Reviews

2011 BMW 3 Series Driving Impressions


The BMW 3 Series offers rear-wheel drive and manual transmissions in a class filled with front-wheel drive and automatics.

BMW's xDrive permanent all-wheel-drive system, available in all but the 3 Series Convertible, greatly enhances all-season capability. xDrive delivers most of the power to the rear wheels most of the time, maintaining the sporting feel associated with rear-wheel drive, but it's great for getting the 3 through the worst winter slop without dramatics.

We found the 328i models fun to drive, with linear power and good throttle response that made us feel a class above other cars in traffic. With a quick 0 to 60 mph time of 6.3 seconds, few will feel short-changed on performance. Fuel economy for a 328i sedan is an EPA-rated 18/28 mpg City/Highway.

The 335d sedan is powered by an ultra-high tech, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder diesel engine, with features such as all-aluminum construction, high-pressure direct fuel injection, and a turbocharging system that employs both small and larger turbochargers for optimum response at low and higher speeds. EPA mileage ratings are 23/36 mpg City/Highway, which is considerably higher than the gasoline-powered 335i. Diesel fuel can sometimes cost more than gasoline, though, negating some operating cost savings. The diesel generates fewer exhaust emissions than many gasoline engines and it produces less carbon dioxide.

The 335d diesel, which is only offered with the automatic transmission, also provides a lot of power: 265 horsepower, with a whopping 425 pound-feet of torque. There's so much torque, even a casual jab at the gas pedal can spin the rear tires substantially exiting a parking lot. Once a driver gets used to the throttle, however, the 335d's torque can be a joy. In short bursts of say 100 ft, it will accelerate more quickly than just about anything on the road. It goes from 0-60 mph in 6.0 seconds, which is just four tenths of a second slower than the gas-fueled 335i with the automatic transmission. The diesel delivers the performance-oriented kick that has long been a 3 Series trademark, with none of the smoky, oily, stinky quality that old-time diesels might condition buyers to expect.

The 335d does have some shortcomings. It clatters more when idling, especially when it's cold. It's louder and rougher in general than the gasoline engines, and it's not as smooth as the latest diesels from Mercedes and Audi. It also requires urea to meet 50-state emissions standards. This ammonia-like substance is stored in an onboard reservoir, and the tank should be filled at typical oil change intervals. Still, if the tank runs dry, the 335d won't restart until it's replenished with urea. The 335d is quite expensive, so it may not appeal to anyone but the hard-core diesel enthusiast or environmentalist.

The 335i comes with a turbocharged 3.0-liter. 2011 BMW 335i models change from a twin to a single turbo, mostly to improve fuel economy. It makes the same 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque and BMW says that power is delivered slightly earlier to provide even better response. A twin-turbocharged version is also available for 2011. It's a tuned version of last year's engine with more boost pressure, and it's offered in the new 335is models. It makes 320 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque.

We found the single turbo in the 2011 BMW 335i delivers amazing thrust, as did the previous engine. Turbo lag is nonexistent, and 0-60 mph comes quickly, just 5.4 seconds with the manual transmission. The 335i's Valvetronic system, which eliminates the need for a throttle plate, makes fuel economy equal to or better than the naturally aspirated 328i. A 335i sedan is rated at 19/28 mpg City/Highway with either the 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission.

The 335is provides better performance but worse fuel economy. Boost is up from 8.7 to 11.6 psi, and there is an overboost mode that increases torque to 369 pound-feet for up to seven seconds by temporarily raising maximum boost to 14.5 psi. The extra power cuts the 0-60 mph time to just 5.0 seconds with BMW's 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission (DCT), which was previously only offered in the M3. The 335is coupe is rated at 18/26 mpg with the manual and 17/24 with the DCT. We also like the engine note. BMW has tuned it to a low burble that sounds menacing.

The 2011 BMW 335is also features new steering wheel shift paddles when paired with the DCT. Instead of pushing down to downshift and pulling up to upshift, the 335is has the more common, easier-to-use setup that downshifts on the left and upshifts on the right. We prefer this design. It just seems more intuitive.

If we had our choice, though, we'd opt for the manual transmission in any BMW. The connection through the manual allows the driver to more thoroughly exploit the goodness in the 3 Series engines. Clutch-pedal effort makes taking off easy, without having to think about it, and the gear ratios are perfectly spaced for either the base or turbocharged engine. During a casual drive through the countryside in a 335i coupe, we were content to leave the manual in third or fourth gear, depending on the road, and enjoy the scenery as the engine's broad power band kept the momentum flowing.

In a more aggressive mode of travel, with the throttle down, working the gearchange frequently to keep the engine near its power peak, the 3 Series manual shifter falls short of the car's overall high standard. The throws are shorter than ever, but the gears engage with a vague, slightly stretchy feel. It's as if the engineers tried cramming slots for six forward gears into a shift pattern more properly proportioned for five. Coming back down through the gears, drivers must take care if they choose a gear out of its normal sequence (fifth to second, for example), as this requires some careful aiming.

For those who prefer not to deal with a clutch, the 6-speed automatic works very well. We found it can be a bit slow to react with an appropriate gear change in Normal mode, but leaving it in Sport mode solves the problem, with a slight payback in more abrupt shifting. Then there is the Steptronic manual mode, which allows manual gear selection. No problem with shift response when you do it yourself, and the optional steering-wheel paddles (the old kind in non 335is models) mean you can manually shift the automatic without removing hands from the wheel.

Beyond strong engines, every car in the 3 Series lineup is characterized by an excellent balance of ride quality and handling response. For 40 years, this has been the prototypical sports sedan. It's about as close as you can get to sports car driving dynamics in a more practical car, yet the fun never comes at the expense of beating up the passengers inside. The current 3s are superbly balanced, and in the right circumstances they're sinfully fun to drive.

The steering is light when it should be, at low speeds, with proper resistance and feedback at higher speeds. Nearly equal front/rear weight distribution leaves the driver in full command of where the car goes when, with a nicely tuned stability control system to keep watch should a driver venture beyond his or her capabilities.

The 3 Series suspension layout features double-joint aluminum control arms in front and a five-link fully independent system in the rear. This is trick stuff, but it's nothing compared to the electronics that manage everything. If something is amiss, BMW's Dynamic Stability Control system senses that a particular wheel is losing traction, then applies the brake at that wheel or reduces engine power in an effort to keep the car going in the intended direction.

Some buyers may worry that BMW's firmer Sport suspension, standard in the 335is and some coupe models and optional otherwise, makes the ride too harsh. We found in most cases, it does not. With its tight, rigid body structure as a foundation, the 3 Series suspension can be fine tuned to provide the dynamic handling enthusiast drivers like without sacrificing a smooth ride that pleases passengers. The Sport suspension may be jolted by potholes, but it responds immediately and maintains a level ride rather than seesawing up and down.

Still, many drivers will find that the Sport suspension borders on stiff, and especially in the convertible, where it can emphasize the shimmies inherent in a fairly heavy, open-top car. Given the overall competence of the standard suspension, the Sport package could be considered an unnecessary expense. If you're not sure which you want, we recommend the standard suspension.

For drivers more interested in sunshine and wind, there is the convertible. We found cowl shake and body flex are better contained in the 3 Series convertible than they are in the Volkswagen Eos or Volvo C70. The open-top BMW 3 is as solid as convertibles go, however, the owner will experience little bits of twisting and shaking that would not be felt in the sedan, coupe, or wagon. It's simply the price paid for wind in the hair.

The good news is that noise levels in the convertible are low, top up or down. Top down, air flow is channeled in a fashion that allows front seat occupants to converse easily at freeway speeds. Top up, no surprise, it's as close to a coupe as it can be without actually being one. There's the slightest whistle from the seams between the top's pieces, but the thick headliner quiets almost all outside rumble.

Braking is excellent in all 3 Series models. The large brake calipers and rotors deliver more clamping force than most competitors. And thanks to BMW's electronic management, the brake pads move within a hair of the rotors if the driver suddenly releases the gas pedal, even if the driver hasn't yet considered slamming on the brakes. The pads also lightly sweep the rotors every few seconds if it's raining, just to be sure there is no significant moisture build up. Again though, the slick electronics come with a payback. The non-linear, progressive algorithm that controls the brake system can make smooth stops a challenge in casual driving, at least until the driver has had time to get familiar with the feel of the brake pedal.

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