15th July, 2012
The 3-series has been the defining model for BMW, spanning 6 generations since it first appeared in the 1970s. The latest, also referred to by its model code of F30, has been in Malaysia for a few months now, available in 3 different variants: the 320d, 328i and 335i.
Demand was so good that as usual, testcars from BMW Malaysia took a while to be available but I was finally offered a 328i recently and got a chance to see how it really goes.
The 328i runs on BMW’s latest turbocharged, 4-cylinder direct injection engines. This2-litre powerplant – no, the displacement is not 2.8 litres anymore – was first seen in the 528i and produces an impressive 245 ps with 350 Nm of torque. The engine is paired with BMW’s 8-speed automatic gearbox which was also first introduced with the current 5-series.
On the inside, the 328i gets a generous amount of equipment, a contrast from earlier generations which were somewhat bare. There’s a large LCD screen and the now-familiar iDrive controller on the centre console.
To reflect the sharp exterior features of the Sport Line variant of the 328i, the interior also sports some aggressive looking accents, such as the red stripe that runs along the dashboard and the red stitching on the seats.
New to the model line is the ECO PRO mode which helps to improve fuel efficiency by dulling the throttle response and optimising the transmission to force it to the highest possible gear. The Sport+ mode is still available, allowing drivers more ‘extreme’ capabilities if they feel they are skilled enough.
Each driving mode has a different throttle response and transmission programming; sadly, there is no adaptive suspension on the 328i, although the 335i will have it in its list of standard features.
This being actually my first time driving a petrol engine BMW with less than 6 cylinders, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The 328i is capable of rocketing all the way to 200 km/h and easily past that if you keep your foot pinned to the floor, thanks to the large amount of torque and the eight gears.
But the 3-series has not been a car to solely rely on power. It’s a car that’s gives true meaning to the term “sports sedan”, largely due to its handling and dynamics. It’s possible to make any car absurdly fast: stick a large engine in it and set it loose upon the world but it takes a skilled and passionate group of engineers to produce a car that can handle that kind of power, in addition to handling well on the limit of grip.
With this new generation however, BMW seems to have shifted their goals. The 328i seems more pliant and softer than its predecessor. The steering, while well weighted, lacks the definite feedback of a hydraulic power steering unit.
But it’s really not all that bad. Different markets have different requirements. In China, they have a long wheelbase version of the 3-series, which sells alongside the 5-series. The rationale for this is that most people want a BMW, but don’t necessarily want to fork out the cash for a 5-series.
Think of it like this. Most people here don’t need a car as big as a 5-series. The previous 3-series was just the right size for small families – and only businessmen would need the extra space that a 5 or 7-Series brings.
But the one thing that some would object to in the previous 3-series was that it was slightly stiff and could be uncomfortable at times. Unfortunately, that stiffness was part of the character of the model; it was what made the car handle like a sports sedan. It made the car sharp and aggressive, and the new 328i is somewhat different in that respect.
Yes, to attend to the needs of the majority, BMW decided to make the new generation of 3-series models handle and ride like the 5-series. It’s not an outright tragedy in the sense that the car still has very good handling ability but at the end of the day, I feel that it lacks the character of the previous generation.
With every passing 3-series, enthusiasts complain that each new model is less aggressive than the previous. Eventually the criticism stops and the acceptance begins; that’s just the way the world works.
But at least we can be thankful that the 328i still handles like a rear-wheel drive car and hasn’t lost all of its guts. Poke it hard enough and you’ll find that even though it may not be as aggressive as the previous generation, it can get you to the end of the road pretty quickly.