By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
CAFE — the government’s “fleet average” fuel efficiency requirements — have finally put the arm on BMW, too.
Up to now, BMW just built the cars — and the engines — its customers wanted and if they didn’t quite make the CAFE MPG cut, well, the slight extra costs (“gas guzzler penalties”) were passed on to consumers. But these costs are becoming unmanageable as the CAFE standard upticks to 35.5 MPG average by 2016. A car — like a BMW car — with a powerful but thirsty six that can’t hit even 30 MPG on the highway is a non-starter in this Brave New World of mandatory fuel efficiency.
So, sayonara straight six in the 2012 3 Series sedan.
Hello, little four — with two turbos and a hybrid-esque engine shut-down feature to further squeeze out the MPGs.
A six is still available — but it’s no longer standard. The volume version of the Three — the 328i — is now a four-banger.
And the diesel Three is gone completely. It apparently cost too much — and it’s fuel efficiency wasn’t good enough, after being gimped by US emissions regs — to make it a profitable sell here. (It’s still available in Europe.)
So, what else is new?
And is any of it good news?
WHAT IT IS
The Three is BMW’s mass-market sedan/coupe/convertible one up from the entry-level and minimalist 1 Series and slotted underneath the mid-large (and large-priced 5 Series).
This review I’ll focus on the sedan — which is all-new for 2012.
The 2012 328i with the new 2.0 liter engine starts at $34,900. A 335i sedan with the 3 liter straight six stickers for $42,400. Three new trims — Sport, Luxury and Modern — are available, each with its own exterior and interior color combos.
At the time of this review, only RWD versions of the 3 Series sedan were available — but BMW says xDrive will be here by mid-late summer.
The ’12 3 Series sedan has been heavily updated, both cosmetically and functionally — including exterior sheetmetal, interior layout, a new standard engine, new (optional) eight-speed automatic. A plethora of technology is available, including an aircraft-esque “stick shaker” lane departure warning system and hybrid-style auto-start-stop engine function in the 328i.
New 2.0 twin turbo engine is more powerful — and much more fuel efficient — than previous straight six: 240 hp vs. 230 before — and up to 36 MPG (highway) vs. 28 previously.
Classic crisp BMW — not Bangled — themes.
Roomier-than-before interior, especially the back seat area.
You can turn the Auto-stop off.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
God help your wallet when the warranty runs out — and the turbos crap out.
God forgive the government for making diesels commercially untenable in this country.
UNDER THE HOOD
The ’12 Series offers two engines — a new four and an old six.
The new four displaces 2.0 liters — and replaces the 3.0 liter in-line six as the 3 Series sedan’s standard engine. It is the first four in a BMW sedan since … well, since a long time ago.
It’s also the first twin-turbo four in a Three — ever.
The idea was to replicate — or improve upon — the power/performance of the old 3 liter six while much improving the fuel economy numbers. No question, BMW has succeeded on all three counts. The four — a full liter smaller than the six it supplants — produces 10 more hp (240 vs. 230) and 50 ft.-lbs. more torque (250 vs. 200) and 1,500 RPM lower in the powerband (1,250 RPM vs. 2,750 RPM). The net result is much speedier acceleration — zero to 60 in about 5.8 seconds with the manual six speed vs. 6.4 seconds previously — and significantly thriftier fuel-burning stats. The turbo four is capable of 36 on the highway and 24 in city driving (with the new fuel-saving eight-speed automatic transmission) vs. an unsustainable 18 city, 27 highway for the old 3.0 liter Three.
Even with the standard six-speed manual transmission, the new Three’s MPGs — 23 city, 34 highway — are still a dramatic uptick over what the larger, thirstier, six could deliver.
It’s also much better — and much stronger — than the Audi A4’s standard (and only) 2.0 liter, 211 hp engine — which tops out at 30 MPG on the highway. Ditto the Infiniti G’s standard 2.5 liter, 218 hp V-6, which musters 20 city and 29 highway — and needs 8 seconds to get to 60. Likewise, the Benz C Class comes standard with a teensy 1.8 liter four — which delivers almost-BMW gas mileage (21 city, 31 highway) but not-even-close acceleration: Zero to 60 in a lazy-daisy 7.4 seconds.
Aiding economy is a new (for the BMW Three) auto-stop function that works just like similar systems in hybrid cars. When you’re idling at a red light — and would otherwise be wasting fuel going nowhere — the car’s computer automatically shuts off the engine, restarting it automatically when you push in the clutch (manual models) or push the accelerator (automatic cars). Unlike hybrid cars, there’s an “off” button on the ignition switch that you can use to turn off this feature if you wish.
For those who don’t want the new turbo four (which by the way is not a peaky, turbo-feeling engine at all; more on this below) there’s still the 335i — which still comes with the familiar 3.0 six, with a single turbo and 300 hp. This engine is unchanged from last year and still gets the Three to 60 in about 5.4 seconds. However, it is available with the new eight-speed automatic, which bumps up the at-the-pump stats to a more palatable 23 city, 33 highway — vs. 19 city, 28 highway last year.
A bit of bad news, though. Two bits, actually.
First bit: The formerly available 335is — with full-throttle temporary overboost for the turbo and 320 hp — is no more. At least, it wasn’t on the roster at the time of this review. It was likely nixed due to its 17 city, 24 rating with the DCT automated manual transmission. BMW — like all automakers — knows that 2016 (and a government-dictated 35.5 MPG average-or-else fuel economy bar) is just around the corner. Being off by 3 or four MPGs is one thing. Being off by 8-10 just won’t cut it. Which is why the overboosted 3 liter engine was probably cut.
Also, the diesel. It’s history, too. BMW’s reasoning, apparently, is that its 23 city, 36 highway numbers aren’t good enough to convince enough people to buy it over the slightly more efficient 2.0 turbo engine — especially given the much higher MSRP of the diesel. But the factor most responsible for the diesel’s demise is the government’s emissions regs — which have crippled the economics of diesels in the United States, by rendering them much less efficient as well as much more expensive.
I’ll miss the 335d’s 265 hp, though — and even more so, it’s 425 ft.-lbs. of torque at 1,750 RPM.
There is good news, though. There’s a Sport package with more aggressive suspension tuning, including larger diameter anti-rollbars, lowered ride height and 155 MPH top speed programming — plus unique-design eighteen inch wheels plus an exterior body kit.
ON THE ROAD
The new small-displacement turbo engines — like the Three’s new 2.0 liter engine — are designed to not behave like turbo engines. Meaning, they don’t start out flat — then hit you with a sudden surge of obviously turbo-boosted hp. Instead, they behave — and sound — like naturally-aspirated (non-turbo’d) bigger engines. This is the object of having two sequentially-staged turbos vs. one big one. Boost comes on sooner — and less obstreperously. And it’s maintained throughout a wider range, instead of coming on fiercely at a certain sweet spot on the tachometer. BMW basically hoped to maintain the performance — and feel — of the old six without the six’s thirstiness.
Great success — and very nice — as Borat might say.
The turbo four Three is very quick — and very responsive, even at low engine RPM. This is an advantage of the twin turbos, which up-rate the little four’s torque output to big six levels — and give it all to you much lower down in the RPM scale. Just off idle, in fact. There’s enough torque to keep the six speed in higher gears at lower road speeds — so you don’t have to downshift as often to keep the engine from lugging as you surely would need to with a non-turbocharged, lower hp (and torque) little four.
Any downsides? Sure. At least, there are two that come to mind, one a matter of opinion, the other a matter of fact.
The opinion downside: The new four does not sound as sweet as the old six. That engine had (and still has, if you buy the 335i) it’s own unique character — and auditory signature. Straight sixes are all-but-extinct. So when you hear one at full cry, you know what it is right away. This new four sounds … well, it sounds pretty much like anything else today. The slight dieseling sound at idle (from the direct injection; they all do this) and otherwise — nothing unusual. BMW — like Volvo and others — has dialed out any noticeable turbo whistle. There’s not even a gauge to tell you the engine is boosted. Most people will probably not miss all this. But I do.
Maybe you, too.
The other issue is the turbos themselves. Or rather, the down-the-line maintenance and repair costs of having two turbos (and everything that comes with them) under the hood. I realize BMWs are high-end cars bought by people with the means to deal with such things. But it’s nonetheless a fact that ten or twelve years from now, a car like a ’12 BMW turbo Three could cost a small fortune to keep on the road.
Oh, one more thing: I don’t like the auto-stop feature. To be precise, I don’t like that you have to turn it off each time you turn the car on — if you don’t want to deal with the engine turning itself off at lights and so on. And why would you not want that? Well, because it affects the car’s smoothness. Even though the engine cuts back on almost immediately, it’s not the same — not as immediate — as the engine just being on when you want to go. You also get some vibration through the gearshift (manual cars) and you definitely don’t want the system on when you are trying to drive away muey rapido. Of course, you can then turn the system off before you launch. But it’s a small aggravation to have to do this all the time.
But, don’t blame BMW. Blame Washington and the glad-handers and strokers (none of them engineers) who issue these fuel efficiency fatwas — forcing the automakers to come up with ever-more Rube Goldberg-esque ways of complying.
It sucks all around.
Because — absent Uncle — BMW (and the others) could build — and profitably sell — 40 MPG (or better) diesel powered cars.
But, they can’t — and so, don’t.
The Three offers both electric assisted steering and (for the driving-minded driver) a traditional variable-ratio rack and pinion set-up. You can dial up different driving modes — Comfort, Sport and EcoPro — using the console controls. Each setting alters suspension firmness, throttle tip-in and other parameters: Softer and less aggressive in Comfort, firmer and more aggressive in Sport and economy-optimized in EcoPro — including the AC system, which operates at reduced performance in this mode to give you slightly better fuel efficiency. Using the mouse input on the center console, you can pull up various displays to monitor the car’s performance, including horsepower and torque peaks.
But — no turbo boost gauge!
AT THE CURB
The new Three looks leaner — and hungrier — than the outgoing model. This was achieved by pushing out (and flattening) the double kidney grille — eliminating the fill panel that used to separate the grilles from the headlights. It’s now one continuous — and slightly menacing — grin from ear to ear. The lower air grille area (below the license plate) is also one piece now instead of three separate cut-outs. This plus a subtle tapered “v” pleat in the hood that sweeps back from the blue and white BMW spinner toward the A pillars gives the new Three a lower, flatter profile — like it’s getting ready to pounce forward. The rest of the exterior continues the tuned-up theme, though the changes broadside and tail-end wise are more subtle — such as the new car’s flatter, slightly elongated tail-light lenses.
Much less subtle is the new Three’s noticeably roomier interior — specifically, the back seat area. The old Three sedan gave backseat occupants a DVT-inducing 34.6 inches of legroom — almost exactly as much (well, as little) rear seat legroom as you’d get in a Toyota Corolla — a compact-sized econo-sedan. The redesign gives your backseat riders a crucial additional 3/4 of an inch — almost enough to make it comfortable back there.
Certainly much more comfortably than the even-scrunchier backseat area of the Benz C — which gives you a less-than-Corolla 33.4 inches of legroom.
Given the new Three is about 3.7 inches longer overall and has two inches more wheelbase, I’d have expected even more spreading out room — but the extra almost-inch is welcome and definitely noticeable. It gives the new Three mid-sized livability — in contrast to compact-sized competitors like the C-Class Benz
You’ll notice some additions to the gauge cluster, including a hybrid-like “battery-power” gauge that slides right — and red — as your foot goes down, then back left — and blue — as you back off — and burn less gas.
There’s also a new take on the lane departure warning idea — instead of a chime or light, the steering wheel vibrates when you stray across the center line (or get too near the edge of the road). I call it a stick shaker — like the system in airplanes that tells a pilot he’s flying too slow and about to stall out. There’s also an automatic parallel park feature (only available with the electric-assisted power steering) that finds you a spot as well as putting the car into the spot — plus a Heads Up (HUD) display and “brake wipe” feature that engages when the windshield washers are turned on.
Want more electronic assists? The hood release is electric — pull the under-dash catch twice to release. To check your engine oil level, check the computer — there is no physical dipstick. But, you can open the trunk without using your hands — just wave your foot near the under-bumper sensor and it’s open sesame. A surround-view camera system (similar to the system used in some Infiniti vehicles) is also on the menu.
If you choose the optional Sport package, you’ll get form-fitting buckets with more lateral support. The Modern trim gets cool satin metal accents; Sport gets serious black — including black chrome exhaust tips — with red seat stitching and trim plates. Luxury trims get more chrome — and wood — accents.
The new Three has a bevy of potentially bewildering electronics — functions and displays — but the updated iDrive controller makes them all accessible and quite everyday usable, even when the car is moving. The new big-screen (6.5 inch) LCS display monitor is very helpful. But the current iDrive controller is pretty intuitive. Up, Down, Back — or Forward. Click — or Scroll. It’s pretty straightforward. Even I can use it. So you’ll probably be fine.
It’s nice that the Three is significantly larger than before — but surprisingly, only slightly heavier (3,406 lbs. vs. 3,362 lbs.) and much more fuel efficient — while also better-performing than the outgoing Three.
It’s just too bad that BMW wasn’t able to achieve all this with a diesel engine — an inherently more durable, longer-lived engine than a multi-turbo four gas-burner. And which could have given us 40-plus MPG instead of just 36. (The current Audi A3 TDI wagon gets 30 city and 42 highway.)
THE BOTTOM LINE
The new Three is objectively superior to the previous Three in some respects.