October 10, 2006
Innsbruck, Austria – Suddenly, it seems like everybody’s doing turbocharged engines again. The last little while has seen the introduction of turbocharged cars from what were previously unexpected sources: while Volkswagen and Saab – to name two – have been selling turbo models in our market for years, we’re now seeing them in Mazdas (the Mazdaspeed6 and CX-7) and even Saturns (Sky Red Line). Even Acura, a company widely associated with high-revving naturally-aspirated motors, is on the turbo bandwagon; the RDX sport-ute is powered by a 2.3-litre turbocharged four.
Now BMW has joined the turbo gang with the 335ci, the top model of its completely-redesigned range of 3-series coupes. Ever since I’ve been interested in cars, there’s only ever been one kind of engine to go into a 3 coupe, and that’s been a naturally-aspirated inline-six. So wrapping my head around the idea of a turbocharged BMW was, at least initially, a bit difficult.
Truth is, BMW has had a long history of working with turbochargers. Not only has it offered turbodiesel engines in the rest of the world for many years – including in 3-series coupes – but it has in fact been one of the major innovators of turbocharged technology in motorsports. The hottest BMW 2002 was turbocharged, and romped all over its competition; in the early 1980s, Brabham-BMWs with turbo four-cylinders were producing over 1,500 horsepower per litre.
BMW’s turbo experience shows the moment you pull away in the new 335i coupe. Though the numeric designation is a misnomer – it’s actually a 3.0-litre inline-six with twin turbochargers – the badge on the trunk actually understates the effect you get when you stomp on the gas. Thanks to their small size, the turbochargers spool up immediately, with very little appreciable lag: there’s plenty of torque to move away smartly from a standing start, and the accelerative rush doesn’t quit until you’re brushing the 7,000-rpm redline.
It’s fast. With 300 horsepower on tap, the 335 is almost as powerful as the outgoing M3, and has a lot more torque: 300 lb-ft @ 1400 rpm. BMW claims a 0-100 km/h time of just 5.6 seconds, and thanks to the way the power seems to swell under your right foot, it feels even faster than that. The exhaust note, which is muted and almost diesel-like at low revs, hardens and deepens the faster you go, with a delicious wah-wah-wah sound when you back off the throttle. More importantly, the new engine is very flexible, meaning you rarely need to work the gearbox to get past slower-moving traffic. Should you wish to do so, you’re rewarded with warp-drive sensations, an aggressive engine note and an impressive eagerness to rev.
Should your budget be a bit smaller – the 335i starts at over $51,600 – BMW Canada also offers a 328i coupe for $43,600, and an AWD 328xi coupe for $46,100, which despite their designations are also powered by 3.0-litre sixes, this time without turbochargers. The peak horsepower is a still-substantial 230 hp, though torque output is lower at 200 lb-ft. Otherwise, the set-up is largely the same: standard 17-inch wheels with the option of upgrading to a sport package with 18s or 19s (on the 335); run-flat tires and the availability of BMW’s variable-ratio active steering.
Like most BMWs, the new coupe is a flattering car to drive: its controls are slick, and their interactions mean you look like a smooth, competent driver even if you’re a horribly jet-lagged and sleep-deprived auto journalist on unfamiliar Austrian alpine passes. The cars we drove were fitted with active steering, which isn’t my favourite, but which darts the nose into corners with authority; the brakes and throttle and clutch all combine to create a driving experience that’s fluid and poised no matter what the situation. It’s easy to establish a fast, flowing rhythm in this car, the more so even when you specify the six-speed Steptronic automatic, which now comes with manual-shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel. The only major downsides to the way the new 3 coupe moves down the road are a ride that’s clumpy and can be downright rough on some surfaces (expect it to deteriorate further with the larger tire packages) and a little bit of initial softness in the brake pedal.
The new coupe’s interior will be familiar if you’ve ever sat in a 3-series sedan, but there are numerous detail changes that give it a character all its own. To begin with, the roof is lower, as is the seating position – presumably for a sportier feel. The centre console seems higher-mounted, bringing all of its controls (including the optional iDrive controller, should you order navigation) closer to the driver. And the gauges have an italic typeface, to remind you that you’re in a faster car. Other indications? The steering wheel is different – it seems to have a thicker rim – while the shifter is shorter and the seats have more side bolstering than the sedan’s. They flip forward with the easy pull of a lever to provide access to two back seats that are actually quite comfortable, so long as the driver isn’t too tall and you’re flexible enough to actually get into the seat in the first place.
On the outside, perhaps stung by the criticism levelled at BMW after the introduction of the 7-, 5- and 3-series – each of which seemed tamer than what came before – the new coupe is perhaps the most conservative yet of BMW’s current designs. It’s a beautifully proportioned car, to be sure, but it lacks the edginess that so defines the 3-series sedan or the 5-series. Indeed, from some angles it seems kind of anonymous and the standard 17-inch wheels look too small for the car. On the other hand, there are a few nice details: ring-around-the-headlight front HIDs and a plunging face that flows from the top of the hood right through the grille and into the bottom spoiler.
Lined up alongside the Infiniti G35 coupe – which, let’s not forget, will likely be replaced within the year – the new 3-series doesn’t have as much visual punch, but it does have better proportions and a higher-quality appearance. Interestingly enough, at least as a styling exercise, it’s also more conservative than the curvaceous Mercedes CLK (even if it’s a more satisfying and aggressive drive). One potential new competitor that I might not have thought of before is the new Audi TT: with its larger cabin, the availability of a 3.2-litre engine and DSG and revised styling, it encroaches on 3-series territory like it didn’t before.
Considered against this group, the BMW still sets the dynamic benchmark. Its superb turbo six is its ace in the hole alongside the typically-excellent BMW handling and great all-round ability. But its advantage in terms of design and prestige isn’t as clear-cut as it used to be. The 3-series coupe, at various stages of its life, has always been not only the best to drive but also by some stretch the best to look at and the default choice. It still is, but the competition these days means buyers shopping in the 3 coupe’s price bracket now have an awful lot more to distract them.
At a glance: 2007 BMW 335i coupe
Engine: Turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-six, DOHC, 24-valve, VANOS
Horsepower: 300 @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 300 lb-ft @ 1400 rpm
Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): Premium, NA/NA/14.2
Competition: Audi TT,, Infiniti G35 coupe
Manufacturer’s web site