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Driving the new 3 Series: What happened to BMW?

Consumer Reports News: April 03, 2012 03:08 PM

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Most people know that for years, BMW's marketing tag line has been: "The ultimate driving machine." For a long time, this strong statement was appropriate. Now, I'm not so sure. After taking our new, redesigned 2012 3 Series over hill and dale during the last few days, I'm thinking the thrill is gone.

This is a big deal for me. I've been a 3 Series enthusiast for decades. As a former proud owner of a 1977 320i and a card-carrying member of the BMW Car Club of America, I was no stranger to the cult of BMW-even well before joining Consumer Reports. And as a CR test engineer, I've tested and evaluated examples of nearly every 3 Series made in the last 20 years.

Core attributes such as great handling agility, taut body control, and right-now responses to all driver inputs have defined what makes a BMW, a BMW. Comfort, refinement, interior quality, and fuel economy have been the icing on the cake... or Bavarian cream, if you insist. It's no surprise, then, that BMW has been held in high esteem among competing car companies' engineers, as well as by many of my colleagues in auto journalism around the world.

We bought a new-for-2012 328i for CR's test program--the volume model. It may very well prove to be a good car by just about any objective measures, but does this version put a smile on my face? No.

Here's why:

The standard, creamy-smooth 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine has been replaced with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Even though it's rated at 240 hp, with 10 horses more than the old Six, there is a difference of night and day in the character, sound, and power delivery. At idle, this four-cylinder sounds like a diesel. Incidentally, with its eight-speed automatic, the turbo's 0-60 mph acceleration times are about a half-second quicker than with the old Six mated to a six-speed automatic, but in the real world, you'd never know that. Gone are the effortless linearity, flexibility, and tractable throttle response.

The direct and communicative hydraulic steering that once helped define 3 Series driving feel has been replaced with an electrically-assisted setup. While quick and well-weighted, it is no match for the liveliness and precision of the previous generation's. Most of the driving frustration manifests itself on country roads with frequent steering reversals that don't stray more than 5-10 degrees of center. In those conditions, this 3 Series feels detached and imprecise. That's a clear departure from the engaging, communicative feedback of previous model.

In order to maximize fuel economy, the 3 now uses ZF's excellent eight-speed automatic. Nothing wrong with that. In addition, it has an idle shut-off feature. Nothing wrong with that in theory, if only it restarted smoothly and without the shake that makes you think someone just rear-ended you. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for reducing greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil, and to be fair, the 328i registers near 30 mpg on its trip computer without even trying. But what is the price for efficiency?

So has BMW sacrificed its major cash cow and the industry's sports-sedan poster child on the altar of efficient dynamics? This 328i points that way, based on my initial miles behind the wheel. Let's hope that the 335i (which carries over the 300-hp, straight-six-cylinder engine), optional sports package-equipped versions, and the upcoming M3 will reveal a real BMW that lives up to, and perhaps exceeds, expectations.

We'll learn more about the 328i as it progresses through our program, going through the gauntlet of more than 50 tests. When it comes out the other side, we'll state definitely how it measures up.

Related:
Just in: 2012 BMW 328i - Not the ultimate car buying experience

Gabe Shenhar

   

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