2009 BMW 328i CoupeEnlarge Photo
BMW horses are thoroughbreds. Racehorses, even. I say this because each one residing under the sculpted merlot hood of our test 328i Coupe seemed so eager to blur the scenery with every prod of the accelerator. And yet they press forward with a grace and seamlessness befitting Churchill Downs.
For years auto scribes have praised BMW's inline sixes, commenting that they always feel quicker and more stout than their power and torque ratings suggest, smoother and more tractable than competitor's V-6s and fours.
With all of hype and excitement over BMW's new twin-turbo inline-six found in 335 models, I'd forgotten the power ratings for the entry-level 3-series engine, presuming it would be bland and a bit of a disappointment. Upon checking the stats, I found the Double-VANOS, Valvetronic, aluminum/magnesium alloy 3.0-liter inline-six churns out 230 hp and only 200 lb-ft torque, middling numbers for a roughly 3,400-lb. coupe (3,570 with me at the helm).
Imagine my surprise at thrust that felt more like 250 horses chomping at the bit. Especially in the midrange, this engine rockets the coupe down the road with ferocity. And it does this to a mellow soundtrack that sounds expensive and well-trained even at redline; think of the Met's best tenor floating his highest note so sweetly you get chills. BMW claims 0-60 mph in a fleet 6.2 seconds while the EPA scores mpg at 18/28; an impressive power/economy combo that's clearly the result of meticulous engineering and efficiency measures pushed to new heights.
The perfect ally for this powerplant is the standard six-speed manual. A far cry from competitors' coarse units that transmit drivetrain lash and engine buzz (are you listening, Infiniti G37?), the BMW's is beautifully isolated yet the epitome of precision. Gears are never missed, ratios are tightly spaced, and throw length is just right. The clutch is the only challenge; its engagement point exists in a very small window. But once learned, the clutch rewards with butter smooth launches every time. And a 3-second hill-hold feature means no risk of rollback on steep uphill step-off.
Despite the machinations of Chris Bangle, BMWs are still the Ultimate Driving Machines, and as such everything on our 328i Coupe seemed focused on the art of driving; swift, safe, and communicative transport.
The brakes have immense power, but are very progressive and easy to modulate. BMW's xenon high-intensity headlamps steer into turns and remain level whether the nose is pointed up or down, keeping pace with the car's breakneck capabilities even on dark and serpentine streets. And perhaps the best safety feature of all - a surgically-precise steering rack - intuits your brain's every directional desire while also offering copious feedback that's devoid of any harshness.
A family member reared on Hondas and Hyundais reverently took in the waterfall LED lighting tucked into the Coupe's door panels, marveled at the sumptuous texture of every surface, and appreciated the design-school care built into every dial and gauge. But we both noted that the individual climate control settings for driver and passenger resulted in warmer cabin temperatures than indicated by the digital readouts.
Subtle surprises abound. In addition to the hill-hold feature, a small ring encircling the speedometer contains a needle that indicates cruise-control set speed. The needle jumps up or down in response to the paddle-activated controller. Tap it forward past the detent and an instant 5 mph gain is yours; stop short of the detent and a 1 mph addition is had. Pulling on this controller gives equal and opposite effects on the car's cruise speed. Most surprisingly, unlike any other manual transmission I have ever used, engaging the clutch does not cancel the cruise control settings. Rather, it places the electronics on hold ("cruise holding, line 1") until which time the clutch is released and the former set speed is resumed.