalent.

Hop in the back seat and turn on one of the maplights; the entire headliner moves under the pressure of your finger on the button. (Apply enough pressure – it doesn’t take much – and you can deflect the headliner by an inch and a half, like it’s not fixed to anything.)

I’m not a BMW apologist, but I have no fundamental problem with the idea of a four-cylinder Bimmer. This engine is a good fit in the 3 Series, but if I may play devil’s advocate, I’d suggest a Volkswagen Jetta GLI as a solid alternative to this car. With a starting price of less than $30,000, it undercuts even the 320i by about eight grand and provides almost as much driving pleasure. Its engine – also a turbo 2.0 L – is less powerful than the 328i’s, but sounds better, and certainly more like the motor in a small performance-oriented sedan should.

Pricing for the 328i starts at $43,600. My tester, painted Havana Metallic with black Dakota leather inside, included BMW’s Premium, Executive and Apps packages to my tester, as well as satellite radio, metallic paint and BMW Assist, inflating the as-tested MSRP to $51,100, not including freight and taxes.

My sticking point with the 3 Series is not mechanical, but tied to its trim, which takes a step down compared to the 2011 model. This car looks like a BMW, and drives like one, but it just doesn’t feel like a BMW, and that, at least to me, is where it misses the mark.

Pricing: 2012 BMW 328i Modern
  • Base price: $43,600
  • Options: $7,500 (Premium Package (alarm system, comfort access, auto-dimming exterior mirrors, through-loading system, rear park distance control, navigation), $3,500; Executive Package (universal remote control, back-up camera, lumbar support, upgraded sound system), $1,600; BMW Apps Package (smartphone integration, BMW apps), $300; satellite radio, $450; metallic paint, $800; BMW Assist with extended Bluetooth, $850)
  • A/C tax: $100
  • Freight: $1,995
  • Price as tested: $53,195

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    Crash test results
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