I remember reading once, in another fairly recent review of a BMW, that the person critiquing the car was bold enough to say: “BMW is the new Mercedes-Benz.” Now, I’m not going to name who specifically, but being a German car enthusiast at heart and a lover of both brands, my denial set in: “WTF, how can anyone say anything so blasphemous?”
Blasphemous, because there has always been a definitive line that separated the Three-Pointed Star from the Roundel. Their differentiations in corporate philosophy are obvious and there is no way in hell anyone could confuse the two. For either of them to be used in the same sentence other than comparing how vastly different they are—despite being direct rivals—is as sacrilegious as saying that “Microsoft is the new Apple.”
Though having driven the latest F10 5-Series, my denial slowly began turning into an epiphany as I thoroughly noted that the new F10 5-Series has lost some of its hard edge. To me, I concluded the 5-Series we tested felt way too much like a 7-Series and not enough like a 3-Series, as always has been. And without the sporting edge of a BMW, which has distinguished the brand from its direct competitors for almost a half a century, how can one expect the car to march to the beat of its own drum when you remove the key component that made the claims to fame in the first place?
2013 BMW 328i Specifications:
- Style: Sedan.
- Seating Capacity: 5.
- Base Price: $36,500.
- Price as Tested: $53,320.
- Engine: 2.0 liter 4-cylinder TwinPower Turbo – 240-hp and 255 lb-ft of torque between 1,250 and 4,800 rpm.
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic.
- 0 to 60 mph: 5.8 seconds.
- Top Speed: 155 mph.
- Curb Weight: 3,360 lbs.
- Fuel-economy: 23/33 mpg (city/highway).
That said, prior to the release of the new and current F30 BMW 3-Series, I expressed grim worry, hoping that BMW wouldn’t soften the 3-Series like it had done with the 5- and 7-Series. It’s quite the worry too, because we’re talking about a car that has defined one of the top selling segments of all time, something only a very few others have equally been able to accomplish. For over 30 years, the 3-Series has won the affection of automotive journalists and countless auto enthusiasts all over the world for its impeccable balance of everything that makes a great saloon car.
But as manufacturers became more susceptible to the ever tightening CAFE requirements and the demands of car buyers have shifted, automakers have been forced to conform. The 3-Series as a result has gotten bigger, heavier, faster, more luxurious and expensive than the original engineers could have ever imagined. Does the F30 3-Series have what it takes to carry on its legacy amid some of the tightest competition we’ve ever seen? Or has the industry’s standard followed the way of its more expensive brethren? Well, let’s find out.
At first glance, I admittedly thought that the 2013 328i Luxury Line that we received for testing was a 5-Series from just sheer size and presence when compared to the previous generation 3-Series, the Bangle-butted E90. Much like BMW’s design history of the past, the 7-Series was always the car to define BMW’s design language, which then transcended into virtually everything below it. That’s very visible with our 328i tester, though I wish they made the F30 more distinguishable from the 5-Series, especially from the rear. The F30 3-Series’ current styling isn’t a bad thing since the point was to move the 3-Series more up-market. But there have always been distinct differences separating the 3-Series from any of BMW’s other four-door sedans. This time around, it’s not as blatant. Sure, the F30 is much better proportioned and more handsome than the bulbous E90 it succeeds; however, as a whole, the F30 still just looks like a heavily revised and facelifted E90.
Measuring in with a wheelbase that’s at 110.6 inches, the F30 gains nearly an extra two inches over the E90’s wheelbase. Overall length grows by 3.8 inches to 182 in total, versus the E90’s 178.2, and width virtually remains the same at 71.3 inches. And to better illustrate its proportions, the F30 3-Series sedan is roughly the same size as the E39 5-Series of the 1996-2003, except the F30 is four inches shorter in length. Curb weight checks in at a pretty porky 3,410lbs. For comparative purposes of how heavy cars have gotten, my W124 E320 Coupe from 1994 weighed 3,550lbs. The world’s first official BMW 3-Series, the E21, weighed around 2,600lbs even in US form.
Of course, the increase in size on the outside translates into more room on the inside. The F30 3-Series certainly feels as big as it looks on the outside. The most important consideration for the new F30 3-Series is the growth in rear seating, which is a vast improvement over the previous generation. I had no problem fitting my 5’11 figure in the back reasonably comfortably like I was in a 5-Series. It was much more of a challenge for me to sit in the back of the E90. Thanks to BMW’s unique interior design and the return of the driver-oriented dash up front, the F30 3er also felt to be much more airy than the E90. Adding to that perspective was BMW’s choice to reduce the overall height of the instrument cluster. Resultantly, it sits lower than the previous generation, again adding to the larger-feeling-greenhouse effect. Ergonomics and materials are still typically Teutonic and German, meaning solid, high quality, and easy to use. One thing that I did find peculiar was the placement of the wide navigation screen, which is propped up on top of the dashboard as if it were retractable. It unfortunately is not and the overall look of it makes seem like the screen was a forgotten afterthought and just messes with the fluidity of the design in my mind.
Now for the more interesting stuff. For the first time in North America since the E36 318 series from 1992-1996, BMW is offering a four-cylinder for its bread and butter model. The unit is internally coded as the N20. It has a dual-over-head-cam setup, displaces 2.0L and thanks to forced-induction provided by a twin-scroll turbocharger, direct injection, BMW’s traditional Double-VANOS variable valve timing and Valvetronic variable valve lift, this four-banger bangs out a grand total of 241hp peaking at 6500RPM and 258 lb-ft of torque topping out at 4800RPM. Most of the torque is available at 1250RPM while the redline is pegged at a nice and high 7000RPM. The previous E90’s sensational N53 naturally aspirated straight-six that the N20 replaces for the base 328i produced 228hp and 199 lb-ft of torque.
The N20 is mated to ZF’s new eight-speed automatic, which by usual nature has been well-tuned to the four-banger’s powerband. Altogether, it allows the 2013 328i to sprint from zero to 60 in just 5.8 seconds, according to BMW’s factory numbers for a top run limited to 130 mph. Flooring the 328i from the get-go, combined with Germany’s tendency to delay throttle inputs, yielded a bit of turbo lag. But it didn’t take much for the turbocharger to spool up as it did so real quickly and very willingly, allowing for an acceleration experience that was very much like the last generation’s 3.0L straight-six powered E90 328i, just not as eclectic. What was seriously lacking however, was the gloriously sonorous engine and exhaust notes of BMW’s superiorly balanced six-cylinder. The 328i’s four-banger was only barely audible below its midrange and just audible enough when the valvetrain opens up all of the hatches at wide-open throttle. The absence of a truly inspiring exhaust and engine note surely does chisel away at the 3-Series’ defining character.
Handling is where it continues to fall even more slightly. BMW stayed true to fit a nice and thick steering wheel to give the driver the idea that you’re in a sports sedan. Despite our tester’s 328i Luxury Trim option, it was equipped with the 3er’s Dynamic Handling Package, which just meant the addition of variable steering and Adaptive M-Suspension. But the first hard crank of that thick steering wheel during a very sharply banked on-ramp on the New Jersey Turnpike certainly announced that the F30 328i’s electrically-assisted steering gave away with some feel, weighting, and tightness when compared to the last generation’s hydraulic setup. Though oddly enough, BMW’s steering is still widely cited as the superior of the bunch in this segment. It is typically accurate and the progression in the build-up of effort, feedback, and weight is still the best out of any electrically assisted setup I’ve felt as of recent. Though enthusiasts, like myself, would find that it just doesn’t compare to the heavier, tighter, and more connected feel and feedback as the previous generation 3er.
That same sharply-banked and curved on-ramp also revealed a hell of a lot more roly poly action than I was expecting for a BMW 3er. Because our tester came with the aforementioned Dynamic Handling Package, I had the 328i setup for balls out Sport+ mode with the gear shifter in the manual position to hold the gears. But much like the 5-Series we previously tested, which also had a very similar dynamic handling package, the system in the 328i generated very little difference when switching between any of the modes in terms of handling. The chassis is BMW-traditional in the way that it is clearly stiff and perfectly balanced like the E90 it succeeds with more than acceptable amounts of communication. The result is still a driving experience that gives you the inspiring confidence to push the F30 328i to its utmost limits with the ability to even make you feel very heroic beyond its limits without much effort and fear. The brakes had good feel and grab, but push the 328i hard for more than a quick carve on an on-ramp and they will begin to exhibit fade. Relatively speaking, the F30 3-Series just can’t compare to the tight, hunkered down, sports car-like feeling of the previous generation. I’m not saying that the F30 328i’s body motions are out of control, because they are far from out of control. It just feels too softly sprung, isolated and undulating to be the sort of BMW that all of us have come to love, appreciate, and go head-over-heels for.
The reward to the softer sprung suspension however is a very compliant and composed ride. Bumps were absorbed far better than the outgoing E90 3-Series, but the impact harshness was surprisingly rough for the 328i. New Jersey’s potholes and severely worn roads seemed to crash through the 328i much more than the soft suspension would suggest. The result added to the perspective that the F30 328i had lost some of its overall premium feel. Highway cruising as expected is a breeze and very Germanic thanks to the standards of the world-renowned Autobahn. But even highway cruising revealed the F30’s cushy suspension, especially when the road became uneven with more body pitch and swaying than before. But despite this, the F30’s direction of travel always remained rock solid.
Our 2013 328i Luxury Line tester starts off at a base price of $36,500, while the previous 328i started at $34,600. With all of our options and packages checking in as the $950 Cold Weather Package, the $3,100 Technology Package, the $1,000 Dynamic Handling Package, and the $3,100 Premium Package, the total price came up to be just a little short of $50k large at $48,195. And that’s pretty pricey for 3-Series, especially with just a four-cylinder.
Altogether, I don’t walk away fully disappointed with the 3-Series. Nor do I doubt that it still has the most fun factor out of anything else in the compact (well, not really anymore) luxury segment. But all of us at egmCarTech agreed that the F30 328i just didn’t feel as special as the BMWs that we’ve all come to love. Average buyers will certainly get what they’re expecting, but enthusiasts will have a hard time recognizing this car as a true BMW as well. Granted, we only drove the F30 328i Luxury Line. And of course, full judgment is still being withheld when comparing the F30 3-Series to the Audi A4, the newly updated Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the aging Lexus IS, and the Cadillac ATS-which I seriously ache to drive-because I have yet to comprehensively drive any of the latter. I have driven the S60 R-Design, which Volvo claims to be their answer to the BMW 3-Series. And by far, the 3-Series is much more fun to drive than the Volvo.
If I were asked if I would buy the F30 3-Series, it would definitely be on the top of my list of considerations. However, because the driving experience just simply didn’t meet my expectations of the infamous Ultimate Driving Machine, I’d give the difficult competition more of a second thought than I ever would have in previous times. Without the hard sporting edge of the previous generation E90 3-Series, there doesn’t seem to be the same appeal that led BMW into the pages of unabashed victory. I can’t help but think of that sacrilegious statement and how it’s becoming more of a truth than I could have ever imagined. Every bit of me wants to deny this reality, but this reality is here and it’s going to stay for the near future. BMW is perhaps becoming the “new Mercedes-Benz” in the way that BMWs have softened up to the point of just becoming too luxurious. That’s because BMW wasn’t always known for luxury as it was for being an amazing driving car in a package that’s as practical as any other direct competition.
In the midst of sales wars currently driving automakers to produce more cars than ever in history, you can tell the F30 3-Series was built to more of a “cookie-cutter standard” to meet the demands of increased sales. As a result, some of the defining character has disappeared along with it. Though I will relinquish my full judgment on the F30 3-Series because I have yet to drive the more powerful six-cylinder powered 335i Sport Line, complete with a six-speed manual. It would be the driving enthusiasts’ top pick for being the sportiest and fastest of the entire 3-Series sedans—that is, until the new M3 is introduced. And to even console myself a little more against that blasphemous statement, I do remember saying as a kid that the world would be a much better place if there were more Roundel’s on the road.
BMW provided the vehicle for this review.
- By: Chris Chin
All Photos Copyright egmCarTech © Omar Rana.