Editor's note: This review was written in December 2010 about the 2011 BMW 335is. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Ultimate Driving Machine has never come cheap, and BMW's newest addition to its 3 Series lineup, the 2011 335is, hammers that tradition home. About $50,000 gets you a stick-shift coupe with vinyl upholstery and a CD stereo incapable of fully integrating your iPod. Genuine leather, heated seats and the other niceties cost more. If BMW ran a steakhouse, it would charge extra for the sides with your filet.
Got beef with that? So did I, until I drove it.
The 335is combines outstanding performance with surprising livability, and the whole package is good enough to justify its high price — for those few who choose to pay it, anyway.
BMW has added an extra "s" to models from the Z4 roadster to the X5 SUV, and as with both of those, the 335is offers more power and racier styling cues than the standard 335i. It slots between that car and the top-dog M3, but it's closer to the 335i in terms of handling and acceleration. The 3 Series lineup also includes the entry-level 328i and a diesel-powered 335d. Depending what you get, the 3 Series can be had in sedan, wagon, coupe and convertible body styles. I drove a 335is coupe, but we've tested most of the other variants in years past. See them stacked up here.
The 335is coupe looks the part of a track-ready 3 Series whose owner has explored the aftermarket's tasteful half. The front bumper flanks a lower air dam with larger openings, designed to feed air to an additional radiator on the driver side and an oil cooler on the passenger side. The belt line adds some glossy black window trim and black mirrors, and the tail gets a lower air diffuser. Eighteen-inch wheels replace the coupe's standard 17-inchers; 19s are optional. It's worth noting that BMW offers a smorgasbord of trim combinations, and you can get something similar to the 335is' appearance on a lesser 3 Series coupe by adding various ground-effects packages.
On the heels of a midcycle cosmetic update to the 3 Series sedan and wagon, the coupe and convertible 3 Series received some modest styling enhancements this year, including a number of cues from recent BMW redesigns: the Z4's horizontal bumper strakes and the 5 Series' white headlight liners. For a fresher look that falls short of a full redesign, it gets the job done.
Rather than use the 335i's new twin-scroll, turbocharged six-cylinder, the 335is goes with the old twin-turbo six, with higher turbo boost and bolstered cooling to churn out 320 horsepower and 332 pounds-feet of torque. The car feels palpably quicker than the 300-hp 335i: It spins its rear tires away from stoplights, scoots in the passing lane at 70 mph and bellows a rich, satisfying exhaust note all the way to its 7,000-rpm redline. While the M3's normally aspirated, 414-hp V-8 packs explosive acceleration at higher revs — and in absolute terms it's significantly quicker — its comparatively modest 295 pounds-feet of torque means it doesn't get cooking until the tach needle swings past 3,000 rpm. The 335is has power to spare long before that mark.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard, and that's what we tested. BMW tweaked its gearing versus the manual 335i: 1st gear is shorter, with a marginally taller 2nd, 3rd and 4th. With short throws and precise engagements, the 335is' shifter is a lot of fun to send from one gear to the next. The shifter comes from BMW's M division, and it's a major standout over the 3 Series' standard one, whose long, rubbery throws are a low point in that car.
Optional on the 335is is the seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic that BMW typically reserves for the M3 and other high-performance cars; lesser 3 Series cars have a conventional six-speed automatic.
The 335is gets the same brakes as the 335i: large, 13.7-inch front and 13.2-inch rear discs, with standard antilock braking. The pedal delivers strong, linear response that makes it easy to stop exactly how you'd like.
Like any 3 Series, the rear-wheel-drive 335is benefits from near-50/50 weight distribution — slightly closer to it, in fact, than the rear-drive 335i coupe. The car rotates on its axis marvelously, with the sort of fine-tuned control that allows you to slide out the tail, tuck it back in line and fly down the road without having to practice much. Open it up at low rpm, and BMW says the engine can go into a temporary overboost mode that cranks out as much as 370 pounds-feet of torque. That comes in handy during those sideways moments.
The steering wheel has excellent feedback and turn-in precision. Sans BMW's Active Steering system — a pricey option that varies steering ratio, not just assist — our test car required a lot of effort to turn at low speeds. Active Steering addresses this, and it's worth looking into.
With tuning similar to the 335i's sport suspension, the 335is displays admirable ride comfort. You feel bumps on the highway, but the suspension takes the edge off them remarkably well. We drove the 335is back-to-back with a Cadillac CTS coupe and Infiniti G37 Sport coupe. The Cadillac's ride was softer, but it introduced a degree of suspension float that was absent from the other two. The G37 Sport's suspension was less forgiving all around. Goldilocks would choose the 335is, and so would we.
Little has changed inside the 3 Series over the past few years. The latest generation of BMW's knob-based iDrive controller — introduced last year — is vastly improved over earlier iDrives and comes with an optional navigation system in the 335is. Otherwise, cabin materials aren't anything special; in this segment, Cadillac and Audi have better overall quality inside. In its current form since the 2006 model year, the 3 Series' cabin is showing its age.
Some may find the highly bolstered sport seats in the 335is constraining, and their manually adjustable thigh supports leave a gap in the seat cushions that's certain to attract crumbs and loose change. While the 3 Series sedan has a rather cramped backseat for its league, the coupe's thankfully doesn't sacrifice much more space; headroom and legroom decrease less than an inch apiece, making it fairly roomy, as coupes go. The 3 Series convertible, on the other hand, loses nearly 2 more inches of rear legroom. Unlike the coupe, it's cramped in there.
Safety & Features
The 3 Series coupe hasn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The 3 Series sedan and convertible have been tested, but their results aren't transferrable. The convertible received underwhelming Marginal ratings for side impacts, but earned Good marks in front and rear tests. IIHS has not yet conducted roof-crush tests for the 3 Series convertible.
The 335is' standard safety features include dual front, side-impact and side curtain airbags. Like other 3 Series convertibles, the droptop 335is lacks curtain airbags, but its seat-mounted side airbags extend higher for head protection. It also has dual knee airbags in front. Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system are also standard. Click here for a full list of safety features.
Standard features on the 335is include xenon headlights, faux leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, power front seats, a moonroof, and a CD stereo with steering-wheel audio controls. Real leather is optional. It's standard on the 335is convertible, which costs about $8,500 more than the coupe. Other options on both include heated seats, a Harman Kardon premium audio system, a navigation system and rear parking sensors. Go hog wild with the options, and you can add well over $10,000 to your 335is' price tag.
335is in the Market
There's no praise like sales, and the 3 Series continues to be among the top-selling luxury cars on the market. In the array of options in the model lineup, the 335is is likely to remain a niche member, but it does everything it sets out to do and sacrifices remarkably little to get there. It's not inexpensive, and at its performance limits it behaves more like a 335i than an M3. But there are many drivers who don't want to wring their cars out to 8,000 rpm for maximum performance, and the 335is offers them a different flavor. I suspect enough performance enthusiasts will appreciate it to warrant its addition to the 3 Series lineup.
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