For decades, the BMW 3-Series has pretty much been the performance benchmark for sport sedans. And while BMW has made a tremendous effort to increase the efficiency of its powertrains, the 3-Series thankfully hasn't lost any of its sharp driving character.
Whether you opt for the sedan or the Sports Wagon, what you get fully lives up to those long-held standards for handling and dynamics. Opt for the Gran Turismo (3GT) and what you get is a little softer and more comfort-oriented, yet still confident and responsive.
With an all-turbocharged lineup (and yes, the model numbers don't correspond to engines anymore), the 2015 BMW 3-Series gets a lot of forward thrust from four- and six-cylinder engines.
At the lower-priced end of the lineup, the BMW 320i and 328i both come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. In the 320i, the four makes 180 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, while in the 328i it makes 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Step up to the turbo six in the 335i and you get 300 hp and 300 lb-ft. There's also a 181-horsepower four-cylinder diesel, offered in the sedan or Sports Wagon models.
No matter which of these you're considering, keep in mind that laggy turbocharged engines are a thing of the past. These turbo fours and sixes have boost that comes on so quickly that you probably won’t guess that they’re turbos; if it weren't for the sound, the 328i's four, especially, feels like a larger-displacement six most of the time (peak torque happens at just 1,250 rpm).
The 328i is probably our pick of the lineup, if you need to 'optimize' power, fuel economy, and sticker price. In manual-transmission form, the 328i sedan can get to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds with the manual transmission—only 0.3 faster than the 335i—and it churns out the torque in the low-to-mid rev range, where it matters to feel perky with an automatic transmission. Ante up to the 335i models and you get performance that just a few years ago would have been the exclusive domain of the top-performance M3.
You can add some of that seriousness, if not the outright punch, to the lesser cars, though. There's an available M Sport package that drops ride height for sedans 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.
There's still the M3, by the way. It was completely new this past year, and it's lighter overall, yet more powerful than its predecessors, with a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged six making 425 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. A special M-DCT dual-clutch gearbox and Active M Differential make a dreamy pair on the track, but we can't help but think we'd rather have the precise-shifting manual (yes, you can still get it) for ours.
And a manual is widely offered in the lineup, rather than reserved for an entry model or high-end performance trim. In any of the 328i or 335i sedan models, you can opt for either a six-speed manual gearbox or eight-speed automatic transmission. 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.
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.
The new 3-Series Gran Turismo versions don't look all that different in some respects, but they drive quite differently, with a little more weight and a softer suspension calibration and a tune that simply doesn't feel as sporty. We'd definitely choose them over a taller crossover, though.
Driving Dynamics Control is included for the entire 3-Series lineup. With a rocker switch that’s right beside the driver’s knee, you can toggle between Eco Pro, Comfort (default), Sport, and Sport+ modes. With Sport, you get sharpened steering response, delayed 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.