As it's one of BMW's lower-end cars, buyers of the BMW 328i have, in the past, tended to be less serious about driving and more into the status of the blue-and-white roundel. As such, the 2012 BMW 328i's focus on fuel economy would seem a boon to this demographic, who would otherwise be perfectly content driving a Camry.
But the technology that gives the new 328i its very good fuel economy may be either beyond the comprehension of this traditional buyer, or prove too disturbing in daily driving. Beyond such cool features as direct injection, a twin-scroll turbo, and BMW's double-Vanos system, the car's idle-stop system may feel a little rough for someone who gets the car more for a luxury sensation than for its responsive driving character.
BMW fits the 328i with a system that shuts down the engine at traffic stops. And unlike the system in the Buick LaCrosse I tested recently, BMW's starts with a shudder, the engine making itself felt when I lifted a foot from the brake. Likewise, the fact of the engine shutting down when sitting at stop might send more casual drivers into a panic, looking for the emergency flasher switch and the number for AAA.
Although BMW says it uses an electro-mechanical power steering system, the wheel becomes immovable when idle-stop kicks in, something I would expect more from a hydraulically boosted system. At one stop, as a strength exercise, I pulled the wheel hard, moving it half an inch, at which point the engine kicked back to life as it sensed I needed the power-steering boost.
BMW makes idle-stop defeatable with a button near the ignition, useful for situations such as stop-and-go traffic. Working as a complement to idle-stop is BMW's regenerative braking system, converting stopping energy to electricity to run various car systems when the engine is off, and reduce alternator drag on the engine at speed.
The complexity of those systems is enough to make engineers salivate and send status buyers scrambling for a copy of E Magazine. But it does not stop there.
The new 328i heralds the return of a four-cylinder engine from BMW to the U.S. Throwing its model-name logic further out the window, BMW fits this car with a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine. And not only does this engine get fuel sprayed directly into its cylinders, mixed with air forced in from a twin-scroll turbocharger, but its valves use computer-driven logic to vary timing and lift.
By the numbers, all that technology results in 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. BMW even includes virtual gauges on a screen that show the output while you drive, except using kilowatts and Newton-meters instead of our quaint English measurements.
What will make the status buyer comfortable is the lack of turbo lag in the new 328i. Stepping on the gas propelled the car smoothly forward, helped along by the nicely geared eight-speed automatic transmission. The power was not enough to torque the tread off the tires, but it proved more than enough for typical city and freeway maneuvering.
The result of BMW's engine tinkering, or what the company calls Efficient Dynamics, is 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. During a week of driving, the car proved those numbers reasonable, never dropping below 25 mpg in tedious city driving and averaging an even 30 mpg, with a bit of aggressive mountain and moderate highway driving added to city and high-speed freeway roving.
And true to BMW's reputation, the 328i begged to be driven exuberantly. Maybe I had spent too much time behind the wheels of boring cars lately, but from the first feeling of how the steering and suspension responded, I wanted to be hammering this 328i. At every city stop light I yearned to be getting the power down in a tight mountain curve.
Along a mountain testing route, the car showed that uniquely responsive BMW handling. No understeer or oversteer; the car tended to keep grip and go precisely where I pointed it. In BMW's overly complex manner, the car had a button on the console to cycle its accelerator response through Sport, Comfort, and Eco Pro modes, while the shifter also had a Sport/Manual position.