January 14, 2008
Toronto, Ontario – For as long as I’ve been driving, the BMW 3 Series has always been the iconic rear-drive performance sedan, a decently-sized four-door offering a level of dynamics and involvement that, thanks to its layout, is mostly the realm of sports cars rather than family haulers. But these days, looking around, I’m seeing almost as many 3 Series fitted with all-wheel drive as rear-drive, those xi badges giving away the fact that buyers have spent a couple extra thousand dollars for the safety and security of four driven wheels.
And why not? In a week with the 335xi, I drove through all kinds of horrible conditions, including rain, snow, freezing rain and slush; not once was it ever less than confidence-inspiring. How much of that is down to BMW’s XDrive all-wheel-drive system is up for debate: my tester was fitted with an excellent 17-inch winter tire package which made short work not just of the snow but of pretty much everything else, too. I’ve driven plenty of rear-drive BMWs in the winter and have never had a problem with them. A combination of an electronic safety net (stability and traction control along with ABS) as well as excellent road feel and responsive controls makes for stress-free winter driving. XDrive, which adds a few pounds, a few thousand dollars and a bit of extra ride height, gives you that little bit extra confidence and capability for when the going gets really tough.
When the weather wasn’t so ugly, I made plenty of use of the 335xi’s greatest asset, its superb 300-horsepower 3.0-litre inline-six. Its twin turbochargers spool up quickly, exhibiting almost no lag and giving the six the feel and power delivery of a much larger, normally-aspirated engine. Even tricking along in sixth gear, all it takes is a mere twitch of the right toe to send this sedan flying, the power swelling as quickly as the numbers on the speedometer. In my tester, all this goodness was coupled to one of the better six-speed manual transmissions I’ve driven in a BMW; it had relatively long throws, but a much slicker action than some of the company’s other gearboxes, with a nice, high-set lever. Indeed, the only real downsides to the whole combination were a slight softness in the throttle response from a dead stop and fuel economy that went from surprisingly good (when being driven gently) to surprisingly thirsty (on sunnier days where more of the car’s performance could be exploited). That’s the price you pay for those turbos.
With a base of just over $50,000, the 335xi is not unreasonably priced given its performance and all-round capability. It’s roomier inside than an Audi A4 3.2, with a lot more power. It’s faster and marginally more fun to drive than the new Mercedes C-class (if not as good-looking). The Infiniti G35x, with its 306-hp 3.5-litre V6, and the direct-injection 3.6-litre, 300-hp Cadillac CTS probably come closest in terms of their balance of power and comfort, but they’re both bigger cars – something which you can feel on the road – and neither is available with the 335xi’s driver-pleasing manual transmission. On the other hand, if you want stuff like a sunroof, real leather on the seats and keyless ignition, you have to pony up for option packages in the BMW, while other cars offer such niceties as standard. Still, at under $60,000, my tester had pretty much everything in the book but navigation and was not much more expensive than a loaded-up G35.
One area where the BMW does fall a bit short relative both to the Infiniti and Cadillac is in the finish of its interior. While all the requisite features are present, the overall design doesn’t feel as upscale as the rest of the car – or its price. The cupholders spring out of cheap-looking frames on the passenger’s side of the dashboard, the wood trim is attached right onto the dash rather than integrated into it and the orange backlighting can make the instruments hard to read at night. You only get a big colour display, for instance, if you order up a navigation system with iDrive, something which comes as standard on the G35. (While we’re at it, it would be nice if the auxiliary audio input had a USB port as well as an audio jack, like the 135i does.)
The good news, as always, is that there are so many different 3-series to choose from. While my ideal version would probably have rear-drive, a sports package, big wheels and the turbo engine, you can just as easily spec out a luxurious, smooth-riding cruiser with all-wheel drive, and there are wagon, coupe and convertible body styles as well, should your passenger- and cargo-hauling needs be a little less conventional. They also now offer BMW’s excellent all-wheel drivetrain, meaning you can get the same confidence and sense of security baked into my sedan in a more stylish, or more practical, package.
Pricing: 2008 BMW 335xi sedan
|(premium package, $4,200; sport package, $2,000; comfort access, $750)|
|Price as tested:||$||
Manufacturer’s web site