The critical acclaim the 3 Series has enjoyed year after year is all but unmatched. How does it continue to win over people who write about cars for a living? The formula is rather simple: It rewards the driver like few other non-exotic cars can, with its communicative steering, intuitive handling and a family of smooth inline-six-cylinder engines. In a market fraught with cars that offer little more than point-to-point transportation, the 3 Series' driving qualities are hard to match. We just wish there were more room in the cabin to better enjoy those qualities.
Refined Inline-Six Power
The rear-wheel-drive 328i is powered by a 3.0-liter inline-six that makes 230 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 200 pounds-feet of torque at 2,750 rpm. While the engine doesn't have the low-end thrust of the twin-turbo 335i and its unique 3.0-liter inline-six, it is smooth and flexible. The engine provides acceleration that should satisfy the majority of buyers; the run from zero to 60 mph comes in 6.3 seconds with the standard six-speed manual transmission, according to BMW. The 328i sedan gets an estimated 21/30 mpg (city/highway) with the automatic transmission and 20/29 mpg with the manual.
The manual transmission is a pleasure to shift, and the relatively light clutch pedal isn't too taxing to operate when crawling through heavy urban traffic. Like BMW's other manuals, the 328i's shifter is a bit tall for my tastes, and its throws aren't the shortest out there, but they're precise and the shifter has a slick feel. Thanks to the car's hill-holder feature, a manual transmission 3 Series is less prone to rolling backward when accelerating on an incline.
If you're not into the shift-it-yourself thing, the optional six-speed automatic is rather refined. The transmission includes BMW's Steptronic clutchless-manual mode that lets the driver control when gear changes occur, and also features a Sport mode. Sliding the gear selector into Sport brings a more aggressive shift program; upshifts happen later to allow the engine to rev higher, and the transmission downshifts earlier when decelerating to keep the engine revs up and provide engine braking. This second characteristic makes the car lurch slightly when coming to a stop, but this tendency isn't present when the gear selector is left in Drive.
Ventilated all-disc brakes are standard. The driver is rewarded with natural and progressive effort each time the pedal is pressed, and the brake system features brake-fade compensation and brake-disc drying. Brake-fade compensation raises brake-line pressure when the brakes are hot, and thus less effective, so pedal response stays consistent. When raining, brake-disc drying keeps the discs clean by occasionally touching the brake pads to them.
Hype-Worthy Ride and Handling
Just as BMW has found the sweet spot with its inline-six engines, so too has the automaker developed a suspension setup that's one of the best at balancing ride quality with handling performance. The optional Sport Package's firmly tuned sport suspension skews toward enthusiast buyers even more, but it's still fairly compliant and doesn't punish occupants.
Body roll is kept in check and the car feels planted when cornering. The standard variable-assist power steering system has a weighty feel that's well suited to the car's sport-oriented mission, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel provides the driver with a constant stream of feedback as to what the tires are experiencing at the road. BMW's variable-ratio Active Steering system is optional. Active Steering varies the degree to which the wheels turn based on changes in the position of the steering wheel at a given speed. The car turns harder at lower speeds than it does at higher ones, for example. Active Steering can also, when necessary, make steering adjustments independent of the driver to maintain car control.
The Downside: An Overly Cozy Cabin
If the 3 Series sedan and wagons have a significant downfall, it's on the inside. The issue is not one of material quality or craftsmanship, which is mostly good, but of overall roominess. The larger Infiniti G35 sedan puts its extra overall length and height to good use by offering a cabin that doesn't feel as tight as the 3 Series, whether in the front or rear seats. The G35's trunk is also slightly bigger. BMW fans will argue that the 3 Series' small size makes it the handling wonder that it is, but the larger G35 offers remarkably competitive performance in this regard.
Simulated leather seats are standard and real leather is optional. Burl walnut, poplar and aluminum trim are available. My test 328i came with sport front seats as part of the optional Sport Package. The comfortable seats have firm backrest and seat cushions and include power-adjustable side bolsters and manual cushion-length adjustment (the latter will be appreciated by tall drivers). All oft-used controls, especially the manual transmission shifter, are well within reach of the driver.
Like the front portion of the cabin, the rear half is short on room; the outer rear seats are tolerable for adults, but the backrest is rather upright. If it weren't for the cutouts in the back of the front seats, my knees wouldn't have been very happy. The lack of headroom and legroom in the center seat make this bench better suited for two. A split-folding backseat is optional.
The car's dual-zone automatic air conditioning controls are straightforward, but the standard audio system's buttons require a bit more scrutiny to learn. More troubling is the fact that the stereo's LCD screen is nearly impossible to read when wearing polarized sunglasses.
Unlike the larger 5 Series and 7 Series, which come standard with BMW's iDrive control system, 3 Series buyers can choose not to opt for the controversial system. Included with BMW's optional navigation system, iDrive controls air conditioning features, audio sources and vehicle settings in addition to navigation functions. Much of this is done via a console knob that's used to navigate menus and select settings shown on the system's 8.8-inch dash screen.
The 3 Series received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest rating — Good — in its frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side curtain airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats and an electronic stability system. Rear parking sensors are optional.
328i in the Market
The 3 Series' dynamics still lead the way among sport sedans. The G35, however, has made inroads in the 3 Series' market by offering a similar driving experience at a better value, with its powerful V-6 and longer list of standard features.
Some buyers will simply prefer the 3 Series because it's a BMW, but the fact that the automaker doesn't own this category like it has in the past means more choices for consumers in search of an entertaining sedan, and we think that's a good thing.
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