A few years ago, I drove a European-spec diesel BMW 5 Series. I walked away impressed with its power and refinement, thinking it was the kind of diesel-powered sedan an American luxury-car buyer could appreciate. We'll find out soon enough, because BMW is launching a diesel-powered luxury sedan in the U.S. for the 2009 model year, the 335d. It's not based on the 5 Series, but on the compact 3 Series platform.
Like the 5 Series I drove, the 335d sedan offers performance that will entice U.S. luxury-car buyers, along with all the driving fun you'd expect from a sport sedan like the 3 Series. What's more, it gets an EPA-estimated 23/36 mpg city/highway.
Sounds pretty good, right? It is — until the inevitable question comes up: How much? With a base price of $43,900, the 335d is about $2,000 more than a twin-turbo gas 335i, which is a fun car to drive in its own right. That premium is offset somewhat by a $900 federal tax credit, but when you factor in the reality that diesel costs more than gas these days — and is often harder to find — more than a few buyers might not think it's worth the effort to own a diesel car.
A New Look for 2009
The 3 Series received a number of styling changes for 2009. The 335d benefits from the changes, which included a restyled hood, headlights and front bumper that make for a more streamlined appearance.
There are changes to the sedan's rear styling, too, including new taillights that incorporate LEDs, and revised bumper and trunklid styling. Even though the changes may sound minor, they result in a car that's more aesthetically pleasing — and interesting — than before (see a side-by-side comparison with the 335i).
One Torquey Beast
Many U.S. drivers spend a lot of time mired in stop-and-go traffic, and that's the driving situation where diesels shine. That's thanks to their prodigious amounts of torque at low engine rpm when compared to similarly sized gas engines, which helps diesel cars feel quick from a standing start. For example, the 335i's twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder produces 300 pounds-feet of torque at 1,400 rpm. That's pretty good low-end power, but the 335d, which also uses a twin-turbo 3.0-liter six-cylinder, generates 425 pounds-feet of torque at a slightly higher 1,750 rpm.
What does this mean in everyday driving? Well, it means you feel like you have one of BMW's V-8 gas engines under the hood when accelerating from a stop or powering past another car — the diesel engine drives the rear wheels that strongly. BMW cites a zero-to-60-mph time of 6 seconds for the 335d, which is about a half-second slower than a 335i with its optional automatic transmission (the 335d only comes with an automatic, which could be a deal-breaker for some BMW enthusiasts).
There are other differences between the two cars in terms of the driving experience. In the 335d, you can hear the characteristic diesel hum in the cabin and feel a mild vibration whenever the engine is running. Neither of those things is obtrusive or excessive, but they remind the driver what kind of engine is under the hood.
If you're familiar with diesel engines, you know that in the past you sometimes had to wait to start while the car's glow plugs warmed up. That's a non-issue in the 335d, as the diesel engine fires immediately when you press the start button on the dash. The air temperature dipped into the teens during my test of the 335d, and even at those low temperatures it started like any gas car would.
Old diesel cars could be easily identified by the sooty, smelly exhaust spewing from their tailpipes, but with modern diesels, that's a thing of the past, too. Sure, we've all seen tractor-trailers and buses that look like they're burning coal based on what's coming out of their exhaust pipes, but a lot of technology has gone into cleaning up diesel exhaust. That's been done through the use of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, particulate filters and exhaust after-treatment systems.
The 335d features a particulate filter and exhaust after-treatment system that sprays AdBlue (you might know it as urea) into the exhaust, making ammonia. The ammonia acts as a neutralizing agent, changing harmful nitric oxides into water and nitrogen. With this technology, the 335d meets diesel emissions standards in all 50 states.
The AdBlue tank needs to be refilled, but there's enough of the solution onboard that BMW says it can be done at oil-change intervals (13,000 miles) in most cases. Increasingly insistent warning messages will appear when the solution is nearly depleted, and BMW says that if the car is turned off after the AdBlue tank is completely emptied it won't restart. AdBlue refills are included in BMW's maintenance program, which covers routine service and certain wear items for four years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Unlike other variations of the 3 Series, the 335d comes standard with an automatic transmission (others have a standard manual transmission). It's a good automatic; shifts are smooth, and they happen when you expect them to. The transmission includes a Sport mode that changes the shift pattern, letting the diesel rev higher before upshifting. As the diesel makes most of its power low in its rev range, however, I tended to leave the gear selector in Drive. Steering-wheel paddle shifters that perform the same function as the gear selector's clutchless-manual mode are optional.
A Handling Champ
Even though BMW put a different type of engine in the 335d, it's retained the high level of driver involvement that made the 3 Series a respected performance car — one that's used as a measuring stick when rating the capabilities of other sport sedans.
Key to the 3 Series' engaging personality is communicative steering that provides the driver with a good deal of feedback, along with a weighty feel to the steering wheel. The 335d's rear-wheel-drive chassis empowers its sporty intentions by offering good front-to-rear weight distribution.
Another important component of the 3 Series' handling abilities is its suspension tuning, which is definitely on the firm side when equipped with the optional Sport package. This package features a sport suspension, sport seats, special exterior trim and 18-inch wheels shod with performance tires.
BMW does a good job tuning the suspension so it offers enough damping to prevent the ride from getting harsh while still allowing drivers to feel the road. If the roads you regularly drive are in good shape, the Sport package should be fine.
There's little on the inside of the 335d that separates it from a regular 3 Series. The fuel gauge has "Diesel" script in the middle of it, and the tachometer redlines at a comparatively low 5,000 rpm, but otherwise you'll find BMW's characteristic use of good materials; my test car had real aluminum trim on the dash, doors and center console. Fit and finish are also befitting a car that comes with a luxury price tag.
The 3 Series isn't a big car, and its interior feels smaller than competitors like the Infiniti G37 sedan. I'm 6-foot-1 and could feel the cabin's close confines around me, but I was able to get settled. The backseat, likewise, is on the small side.
The biggest improvement by far in the 3 Series' cabin is the new iDrive multifunction control system, which is included with the optional navigation system. The system's primary interface is still a large knob on the center console, but BMW has significantly revised the menus on the dash-top screen, making it easier to move around various systems, like the stereo, and make selections. It's more intuitive overall.
The 335d's cargo area measures 12 cubic feet, which reflects the sedan's compact dimensions. The opening to the trunk is pretty large, which should make it easier to load luggage. A fixed backseat is standard, but a 60/40-split folding backseat with a pass-thru is a $475 option.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has designated the 2009 3 Series a Top Safety Pick, as it received Good overall ratings — the highest score possible — in its frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests.
The 335d comes standard with antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, an electronic stability system and active head restraints for the front seats.
335d in the Market
Diesels have a bad rap in the U.S. That's something the 335d is going to have to overcome to find success here, even though the car puts to rest the outdated perceptions people have had about diesels.
Diesels aren't the only alternative-fuel powertrains in luxury cars. Lexus, for one, is taking a different route by adding hybrids to its lineup with the likes of the GS 450h sport sedan. Like the 335d, the GS 450h exacts a price premium over a conventional gas model — it's about $3,000 more than the V-8-powered GS 460, which offers similar power — and delivers gas mileage that's 15 percent better. The 335d, meanwhile, gets 38 percent better fuel economy than the 335i, though some of the cost savings are diminished by the higher price of diesel; if you drive 15,000 miles per year you'd save a little over $200 per year in fuel based on current national averages for diesel fuel ($2.39 a gallon) and premium gas ($2.02), the latter of which is what the 335i burns.
The 335d is only offered as a sedan right now, but the 3 Series lineup as a whole is BMW's most wide-ranging — it's offered in sedan, coupe, wagon and convertible forms — as well as its best-selling. The new 335d gives the brand another way to attract customers, but even though I like its performance — both in terms of its efficiency and its power — I'm skeptical that it will attract more than a small following.
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