With BMW's monolithic engineering focus, I've found it easy to be impressed with the company's cars. Each model exhibits a hands-on driving appeal, a level of performance that cooperates with and rewards the driver. Even in the age of road-holding electronics, BMW implemented them so as to still let the driver throw the rear end out to a degree.
That was my mindset as I eagerly got behind the wheel of the 2012 BMW 335i, but even before starting up the engine I noticed something was wrong. Walking up to the car, I appreciated the low position of the kidney grille, and how each side was connected to the headlights, which had a devilish expression of their own.
However, opening the door I was greeted by an ocean of beige in the same shade as old computers, a color that was meant to be inoffensive in offices of the 1980s and '90s. From leather to plastic surfaces, all was tinted in this excruciatingly oppressive beige. Looking to the instrument cluster for some relief, I was horrified to discover that even the gauge faces were beige, or Oyster in BMW terminology. Give me gauges in black or white, grey or yellow, but beige?
Adding insult to injury, BMW also attached a few heavily textured pieces, ostensibly real wood but with a very plastic feel, around the cabin as trim pieces. This trim looked and felt frighteningly bad, but it gets worse yet. When putting the car through the kinds of paces that exercised its torsional rigidity, that plastic groaned and creaked, making the whole car feel a bit cheap.
The positive footnote to this rant is that the 335i reviewed by CNET is not the only style available. BMW recently trifurcated its 3 Series into Sport, Modern, and Luxury trim lines. The interior-design horror movie represented by this car was the result of a few injudicious choices in the Modern line, such as the Fineline Pure trim pieces. Although it seems that the Oyster gauge backings come standard in the Modern line, so best to steer clear of that one completely.
Another strike against the Modern line comes from the suspension, which felt tuned for comfort. BMW made its reputation on cars that could be driven hard on the weekends, but would also serve the daily commuter. This 335i only met half of that equation. Going into a tight mountain turn at speed, the suspension felt loose, letting the body of the car float dreamily while the tires tried to bite into the pavement.
In this type of intensive driving, the 335i tended to understeer, something I never would have expected in a BMW. The steering wheel seemed lifeless, merely serving as a control mechanism rather than offering the tied-to-the-road feeling found in other BMW models.
Dynamic handling comes extra
Just as different color choices could have saved the cabin, an optional package choice would have made this 335i more enjoyable to drive. The $1,000 Dynamic Handling package brings in adaptive-suspension technology and variable steering, which does not seem like much money to rescue a car from mediocrity. As it was, I would have been just as happy driving a Camry.
In normal driving situations, on city streets and on the freeway, the driving character of the 335i felt like nothing special. The steering lacked the heavy, engaged feel of previous generations and the ride quality didn't justify the price of this small sedan. Again, these faults can most likely be fixed through different option choices.
If the BMW 3 Series is going to be equipped as CNET's was, then there seems little point in getting the powerful 335i, rather than the 328i. The 335i comes with one of the best engines on the market, a 3-liter inline six-cylinder benefiting from direct injection and a twin-scroll turbocharger, with output figures of 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.
Along with substantial power, BMW gives this engine excellent efficiency with tech borrowed from hybrid cars. The 335i uses regenerative braking, as do all recent BMW models, which takes generator load off the engine. Likewise, BMW went to electric power steering from a hydraulic system, also freeing up more power from the engine for actually driving the wheels.
For this generation of 335i, BMW earned EPA fuel economy ratings of 23 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. In my mix of city and freeway driving, the car turned in a very respectable 28 mpg.
Some of that very good fuel economy is due to the eight-speed automatic transmission, a no-cost option over the six-speed manual. Also contributing to higher efficiency is an idle-stop system, which shuts down the engine at stoplights. In the automatic, this system restarted the engine as soon as I lifted my foot from the brake, as opposed to the manual version, which kicked in the engine when I took my foot off the clutch.
I did not find this system terribly intrusive, as long as I was not looking to beat the car next to me off the line. However, with the engine cold it was a failure, as the car was prone to stalling right after a restart. If drivers find the idle-stop feature too intrusive, it can be defeated with the push of a button.