The BMW 3-Series has pretty much been the benchmark for sport sedans—for decades. And with this generation, the 3-Series makes some major tech advances to add efficiency and safety—yet thankfully, the 3-Series emerges with its distinct behind-the-wheel character intact. First off, the 3-Series goes to an all-turbocharged lineup. Don't let the nomenclature confuse you, as the last two digits of BMW model numbers no longer correspond to engine size; the 328i comes with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, while the latest N55 version of BMW's 3.0-liter in-line six is packed into the 335i.
The 328i feels quite strong on the road and can, in manual-transmission form, get to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds with the manual transmission; that's only 0.3 faster than the 335i. 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. Even the four in the 328i churns out the torque at low rpm; peak happens at just 1,250 rpm.
All 3-Series models include a Driving Dynamics Control selector that dictates the car's behavior based on the conditions and selected preference. Drivers can select from Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes that change throttle tip-in, transmission shift points, steering weight, and in Sport+, dials in more slip into the rear tires and activates an electronic limited-slip differential to give rear wheels more traction.
The 3-Series now boasts an electric power steering assist system that removes hydraulic belts from the engine, reducing parasitic horsepower loss and marginally improving fuel economy. The electric system is the way of the future, clearly, and automakers like BMW have given us promise with their new systems.
All 3-Series models now get an electric power steering system that loads and unloads nicely, and gives you—when you finally reach the 3's impressive limits of grip—a little feedback from the road. We'd only wish for a little more sense of the roadway surface before you approach those limits, which is what the hydraulic steering in the former F90 provided. Variable Sports steering permits easier parking along with sharper handling, by altering the ratio mechanically (avoiding the digital transitions that sometimes make electric power steering systems frustrating.
With either of the models, a six-speed manual gearbox is standard, while an eight-speed automatic is available. Sport-model automatics come with special programming for faster shifts. It's so good out on the racetrack that we might actually choose the automatic over the manual, but overall, we'd have to go for the precise-feeling six-speed manual for the inspiration it brings daily driving.
As you might guess, the 3-Series comes with some of the best stoppers in the business; the brakes proved strong on both the highway and the track. Over countless laps at California's Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, we didn't encounter any fade.
The 3-Series can be fitted with an optional M Sport package that lowers the ride height, firms up the springs and dampers, and adds stiffer anti-roll bars with bigger wheels. Predictably, it helps the 3-Series corner flatter and sharper, and when combined with optional adjustable dampers, makes the 3-Series an absolute riot to drive. It's worth mentioning that we enjoy the base setup of the car and were impressed with its performance, these improvements are really only for track-day use anyway.
All-wheel-drive versions of both models will be available this fall, as 2013 models.