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 made some major technology and engineering advances that boosted safety and fuel-efficiency all rather miraculously without muddling its behind-the-wheel character.
The sedans have adopted an all-turbocharged lineup. Unlike past years, BMW no longer uses the final two numbers in the model to denote engine size. The 328i is fitted with a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 that makes 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, while the 335i uses a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 makes 300 hp and 300 lb-ft. Both engines use a twin-scrolling turbocharger that delivers power quickly, and at low enough rpm, that the engines never feel lagged or stretched for power.
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.
BMW has added a Driving Dynamic Control rocker switch to all 3-Series models that can adjust throttle tip-in, transmission shifts, and steering heft depending on the mode selected. Comfort is the default mode, but the system can also switch into Eco Pro, Sport, and Sport+ modes, with the last stop adding more slip allowed by the stability control and engaging an electronic limited-slip differential to give rear wheels more traction.
Fans of the 3-Series will note that the automaker switched its steering system over to an electronic power steering setup after using a hydraulic rack for many years. The electric power assist program builds nicely and doesn't add artificial weight to the steering, and it even provides a little feedback at the 3-Series' limit of grip, which is further than most people would consider taking the car. Our nitpick with the system: we'd like a little more feedback from the road at lower speeds, something the hydraulic system did very well. An optional variable sports steering setup can quicken the ratio at lower speeds, which helps maneuverability in and out of parking spaces for instance, and skips some of the digital indecisiveness by mechanically altering the ratio.
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.
A bevy of M-branded options are available for performance-minded buyers. An M Sport package lowers the ride height by 0.4 inches for flatter cornering, firms up the suspension, beefs up the anti-roll bars, and swaps in 18- or 19-inch wheels. Adaptive M Sport suspension electronically controls the firmness of the dampers for more performance, but we're enthralled by the base setup without these fancy options. We say skip them, unless track days are in your near future with the 3-Series.