NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Monterey, California, with Laura Burstein reporting from Los Angeles.
A dizzying number of models comprise the 2015 BMW 3 Series lineup. Sedans are available in gasoline and diesel variants, most with a choice of rear-wheel or all-wheel-drive. There's the entry-level BMW 320i, powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine; the popular BMW 328i and BMW 328i xDrive, with a more powerful version of the same engine; the exhilarating BMW 335i, with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that makes 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, and the efficient BMW 328d and BMW 328d xDrive diesel sedans, which use 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine that makes 180 horsepower and 280 pound feet of torque, the latter available at just 1750 rpm.
Sports Wagon body styles offer more space than the sedan, with car-like performance and maneuverability. They're available only with turbocharged four-cylinder engines, powered by either gasoline (328i xDrive) or diesel (328d xDrive). As the xDrive model name suggests, Sports Wagons come only with all-wheel drive. Cargo space in the wagon is plentiful at 17.5 cubic feet with the rear seats in place, enough for two large suitcases and multiple small carry-ons.
The 2015 BMW 3 Series GranTurismo is the roomiest of the bunch, with a more upright shape compared to the wagon. It's available in BMW 328i xDrive and BMW 335i xDrive variants (gasoline only) and comes exclusively with all-wheel drive. The GranTurismo offers nearly 3 inches more rear legroom than either the sedan and wagon, and boasts 18.3 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats in place.
As before, 3 Series models are available in different lines, including Luxury, Sport and M Sport, each with its own unique exterior and interior trim. The different trim levels available on the sedans also have unique features on the inside. Each line lends the 3 series its own character, from warm and modern to cool and athletic.
Refined handling and BMW's classic 50/50 weight distribution make all 3 Series cars a joy to drive. With the switch of a drive mode, any variant can go from comfortable daily driver to racy canyon carver. Engine, transmission, steering and brakes work in harmony. The 328 gasoline engine is perfectly suited to everyday driving, while the BMW 328d diesel engine excels when it comes to long-range efficiency. The BMW 335i is the most fun, however, with its powerful engine and plentiful torque.
The 2015 BMW 3 Series sedan remains the benchmark among luxury sport compact cars such as the Audi A3, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Though all offer similar dimensions and features, none can quite match the weight balance and performance-oriented dynamics of the BMW. Sports Wagons have fewer competitors, and include the Audi Allroad, as well as the smaller Audi A3 sportback, which are both also available with a diesel TDI engine. Volvo offers the utilitarian XC70 and the most stylish V60, both of which start at about $5,000 less. The 3 Series Gran Turismo lacks any apples-to-apples competitors, though it's a viable alternative for drivers who want more space without the stigma of a station wagon.
The 328i sedan ($37,300) comes with a more powerful version of the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that makes 240 hp and 255lb.-ft. of torque, plus eight-way power-adjustable front seats with driver memory functions, wood interior trim, auto-dimming rearview and exterior mirrors. It's also available with all-wheel-drive ($39,100). The 328i xDrive Sport Wagon ($41,750) and 328i Gran Turismo ($41,750) are similarly equipped.
The diesel-powered 328d sedan ($38,600), 328d xDrive sedan ($40,600) and 328d xDrive Sport Wagon ($43,250) use a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 181 hp and 280 lb.-ft. of torque. Standard features are similar the 328i.
The 335i sedan ($43,400), 335 xDrive sedan ($45,500) and 335 xDrive Gran Turismo ($47,100) are powered by a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 that makes 300 hp and 300 lb.-ft. of torque. Additional features include a power sunroof, adaptive xenon HID headlights and 18-inch wheels.
Every 3 Series sedan is available with either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (xDrive). Sport Wagons and Gran Turismo models are all-wheel drive only.
BMW 328i xDrive Gran Turismo ($41,450) and 335i xDrive Gran Turismo ($46,850) models are equipped similarly to their sedan counterparts and come only with the 8-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.
Option packages and standalone options include leather upholstery, heated seats, navigation, different wheels and tires, and more. Also, three additional trim packages are available: Luxury, Sport and M Sport. Each has its own unique wheels, exterior trim, interior styling, wheels and suspension tuning. Prices vary depending on the line and the model.
Safety features on all models include front-impact airbags that deploy at different rates depending on the severity of impact, front passenger side-impact airbags, full-cabin, curtain-type head protection airbags, ABS, stability control, traction control and BMW Assist eCall crash notification system. Safety options include side and top view cameras, a adaptive cruise control, parking assist, blind spot detection, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, pedestrian warning, collision mitigation, all-wheel drive.
The Sport Wagon is decidedly a wagon, but has a front end nearly identical to the sedans. From the side, it's somewhat boxy, although the gentle curving slope from the top of the roof to the rear bumper softens an otherwise squarish appearance.
Gran Turismo models bear the least resemblance to the rest of the 3 Series lineup. The 3 Series Gran Turismo rides on a longer wheelbase by 4.3 inches, and it's 7.9 inches longer overall than the 3 Series Sport Wagon. It's also 3.2 inches taller. Not quite a wagon and not really a crossover vehicle, the GT looks big and tall. The gaping maw and fastback silhouette from many angles looks more like a mini version of the 5 Series GT than its 3 Series relatives. In back, BMW's first active rear spoiler sits atop the GT's shelf-y behind, which reduces lift at highway speeds.
All 3 Series body styles are available in Luxury, Sport and M Sport trims. Each has unique exterior trim. Luxury Line uses chrome kidney grille bars, a chrome exhaust pipe trim and a multi-spoke wheel design. Sport Line comes with black kidney grille bars and a five double-spoke wheel design. The M Sport line adds an aero body kit that includes a larger lower front air intake, sculpted rocker sills and different five-spoke wheels.
The different trim levels available on the sedans also have unique features on the inside. A choice of leatherettes (vinyl) and leathers is available for the different trim levels. All the seats we tried, base, Sport, Luxury and M Sport, were comfortable and held us in place. We hardly took note of them, a good sign. And getting in and out of these cars was easy.
Regardless of trim, the 3 Series cockpit is oriented around driving, the dash angled slightly toward the driver bringing all controls within easy reach. Four circular dials (fuel gauge, speedometer, tachometer and oil temperature gauge) come with a black panel display. Climate controls are traditional BMW, intuitive and easy to operate. Overall, the trim is nice. Soft-touch plastic inside the interior door handles feels upscale. One gripe was the plastic glovebox latch, which looked and felt cheap.
The iDrive screen is large, bright and easy to read. But unless your car is equipped with navigation, it will be of little use. In one of our test cars without any options, the screen simply displayed audio, phone and vehicle information. The Technology package adds a whole suite of features, including navigation with real-time traffic information and BMW Connected, an app that allows users to sync their smartphones with their cars to use Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, a vehicle finder function and more. The BMW Apps suite also integrates selected subscription-based applications into the car such as Pandora, Stitcher and MOG. The tech pack also adds a head-up display.
The 3 Series is available with a traditional rearview camera that automatically displays what's behind the car or an optional Surround View with side- and top-view cameras, which offers a bird's-eye perspective of the vehicle and the area around it. If that's not enough, the optional Parking Assistant helps the driver parallel park by finding a space, turning the steering wheel, practically parking the car itself.
Although categorized as a compact, the current 3 Series generation is much bigger compared to older models, especially those used to the e46 and before. As such, rear passengers fit with relative ease. In the sedan, rear legroom measures 35.1 inches, and headroom comes in at 37.7 inches, which is about on par with the Audi A4, but slightly more than the Mercedes-Benz C250. Trunk space is about average for the class at 13 cubic feet.
The Sport Wagon is just as comfortable as the sedan; however, the rear center seat's tall headrest hampers rearward visibility so much that we opted to drive our test car with the center seat folded down, exposing the rear pass-through slot. The wagon's wide C and D pillars also create some rather large blind spots. In the back, the wagon gets slightly more headroom with 38.3 inches.
Cargo space in the wagon is more plentiful, at 17.5 cubic feet with the rear seats in place, enough for two large suitcases and multiple small carry-ons; a total of 53 cubic feet is available with the rear seats folded flat.
Seats in the Gran Turismo models are about two inches higher than those in the sedans, giving a commanding view of the road. There's also more leg- and headroom, including 2.8 inches more legroom in the rear than in the sedan and wagon. This is the roomiest of the bunch, with 18.3 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats in place.
The BMW 328i gasoline engine is perfectly suited to everyday driving, while the BMW 328d diesel engine excels when it comes to long-range efficiency. The BMW 335i is the most fun, with its powerful engine and plentiful torque.
Around town, the BMW 328i is perfectly able but doesn't sound particularly refined. The clatter of the direct-injection engine is noisy, especially from outside the car when idling, and audible in the cabin at lower speeds. On long road trips, it comes into its own, however. The turbocharger provides boost through a broad torque range, delivering 255 lb.-ft. of torque from 1250-4200 rpm. We found the torquey motor plenty peppy climbing steep mountain terrain at freeway speeds while cars around us were struggling to keep up. Getting from just about any speed to 80 mph is a breeze, and passing is easy.
By contrast, the BMW 335i's turbocharged six-cylinder engine purrs like a contented cat. In normal driving around town, we found the power advantage of the 335i over the 328i to be negligible. But put the pedal to the metal on a freeway onramp or a racetrack straightaway, and that power bump is instantly noticeable. The 335i has more torque, with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. It makes 300 hp at 5800 rpm and 300 pound-feet of torque from 1300-5000 rpm, a broad power band that gives the 335i strong response to throttle input at all engine speeds. In other words, just stand on it and she goes. Turbo lag feels nonexistent, and 0-60 mph comes quickly, just 5.4 seconds with either transmission, according to BMW. While the 335i is slightly more enjoyable, we heartily recommend the 328i.
The 8-speed automatic transmission works very well. Some drivers prefer to shift with the paddles, but most will simply put it in Drive and let it do its thing. We still enjoy the manual transmission available on the gasoline-powered sedans; clutch-pedal effort makes taking off easy, and the gear ratios are perfectly spaced for either engine. Gran Turismo, 328d and both Sport Wagon models are only available with the automatic transmission.
Handling is excellent on all variants of the sedan, and all offer a good balance of ride quality and handling response. The steering is light at low speeds, with proper resistance and feedback at higher speeds. Near-50/50 weight distribution, aided by locating the engine behind the front axle, leaves the driver in full command. It's an easy car to drive fast. We drove hard up a primitive mountain road, overdriving the tires, allowing the active safety features to limit speed around the bumpy switchbacks. At Laguna Seca Raceway, we strapped on helmets, switched off the electronics, and pushed hard around the turns. These cars are very easy to control at the limit, giving the driver confidence, delivering joy.
Traction control kicks in when accelerating hard out of low-speed corners, eliminating wheelspin and reducing the chance of a spin. When driving hard, on a racetrack, for example, we found it beneficial to switch the system off, allowing the car to slide more and the tires to spin to achieve higher cornering speeds and more responsive acceleration performance coming out of the turns. Traction control is useful on an unfamiliar mountain road, but won't help you win an autocross. The active safety features can be switched off or dialed back in degrees, allowing the driver to tune the system to conditions and his or her preferences.
Braking is excellent in all models. The large brake calipers and rotors deliver more clamping force than most competitors. And thanks to BMW's electronic management, the brake pads move within a hair of the rotors if the driver suddenly releases the gas pedal, even if the driver hasn't yet considered slamming on the brakes. The pads also lightly sweep the rotors every few seconds if it's raining, just to be sure there is no significant moisture build up.
The diesel engine found on the 328d is surprisingly smooth and quiet. There is still an audible ticking noise at lower speeds and the slight rumble characteristic of all diesels, but it's quite refined in comparison to the old rough, smelly diesel engines of years past. Although torque is a healthy 280 lb.-ft., the 328d is still the slowest 3 Series of the bunch, with a 0-60 mph time of more than 7 seconds, according to BMW. There's sufficient thrust off the line, but you won't win any drag races. Tall gearing designed to maximize fuel economy keeps the 328d running at low rpms most of the time. The real reason to get the 328d is its efficiency, with excellent range at highway speeds and an EPA fuel economy rating of 32/45 mpg City/Highway for 328d sedans, and 31/43 mpg City/Highway for 238d xDrive sedans and Sport Wagons.
The BMW 328 xDrive Sport Wagon models use the same engines as the 328i and 328d, and are both paired with the 8-speed automatic transmission. Each boasts very similar driving dynamics to its sedan counterpart, and the 328i in particular is every bit as nimble. Around corners, you'd be hard-pressed to remember you have a copious rear end bolted onto the back. That is, until you look in the rearview mirror; the wide D-pillar and rear center-seat headrest reduce rearward visibility.
An automatic Stop/Start function comes standard on all 3 Series models. It helps fuel economy, but it annoys us. Although the latest version doesn't shutter quite so violently as the first iteration, it continues to be invasive and, in our opinion, kicks in way too soon. After only a couple of seconds of idle, even if you're just pausing briefly, the engine shuts off. We found this especially disconcerting to crossing pedestrians who looked startled when they heard our car fire up just as they crossed our front bumper. The system can be turned off.
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