First Drive: 2011 BMW 335is - Munich finally builds a special one for U.S.

2011 BMW 335is - Click above for high-res image gallery

It's fair to say that few automobiles have ridden atop their segment for as long as the BMW 3 Series has managed. Admittedly, there have been occasional frights from other German automakers or the odd Asian upstart, but it's as if Munich's engineers long ago brokered some sweetheart deal with the devil, so total has been the range's dominance. All of which has made it particularly tough for U.S. enthusiasts, as we've seen seemingly dozens of tempting higher performance specials and intriguingly efficient offerings pop up over in Europe and elsewhere, yet these models never seem to make their way into U.S. showrooms. Forgive us, then, for being slightly giddy at the prospect of this 335is, the first North American exclusive 3 Series in, well... eons.

Based on the freshly facelifted sixth-generation 3 Series, the 2011 335is will be available in both coupe and folding hardtop convertible forms beginning this spring – but we just couldn't wait that long to get behind the wheel. Thankfully, BMW was kind enough to slip us the keys to a pre-production example on Portugal's Estoril raceway as a dessert course of sorts at the launch of their new 5 Series sedan. Follow the jump to read our full slate of impressions.

Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc. / BMW

Interestingly, having just sat through a press conference detailing the many virtues of the 5 Series' new 3.0-liter N55 single-turbo inline six, we were a bit surprised to hear that the 335is harbors a newly developed iteration of the "old" twin-turbo N54. Surprised, yes, but not disheartened, as we'd still happily get out of bed for an N54-powered waterpick.

BMW is positioning the 335is as an appealing option for club racers – presumably those who can't afford an M3 – and for those who normally raid the aftermarket's parts bin. To that end, Bimmer's boffins haven't just fortified the boost and left the rest of the drivetrain package to fend for itself – they've fitted a higher-capacity cooling fan, mounted a supplementary radiator behind the left air intake and bungeed an oil cooler on the right side for good measure. To take advantage of the system's more robust cooling capabilities, a resculpted lower fascia with bigger inlets has also been specified. And although our prototype tester doesn't show it, by the time they reach dealerships, BMW promises that only models with the folding hardtop will receive foglamps – the coupe's will have been purged in favor of larger air openings.

Thanks to those upgrades in cooling and better breathing, BMW has been able to ratchet up the boost to 11.6 psi (up from 8.7 psi in the standard 335i). Thus, as tuned for duty in the 335is, the N54 rustles up 320 horsepower (+20) and 332 pound-feet of torque (+32) riding atop stiffer engine mounts, with the added party trick of an overboost mode that maxes out at 14.5 psi, delivering 370 lb-ft for up to seven seconds.

That bounty is funneled out to the rear wheels through the buyer's choice of a six-speed manual or seven-speed Double Clutch Transmission (DCT), marking the first time that a twin-clutch gearbox has been offered in a non-M 3 Series. The same basic motor also appears in BMW's forthcoming Z4 sDrive35is, albeit conjuring up a sliver more power (335 hp/332 lb-ft.).

How will you spot a 335is on the street? Exterior changes include the updated head- and taillamps and restyled grilles that are shared with the rest of the 2011 3 Series range, but the 335is gets a few malefic telltales in the form of ferric gray 18-inch alloys, gloss black kidney surrounds and mirror caps, black window trim, a handful of special badges and most importantly, a pair of black chrome exhaust tips poking out 'neath a functional rear diffuser. BMW tells us that while the new exhaust system is less restrictive, they admit that by itself, it doesn't really do anything to further enhance the 335is' performance figures. No matter. What those charcoal pipes do accomplish is a heaping helping of aural engagement, sounding significantly huskier than a garden-variety 335i – even at tickover. Hearing the freer-breathing exhausts caroming around Estoril while standing in pit lane was enough to forgive the Portuguese day's unfortunate gray skies and oppressive dampness, and the added audio inside the car was an even more welcome treat.

Being holistic sorts, BMW has also firmed up the springy bits underneath to help deal with the 335i's added aggression. An off-the-rack M-suspension pack drops the ride height by 10 millimeters and stiffer shocks and springs have been substituted, all particularly welcome changes in light of the fact that we had only ever driven on the circuit once before – and that was the previous afternoon. Interestingly, at 13.7-inches up front and 13.2-inches out back, the brakes have been left alone, though we've never had reason to doubt the 335i's binders in the past.

BMW says that the upgraded engine hardware is good for 0-60 in as little as 5.0 seconds for a coupe paired to the DCT gearbox. Row the gears in the fixed-roof variant yourself and you're looking at a 5.1 seconds. The convertible is a tenth of a second slower, regardless of transmission choice. It's important to note that BMW has a history of underreporting engine power figures and being conservative with its performance estimates, and judging by the acceleration we felt under suboptimal traction conditions – and the fact that DCT cars will be equipped with launch control (something with which our prototypes were not yet equipped) – we're guessing that the 335is is actually capable of clipping 60 miles-per-hour about a half-second quicker than BMW is letting on. Regardless of whether you specify a fixed or folding roof, the 335is packs it in at 150 mph.

More important than raw numbers is the way the 335is feels and behaves, and in this regard, we've only whetted our appetites with a limited amount of laps at Estoril with both the DCT and manual (these prototypes were sadly not plated for street use). Even given our limited time and closed course conditions, we can tell you that we like what we see so far. The 3 Series has always had exemplary balance, and the 335is is no exception, only now it has significantly more power to lunge from the apexes. Out on the circuit, the surplus torque offered by the temporary overboost function allows one to gloss over most track virgin mistakes – braking too early (or too late), or taking a bad line through a corner, and even if you get it spot-on, you'll get there that much more rapidly thanks to the extra power. We're pleased to report that the DCT seems particularly well-suited to the 3 Series' character, and it's similarly fine work on the track, being quicker than the (still excellent) tripedalist setup, especially as it allows for both hands on the wheel at all times.

Speaking of the steering wheel, on the 335is, it's an M Sport piece, as is the shift knob and matching sport seats. Other model-specific frosting includes an anthracite headliner, stainless pedal pads and footrest, along with special badging calling out the model name on the dashboard, tachometer and door sills. Like all 335i coupes, this new model comes with a moonroof as standard fit, something sure to please sybarites but potentially aggravate those who don't want the extra weight and higher center-of-gravity on the racetrack. BMW promises us that it's considering making the roof a delete option, but opting out isn't likely to save any money.

Speaking of money, we note that when Autoblog first revealed the official specs and pricing of the 335is, many readers balked over the price tag: $50,525 for the fixed-roof and $59,075 for the drop-head, with both prices including destination charges. We won't argue that BMW's asking for premium dollars, nor will we debate that they can get jarringly expensive after visiting the options list. Even still, the 335is doesn't strike us as a bad deal when analyzing the rest of the 3 Series lineup.

Think of it this way: a 2010 M3 coupe starts at $58,400, to which you must add $875 for destination and a further $1,300 for gas guzzler taxes (a 2011 model has not yet been announced). Total cost? $60,575 – before options. Yes, the V8-powered M3 offers significantly more horsepower (414), but does so at a skyscraping 8,300 rpm and has a comparative dearth of torque – 295 vs. 332 pound-feet – and that's without considering the 335i's massive overboost. What's more, the 335is' full measure of twist is available from just 1,500 revs, while the M3's eight-pot needs to be spinning more than twice as fast at 3,900 rpm. Lest we forget, despite its carbon-fiber roof, it also weighs a smidge more.

Don't get us wrong – we love every inch of the M3's sniper-like precision – it remains a fantastic car and an unrivaled piece of trackday artillery. But out on the street, you really do have to rev the Mobil 1 out of the V8 in order for it to feel genuinely quick. That's not to say that doing so is a chore, but for many drivers, the high-revving soundtrack can get tiresome on a day-in, day-out basis and the M3's care and feeding aren't exactly cheap. The 335is offers club racer competence swathed in a more relaxed, more civilized package with comparable levels of real-world thrust – all while leaving a couple of vacations' worth of coin in your bank account.

On the other end of the spectrum, an unadorned 2011 335i coupe runs $43,525 (that's $42,650 plus $875 for postage and handling), meaning that it costs exactly $7,000 less, but that doesn't include the 335is' additional standard equipment like the $1,550 sport pack. By our count, the cost difference at that point is $5,450, an amount that strikes us as a distinctly fair tariff for the new model's additional performance and kit. (The convertible's pricing premium is admittedly rather harder to swallow, but the same tough math applies with the 328i and 335i).

The first wave of 335is convertibles is slated to hit U.S. dealers in March, with the coupes to follow in June. Here's hoping that enthusiasts line up to buy them – if only to give BMW executives a good reason to offer more high-po specials and foreign-market forbidden fruit in the States.

Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc. / BMW

Share This Photo X