For decades, the BMW 3-Series has pretty much been the performance benchmark for sport sedans. And with the new generation (code-named F30), that was introduced last year, BMW mads some major technology and engineering advances that boosted safety and fuel-efficiency all rather miraculously without muddling its behind-the-wheel character.
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 short, if you wouldn't have to listen to the somewhat less sweet soundtrack of the 328i models you'd never guess that it's packing just four cylinders. 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. Peak torque happens at just 1,250 rpm. Ante up to the 335i models and you get what, just a few years ago, would have been the domain of V-8 engines—and the high-performance M3.
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.
All the 3-Series sedans 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 (and the current Coupes) provided. A premium Variable Sports steering option permits easier parking along with sharper handling, by altering the ratio mechanically (avoiding the digital transitions that sometimes make electric power steering systems frustrating.
An eight-speed automatic transmission is available in any of the 328i or 335i sedan models, while 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. The only exception to that is 328i xDrive models, which are automatic-only. Sport-model automatics come with special programming for faster shifts, and in sedans with the eight-speed it’s so good out on the racetrack that we might actually choose the automatic over the manual. Otherwise, we’d have to go for the precise-feeling six-speed manual for the inspiration it brings daily driving.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.