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The BMW 3-Series cars have grown as complex as the hardware wrapped in their sheetmetal bodies. BMW juggles a coupe, a convertible, and a sedan under the nameplate--though the sedan this year is a new model, while the two-doors ride under a last-generation architecture. There's some resolution next year when the 3-Series entails only sedans, wagons, and hatchbacks--and the new BMW 4-Series reigns over coupes and convertibles.
But today, the 2013 BMW 3-Series soldiers on as a paragon of the mid-size luxury class, a leader in handling and prestige, and a follower in infotainment. The four-doors continue to be a benchmark for performance across the board, though Cadillac's new ATS has intruded on that territory in a huge, deep way. The coupes and convertibles? They're still more status symbols than anything. As such, we'll focus here on the new sedan. (You can read our previous reviews of the 2011 BMW 3-Series for more on the two-door models.)
While the 3-Series grew slightly larger for the 2012 model year, and added advanced-tech options from the 5- and 7-Series, it keeps its responsive powertrains, phenomenal agility and dynamic balance, and the driver’s seat thrills that earned it so much respect.If you're looking at the sedans, the 3-Series goes to an all-turbocharged lineup (and it gets confusing here as the model numbers no longer correspond to engine size): The 328i comes with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, while the 335i gets the latest N55 version of BMW’s 3.0-liter in-line six. The 328i’s four makes 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, while the six in the 335i makes 300 hp and 300 lb-ft. Both engines have twin-scroll turbocharging to deliver boost very quickly—so quickly that you probably won’t guess that they’re turbos. In manual-transmission form, they get to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds with the manual transmission—only 0.3 faster than the 335i—and they churn out the torque in the low-to-mid rev range, where it matters to feel perky with an automatic transmission.
The M3 continues to generate lusty thoughts from true driving enthusiasts with its special performance package, M Sport suspension, and upgraded brakes, plus a 414-hp, 4.0-liter V-8 engine and seven-speed double-clutch (or six-speed manual) transmission. Both the M3, as well as all the 2013 3-Series Coupe and Convertible models, are carried over in the previous-generation layout for the Coupe and Convertible (they won't follow the sedan until next year), so in those forms the 328i includes a 230-horsepower, 3.0-liter naturally aspirated six.
Driving Dynamics Control is included in all 3-Series models. With a rocker switch that’s right beside the driver’s knee, you can toggle between Eco Pro, Comfort (default), Sport, and Sport+ modes. Sport sharpens steering response, changes shift points, and such, while Sport+ allows more slip from the stability control and permits an electronic limited-slip diff mode to give the rear wheels more traction. In any case, the 3er's electric power steering system doesn't disappoint—it loads and unloads nicely—while the eight-speed automatic transmission is quick to respond and covers a wide range for good highway fuel economy (up to 34 mpg on the highway with the 328i). Coupe and Convertible models make do just fine with a six-speed automatic. And as a breath of fresh air—and one you really expect from BMW—nearly all the models can be had with a manual gearbox. And xDrive all-wheel-drive versions have been added to the lineup this year.
An available M Sport package drops ride height by 0.4 inches, firms up springs and dampers, and includes larger anti-roll bars along with larger 18- or 19-inch M alloy wheels. Other performance options include the Adaptive M Sport suspension package, with electronically controlled damping. While both of these options do provide improvements you can feel, the base car’s setup is still a hoot, with good ride quality combined with satisfying, crisp control for all but serious track use.
The newer sedans are instantly recognizable as more contemporary with their larger greenhouse, more actively sculpted flanks, and wider front-end look. They're nearly four inches longer than the previous models, with two inches of extra wheelbase; about an inch of that goes to increased rear legroom, and that extra bit goes a long way. With better seat contouring and that added inch or two, it's now possible to fit adults in back, although taller occupants will still be splaying their knees and you won't want to subject adults to vast distances in the back seat. The 3-Series redeems itself in front, where there's enough space for those of nearly any size or body type to get comfortable, thanks to a very wide range of adjustability, whether you get the base seats or the Sport model’s upgraded seats with extending thigh bolsters plus stronger side bolstering.
Across the lineup, you get the latest version of iDrive, which requires you to use a multi-way controller down on the center console to navigate menus for non-essential functions. It's much easier to intuit than earlier versions of the system, and we don't seeing it as a deal-breaker, yet you'll want to spend some time getting a tutorial at the dealership. BMW Apps integration lets you use your data connection to tap into some well integrated streaming music services—but it requires a $250 smartphone holder, and it’s only compatible with versions of the iPhone.
The 3-Series' lengthy options list is packed with features that add either more luxury or advanced-tech appeal. The head-up display (HUD) is especially well-placed and useful here, while heated front and rear seats, as well as a heated steering wheel and retractable headlight washers, are all part of the Cold Weather Package. A Driver Assistance Package brings Lane Departure Warning and Active Blind Spot Detection. The Park Distance Control system is part of a Parking Package, which also includes a rear-view camera and the Side and Top View camera system. The available navigation system includes excellent 3D maps.
- Poise and handling
- Strong, efficient engines
- Excellent brakes
- Responsive eight-speed automatic
- Electric power steering, done right
Next: Interior / Exterior »
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- BMW Apps is iPhone-only
- Busy interior in some trims
- ActiveHybrid 3 doesn't prioritize mpg