The 328i is better than the 335i.
We are not the only ones claiming that the entry-level BMW 3 Series, fitted with a clamorous lightweight turbocharged four-cylinder engine, is more agile and tossable than its turbocharged six-cylinder sibling – it appears to many that the segment leader has been displaced by its weaker brother.
That big 'maybe,' and a whole bunch of its little 'maybe' associates, are what convinced us to grab the keys to a brand-new six-cylinder BMW and take it home for a week. Our objective was to determine why the muscular 335i, long the performance benchmark of compact sport sedans, was getting its tailpipes handed to it by its four-banger kin.
To solve the riddle, we put more than 1,500 miles on a brand-new 335i Sport configured with a six-speed manual transmission. Of course, we liked much of what we experienced, as the redesign fits the 3 Series very well. But we also exposed a few holes in its once-impenetrable armor – some big enough to let two fewer cylinders slip by. Has the quickest and highest-performing of the non-M 3 Series models really lost its top spot on the palace throne? If so, why would someone still want a 335i?
Autoblog first drove the all-new sixth-generation BMW 3 Series sedan (chassis designation 'F30') at an international event in Barcelona, Spain, this past November. Despite enjoying the seat time, Euro-savvy editor Matt Davis was only able to meet the entry-level four-cylinder 328i with an automatic transmission – the six-cylinder 335i models, and the manual transmission versions, were unfortunately not in attendance.
But we didn't have to wait long, as BMW invited us to California's Monterey Peninsula (exactly 6,000 miles from the capital of Catalonia) for introductions to the 3 Series range a few months later. Even better, they enticed us with an afternoon on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
As a brief refresher, BMW's volume model sedan is the 328i, a lower-priced variant (base price $34,900) fitted with the recently introduced turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder (engine designation 'N20'). While vocal BMW loyalists lamented the loss of the turbine-like naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six ('N52') in the recently discontinued E90 chassis, the smaller, direct-injected replacement outmuscled its predecessor by generating 240 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 255 pound-feet of torque starting at just 1,250 rpm. It is not particularly smooth - the gasoline engine oddly idles with the din of a diesel – but the N20's snappy power delivery makes the old inline-six feel tired and lethargic under most driving conditions.
Today's flagship 3 Series sedan is the 335i, fitted with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six ('N55') carried forward from the old chassis without modifications. The thoroughly modern N55 introduced BMW's advanced Valvetronic technology, and provided reduced emissions and better fuel economy when it was introduced in 2009, yet it wasn't without controversy. That's because it shoved the automaker's beloved twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six (N54) out of the engine compartment. Although measured power remained virtually identical (300 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 300 pound-feet of torque starting at 1,500 rpm), enthusiasts howled that the new N55 lacked the vivacity and performance potential of the N54 (BMW only stoked the fire when it retained the older twin-turbocharged powerplant for use in its 'high-performance' 335is Coupe, Z4 sDrive35is and 1 Series M Coupe).
Transmission choices are far less contentious, both shared by the 328i and 335i. The standard gearbox is an old-school six-speed standard, but those who are contributing to the manual transmission's demise will opt for the eight-speed automatic gearbox (8HP45) at no extra charge. All 'new' 3 Series sedans are rear-wheel-drive for now, but the 328i xDrive and 335i xDrive all-wheel-drive models go on sale soon.
Our 335i test car carried a base price of $42,400 – a smooth $7,500 premium over the 328i. The Alpine White paint and Dakota Coral Red leather upholstery were included at no charge, but the Sport Line package (sport steering wheel, 18-inch alloys, mirror caps in black, sport seats, anthracite headliner, brushed aluminum and gloss black trim) added $1,700. The Adaptive M Suspension was another $900, and the Premium Package (universal garage door opener, Comfort Access keyless entry/ignition and Anthracite header) added an additional $1,900. Stand-alone options on our test model included split fold-down rear seats for $475, heated front seats at $500, Satellite radio (with one-year subscription included) for $350 and BMW Assist telematics at $650. Lastly, a destination charge of $895 bumped our 335i's bottom line to $49,770.
First on our agenda was some back-to-back track time at Laguna Seca – an exercise that left us with our lower jaw on the pavement. In spite of being marginally slower, the lighter 328i was more nimble and energetic on the track than our heavier 335i. Credit physics: By lopping two cylinders off the front of the inline-six, the mass of the 328i dropped by 165 pounds and the overall weight distribution moved rearward (49.5/50.5 compared to 50.9/49.1 in the 335i). While the percentages appear small, the real-world difference was huge from behind each of the three-spoke steering wheels.
The 328i danced around the racing circuit, while the 335i felt... well, slightly nose heavy.
Leaving the 328i on the track, but its driving dynamics seared in our brain, we left Monterey in our 335i for an extended drive down U.S. Route 101 to Los Angeles. The highway is heavily patrolled, so we settled down to a comfortably quick steady-state 74 mph (9 mph over the limit is 'slow' enough to give the radar-happy law enforcement much faster targets to chase) and locked in the cruise control.
The seat time gave us plenty of time to fidget with BMW's electronic Driving Dynamics Control (DDC), new to the 3 Series for 2012. Standard across all models, the significant arrival allows the driver to choose between three different present configurations (Eco Pro, Comfort, and Sport) to activate different vehicle settings altering how the powertrain and steering react to driver input. On models equipped with Adaptive M Suspension (electronically controlled damping) such as ours, DDC also controls suspension settings. BMW's standard iDrive may also be used to fine tune some of the settings.
The default setting is Comfort, and most of the time it worked perfectly well, providing the driver with an attentively reacting accelerator pedal, good steering feel and comfortable damping (we expect that most owners will never touch the switch and live with it very contently). For a bit more excitement, we rocked the DDC switch to Sport and the pace immediately quickened. The throttle became noticeably more responsive, the steering gained weight (and stiffness) and the suspension noticeably firmed up – maybe a bit too much, as the highway ride got a bit too choppy on broken pavement.
Sport models, like the one we were driving, are offered a fourth mode called Sport+ that mostly mirrors the Sport settings with the exception that the intervention threshold of BMW's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) is significantly increased. For the most part, however, you would never be able to tell the difference between Sport and Sport+ on public roads.
Out of curiosity we rocked the DDC switch rearward to Eco Pro mode. Engineered to maximize fuel economy (the EPA rates the 2012 335i 6MT at a respectable 20 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, without Eco Pro engaged), the 'hyper-mile setting' heavily buffers the accelerator and reduces the workload on the climate control system, both electronically and mechanically, to save even more energy. Activated, Eco Pro mode damn-near crippled our 335i with frustratingly lethargic throttle response. It was, quite honestly, absolutely miserable to drive a 300-horsepower sport sedan in this configuration.
We finally settled on a modified version of Sport, with the aggressive engine/throttle response but damping tuned to its standard setting via iDrive. The 335i was lively, but the ride was comfortable.
In defiance of its luxury undertone, we found the cabin of the 335i far from hushed each time we took it on the open road. Wind noise was minimal, but tire howl and noise from other near vehicles was prominent in the cabin. It was as if BMW had skimped on the heavy insulation in an effort to keep weight down (with a curb weight of 3,571 pounds, BMW boasts that this is its first 3 Series that didn't gain weight generation-over-generation). On the other hand, the lightly insulated cabin did work in our favor as the pleasant growl of the inline-six was easily able to permeate the cabin at almost all speeds.
The suspension is mostly carried forward from last year's E90, but it worked well last year so change was not necessary. Up front is a double pivot independent suspension while there is a five-link independent design in the rear. Of course, BMW made a few tweaks here and there on the new model (we put the F30 up on a service lift and were surprised to notice that last year's lightweight aluminum sub-frame and rear lower control arm are both now constructed with steel), and the new 3 Series sedan is offered with electronically controlled damping (we say it is a must-have option).
Back in Los Angeles, we integrated the 335i into our busy lives seamlessly. Marginally larger than its predecessor, its compact size seemed tailor-fit for duty. We packed five passengers in the cabin, shuttled muddy teenage lacrosse players with long defensive sticks and tossed a mountain bike in the trunk. We ran errands, drove to dinner parties and sat in grueling traffic. In each and every case, we looked forward to dropping into the red sport bucket seats of the 335i and facing life's obstacles. The 335i may not be the ideal track warrior, but the 3 Series with the turbocharged inline-six absolutely slays the daily routine.
Of course we took it on Mulholland, and without a 328i in sight the 335i was a shining star. Power from the N55 is plentiful down low, and good gear ratios keep the pace spirited without frustration. Second and third gears are an absolute joy and the electrically assisted steering was nicely weighed and very accurate. The suspension, set in Sport+ mode, kept body roll to a minimum and stability control was never an issue. The standard tires on the 335i Sport are 225/45R18 in summer compound and the suspension worked them to their limit (we'd opt for the optional staggered setup for some more grip). The brakes, massive ventilated discs at all four corners with four-piston calipers up front, inspired confidence at all speeds. Reviewing its report card, the 335i earns nothing but solid marks for performance.
But why is its lesser sibling still the better sport sedan?
The 328i is objectively superior to the 335i because it is significantly less expensive, more fuel efficient, better balanced, lighter and nearly as quick (BMW says the 335i 6MT will do 0-60 in 5.4 seconds while the 328i 6MT does it in 5.7 seconds). In an un-biased and non-emotional decree, most everyone should choose the four-cylinder 328i over the six-cylinder 335i.
But many of us are not most everyone.
We found ourselves growing increasingly attached to the 335i the more we drove it. The heavier sedan lacked the tossable agility of the innovative 328i, but there was emotional gratification with the traditional powerplant over the front axle, and its mass made the 335i feel more stable and substantial on the road. Most importantly, there was the daily bliss of hearing BMW's silky inline-six whirling up to redline while its linear torque forced us deep into the seatbacks.
We have yet to meet a four-cylinder that is able to consistently give us goose bumps – and therein seems to be the calling for the 335i.