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2012 BMW 3-Series: First U.S. Drive, Full Review

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BMW has given the 3-Series its most radical set of changes in many years, and because we—and sport-sedan owners and enthusiasts in general—so often use the 3-Series as a benchmark, maybe even the archetype for sport sedans, it’s time to take note.

Which is what we did this past week; while we got a taste a few months back, with a preview drive of the 3-Series, we’ve just returned from driving the new 3-Series models for the first time on U.S. highways, and on California’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where we put the new model through a battery of hot laps.

The new 2012 sedan models (for now, Coupes and Convertibles carry over unchanged in their current E90 form) are a few inches larger, and more loaded with tech features than ever. And with a base turbocharged four-cylinder in the 328i, a complete set of electrified accessories (yes, electric power steering), and Auto Stop-Start included through the lineup, it’s gone for the eco gold, with EPA highway ratings of up to 36 mpg.

328i gets faster, by going four-cylinder

The 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct-injection four-cylinder (N20) engine in the 328i is a sweetheart, and our slight trepidation about driving the four-cylinder 3-Series quickly faded after just a few minutes. With 240 horsepower on tap and its peak 260 pound-feet of torque available at just 1,250 rpm, it’s far more torquey AND flexible than the naturally aspirated six in last year’s base 3-Series. About the only thing that’s not delightful is the sound; with the four, you tend to hear the clatter of direct injection a bit more, in gentle driving, and the six’s toneful song has been replaced by a note that’s coarser and raspier.

But seriously, at legal speeds, the 328i feels more flexible and nearly as quick as the 335i, with its turbocharged six (300 hp, 300 lb-ft). And the numbers help tell the story here. The 328i, in manual form, can get to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds; that’s just three tenths of a second behind the 335i. And the four-cylinder 328i is faster to 60 than the E36 (1990s-era) M3.

All 2012 3-Series offer a choice between a six-speed manual or new eight-speed automatic; the automatic has super-quick yet well-damped shifts (and proper steering-wheel paddle-shifters in Sport models), resulting in an uninterrupted stream of torque that we ended up loving out on the track. Call us old fashioned, but we preferred the manual and its clean, precise shift action and clutch takeup.


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