As BMW runs a war path with new model introductions — two gigantic, turtle-shaped crossovers a year, at this pace — they haven't forgotten where the profit margin lies. It's in the little 3 Series.
Even in the worst automotive sales climate in nearly two decades, more than 90,000 people in this country bought a 3 sedan, wagon, convertible, coupe or M last year. Young maverick-type men and attractive suburban women can't, for the life of themselves, stay away from this car. It's been like this for nearly two decades.
So BMW's getting generous. Price a new 328i like ours on their website and you'll see the "Value Package" pre-selected. It's a no-charge combo of 17-inch alloys, leather and iPod integration. In other words, BMW looked dumb selling a luxury car with 16-inchers, fake leather, and a $400 USB cable when Audi, Acura and even Mercedes do more for less.
But those front seats, now standard with real cowhide instead of "leatherette," have three clunky levers. They're manual. They don't have any map pockets behind them. There's a phone button on the steering wheel (heated for $190) to talk handsfree via Bluetooth, but it doesn't work, because this 3 doesn't have the $750 "BMW Assist" option. A few hundred more and you'll get — an alarm system.
What we've got is a $42,000 car with a lot of kit missing. Sure, there are heated seats, a moonroof, and those beautiful "angel eye" rings around the halogen headlamps (xenon costs $900). But you're left feeling BMW is still up to its old à la carte tricks. They take out everything you'd expect to find on a $42,000 car (like folding split rear seats) and know you'll add it back at premium cost.
None of the mavericks seems to have cared. Sales are up 10 percent through July this year versus '09. And I want one badly, too. Every other month, I'll peek at used 328i coupes on the internet, poking through listings to find a loaded one with a 6-speed manual and 18-inch rims off the sport package. I don't care if the 3 is the Civic of Wellesley. I can't get over how good they look for around $20K. At that price, I could deal with manual seats.
The big selling point of the 3 Series, despite what the Audi A4, Acura TSX, Mercedes C-Class and Infiniti G have come close to matching, is the drive. The base 3.0-liter six feels more powerful than its 230 horsepower suggests, and much smoother and more melodious than most V-6s. Chalk it up to the low gearing of the 6-speed automatic, which is very responsive to throttle jabs and manual paddle shifts, yet can feather around in traffic without fuss.
There's a lot of weight to the steering at city speeds — at first, that can feel burdensome — but the result is a steady stream of feedback from the road. The suspension strikes that magical balance between curve carving and comfort, and the brakes step in with a reassuring bite and pedal feel.
I used to borrow my friend's 2001 325i sedan to go on job interviews in and out of Boston, hoping the interviews would end quickly so I could go back and drive some more. His car is just as spartan inside as this 2011 (and amid the trend of button-crazy dashes and aggravating touch screens, this is a refreshing thing). But 10 model years of separation haven't dimmed the 3's personality: a no-nonsense driver's machine that's ready to hustle (with four people, in a pinch).
In M3 guise — tuned by BMW's motorsports division — the 3 Series is ready to race. At $60,000, a lot of things come standard, namely power, buttons that say "power," and power seats. Instead of the purring and humming from the 328i, the M3's 4.0-liter V-8 sounds as if all eight pistons will burst through the engine block.
Nail the M3 in second gear on a highway onramp and you'll be pressed hard into the pavement, wailing until the tachometer flashes red at 8,400 rpm. That most eyes can't tell it apart from the regular car makes the 3 Series even more desirable. Is that just a pretty red convertible? Or does it carry many potential counts of reckless endangerment? There's a 3 Series for that.
Gas mileage in the 328i didn't improve much from the M3: 15 miles per gallon over 200 miles, mostly in the city. Blame it on our car's xDrive all-wheel-drive system, which adds 221 pounds over the rear-wheel-drive car. It's hard to find a rear-wheel-drive 3 Series in New England. Believe me, I've looked. I was skeptical if xDrive would numb the handling, making the turn-in less crisp than my friend's 325i, but the rear-biased torque mitigated that. Even better, xDrive-equipped cars no longer look like they're jacked up Subarus, as they used to a generation ago.
In a few years, this 328i will be a better value. It's a fluid shape creased in all the right places, one that's designed to age well. The doors, trunk, switchgear and interior materials will retain their solid, quality feel. Given the proper care, it should run as smooth and quick as ever.
But to buy this BMW brand new? I'll check off the "Used Package."