You don’t have to cover the automotive beat all that long before you notice that whenever manufacturers reveal a new compact luxury car they’re all but certain to compare it to the BMW 3-Series. And the Bavarian classic deserves its iconic stature. It’s not just handsome and well-appointed but delivers the sort of on-rails handling and neck-snapping performance that other marques can only hope to copy. At least it has until now. But would BMW come through once again with the sixth-generation 3-er? That’s the question that sent us out to California’s Monterey Peninsula to test drive the latest update.
It may be the most fearsome piece of tarmac on the planet, a series of quick 90-degree turns, including a blind downhill plunge on the backstretch of the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. It’s the sort of situation that can put fear in your heart—unless, of course, you’re driving something as confidence-instilling as a BMW 335i.
These days, motorists seem to want it all—everything from performance to mileage, leather seats to high-tech infotainment systems. And so, at least on paper, the 2012 BMW 335i is the most sophisticated compact sedan the German marque has ever developed. It’s also the biggest, the Gen-six 3-Series growing 3.7 inches longer and just a wee bit taller and wider. Thankfully, BMW engineers went to extraordinary lengths to make sure it didn’t get heavier in the bargain.
Visually, it doesn’t look all that different, save for the subtle tweaks to the nose, where the classic kidney grille has a more sculpted and windswept appearance. But BMW has put the extra length to good use inside, where the cabin boasts a more spacious feel without abandoning the driver-centric layout that has long defined BMW design. The 2012 3-Series now comes in four distinct packages, including the distinctive “Modern,” with an interior that might have been penned by Architectural Digest, as well as the new M-Sport, which lifts many of the performance and styling features normally found only on an M3.
But what’s generating some controversy with the debut of the 2012 3-Series are the features you’ll feel, rather than see, including the new electronic power-steering system and the new turbocharged, inline-four engine on the base 328i. By our seat-of-the-pants judgment, there’s slightly less road feel than with the old model, but only the most sensitive drivers will notice, and the overall driving experience is as confident as ever, even on the Laguna Seca corkscrew.
The new electro-steering, by the way, is just one of the new features of the 3-Series designed to deliver notably better mileage. There’s also Stop/Start, which instantly shuts off the engine when idling and fires it back up when you lift your foot off the brake. For maximum efficiency, shift the Driving Dynamics Control into Eco mode. But we’re betting most 3-Series drivers will leave the DDC in Sport or even Sport+ most of the time.
While a few purists might kvetch about the added inches and high-tech features, the reality is that BMW has found a way to maintain its position as the benchmark of the luxury compact class. The rest of the industry still has a target to aim for.