If every new car review was this easy, we'd be out of a job by the end of the week. Even though the centerpiece of the press introduction included furious laps around the Catalunya Formula 1 racing circuit, the 2012 BMW 328i sedan deserves presents and praise from enthusiasts and everyday drivers both. It's pretty safe to say that somewhere around 100% of the new 3 Series' owners will never pilot their car around a racetrack, so making a good street impression is vital. BMW has nothing to worry about: The 2012 3 Series - hitting showrooms in February 2012 - looks just right inside and out, costs an easily justifiable $35,795 to start, and plays very well with every kind of driving style.
For the sake of the argument, we'll call the 2012 3 Series 4-door "all-new." It's a few nudges longer than the previous generation, sporting about a half-inch more legroom front and rear, and about one-suitcase worth of additional trunkspace. Making visual changes to a perpetual class leader is always risky and often insensible. Consequently, BMW can be given a full pass for not asking its designers to radically re-invent the shape of the new 3 Series sedan. There's more accent in the car's side creases, and the front end is notably sharper-edged and just a little meaner, but the unmistakable 3 Series fingerprint remains.
Once inside the 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan, you'll find yourself treated to a sumptuous though slightly atonal cockpit. The modern take on interior design, enhanced by BMW's remarkable fit and finish, goes a long way toward giving the 328i sedan its strong sense of being a destination rather than a temporary waypoint while the owner tries to figure out how to buy a BMW 5 Series. Few entry-level luxury sedans are as satisfying in that respect.
Now, before we get accused of burying the lead too deep, let's talk about the 2012 3 Series drivetrain - specifically, the engine and transmission combination that really makes the 328i sedan shine its brightest. First seen in the 2012 BMW Z4 roadster, the 328i sedan's 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine provides 240 horsepower and delivers 260 lb-ft of torque - and delicious acceleration - starting at an almost-on-demand 1,250 rpm. While the sound of the new 4-cylinder can't compete with the previous 3 Series' base 3.0-liter in-line-6, power and fuel economy are both improved. The standard transmission is a 6-speed manual gearbox, but the way to the magic kingdom is via the whisper-smooth 8-speed automatic.
Having eight gears to play with really extends the flexibility of the new 3 Series in every situation, from stop-and-go traffic in the city to the go-and-go-faster opportunities of the open road. We live in a new millennium, an era when there is no longer any shame in owning a sports sedan with an automatic transmission. The 328i invites customers to celebrate that era.
It also invites us to celebrate fuel economy with the inclusion of two green-minded features -- one that works beautifully, the other, a bit unnerving. On the unsettling side is the Automatic Start-Stop function that turns the engine off when you come to a halt, say for a stop sign or traffic light, and restarts the engine the instant you lift your foot off of the brake pedal. Anything to avoid the empty fuel consumption of idling. The effect of pulling up to a stop and having the engine cut out takes some getting used to.
The second feature comes as part of the standard "Driving Dynamics Control" programming, which varies the aggression of the throttle, steering and Dynamic Stability Control response according to one of four driver-selectable modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Eco Pro. The first three modes are for relaxed, sporty and all-out enthusiast driving. The fourth mode, Eco Pro, dramatically reduces the throttle and engine responses to a dull minimum, forces the transmission to upshift sooner and downshift seldom, and even reduces the energy consumption of the 3 Series' electrical systems like the seat heaters. BMW claims that Eco Pro can reduce your fuel use by 20%.
For now, the 328i sedan and its big-engined brother, the 300-horsepower 335i sedan, will be the first U.S. iterations of the new-generation BMW 3 Series to arrive in 2012. Beginning later in the year, hybrid and all-wheel-drive sedan versions will appear, followed in time by coupe and convertible models.