THE ULTIMATE DRIVING MACHINE.
Try as they might, I don't see how the automotive world is going to top that slogan for snappy punch. Porsche's old "There Is No Substitute" is not bad as it makes everyone else sound like they're selling margarine, but BMW's got the upper hand - at least in the marketing game.
It's the culmination of a brand message that stretches all the way back to that first 2002tii that the late, great, David E. Davis got so effusive about. The blue-and-white roundel would only adorn the sportiest of machines from Germany: they might be comfortable, luxurious and well-equipped, but they were primarily tools for driving.
As a nail on which to hang BMW's reputation, you could hardly go wrong with the 3 Series. It is the industry benchmark for sporting sedans, and has been for at least three decades.
But here's the thing: BMW's slogan is no longer just "The Ultimate Driving Machine" - they've been slipping the term "Efficient Dynamics" into the advertising these days. It's a newer, softer, greener BMW - expanding the definition of performance to include frugality at the pump and cleaner emissions.
Sounds great - but surely deviating from a previous focus on driving dynamics above all else must result in a blurring of the edges? Put it another way: is the new 3 Series still the benchmark that makes the competition green with envy?
Certainly, you wouldn't think BMW had taken too many risks with their winning formula when first you clap eyes on their new 3. Dubbed chassis-code F30, it's a stone's throw from the out-going model, sharing much of that same conservative, mildly creased bodywork - every panel is different, but not wildly so.
Speaking of numbers, BMW aficionados are awfully fond of them. For instance, I could walk up to any member of the local BMW club and tell them that I grew up driving an 85 E28 535i, and they'd instantly have a picture in their head of exactly what I was talking about.
My 328i tester, on the other hand, has nomenclature designed to infuriate the purist. Once upon a time, the badge
on the back of a Bimmer indicated engine size, and made things easier for their would-be buyers.
These days, the 328i has a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine (which must surely be worth more than 0.8 litres of extra displacement), and it says "xDrive" on the flanks as opposed to just "x" on the back, to let everyone know it's got proprietary four-wheel drive.
Out front, the iconic BMW twin-kidney grille now connects directly with the headlights, giving the impression that the car has tear ducts. Taken overall, it's a handsome machine that's as shouty as a charcoal business suit (i.e. not at all).
Inside, fans of early Bimmer 3s will think they're looking into a 5 Series - and they'd be nearly right. The new 3 is just as spacious as a 5 from the early part of last decade, particularly in the back seat where rear knee room is exemplary.
Up front, things are a little more of a mixed bag. While my tester was a "Luxury" line (Sport or Modern are the alternatives) and came fully loaded, it did have the vaguest aftermarket feel to the way the navigation screen sat in the instrument panel.
Not that there was anything of an afterthought about the iDrive system itself. Critics absolutely hated the old system when it debuted, but that was nearly a decade ago. Like most modern BMWs, the 3 Series control interface is very intuitive, and simple to use.
The rest of the cabin is typically BMW, an incremental improvement over the old 3 Series, but not something to shock or amaze. Build quality is very high, as you would expect. The seats err on the side of slight firmness.
Down on the centre next to the shifter is a toggle switch to flick the car between comfort, normal and sport modes - just in case you aren't sure what the difference is through the seat of your pants, a handy screen will pop up to let you know what your button-pressing has accomplished.
First, to placate the BMW purists who will no doubt be scoffing at the idea of a four-cylinder BMW. Yes, this engine is nowhere near as sweet or smooth as the old straight-six. An inline-6 is a perfectly balanced engine, and no one does them better than the Bavarians.
On startup, the 2.0-litre four-pot turbo is a bit clattery, as with most direct-injected engines. You won't notice anything inside the cabin, but do expect some funny looks.
Put the car in motion, however, and things change quite a bit. While there is the teensiest bit of hesitation from the turbo-lag, this new motor is much stronger down low than the old inline six. BMW claims 241 horsepower. I claim that BMW is sandbagging like an old pro.
My tester was white-on-tan with extra-cushy interior options and wood trim: a machine spec'd for the silver-haired. Regardless of appearance, tickle the throttle when in sport mode and it'd scoot like a scalded cat.
Naturally, not everything was as sporting as it could be - the steering is not quite as knife-sharp as one would expect from a BMW - and those looking for a little added precision would do well to consider the Sport line. However, mid-range acceleration of this new four-cylinder engine and eight-speed transmission is excellent, and certainly BMW-like in rapidity.
Bring the 3 to a stop and a bit of an Achilles heel is exposed: the start-stop system. Yes, this does indeed save fuel, but it's really quite rough in engagement. Nothing so bad as an Altima Hybrid, but certainly a few steps back of the system that Porsche now offers in its sports cars.
As the weather was fairly poor, I had ample opportunity to try out the all-wheel drive.
BMW's xDrive system differs in feel to competitors in its apparent rear-wheel-drive bias. It's certainly a pleasure to carve through a corner (though the Luxury Line is a bit too wallowy to make things really pleasant), and if you're a bit too hasty goosing the throttle, you will overwhelm the systems.
Other improvements include a much better ride - some of the added comfort feels like it comes at the cost of body roll. BMW enthusiasts will again want to see if they can stretch to the Sport package. Features
At just $43,600 to start for a rear-wheel-drive model, the 3 Series is very competitively priced. There's also a Classic Line which comes with xDrive for just $39,900 - not too many options available on this one.
Like any other German manufacturer, start optioning out the car you actually want and the price climbs rapidly. However, the addition of a single package including navigation, parking assist and keyless go (for $3,500) kept my tester just a hair less than the $50,000 mark.
Notable available features include BMW Apps, which allows you to update your car down the road, just as you would update your smartphone, and a sensor under the rear bumper that can open the trunk if you wave your foot under it when your hands are full - clever stuff.
Observed fuel economy is markedly improved over the old inline engine; official ratings are at 8.6 litres/100 kilometres in the city and 5.2 l/100 km on the highway. City figures can be improved upon when the start-stop system is active. Stop sign
Noisy engine; body roll; options can add up quickly. Green light
Strong acceleration; excellent fuel-economy; improved interior space; available all-wheel-drive grip. The checkered flag
Even as BMW moves into an area of broader appeal and more efficient offerings, the 3 Series remains the industry benchmark.
Competitors Cadillac ATS ($35,195)
At the press launch for Cadillac's new small sedan, the BMW 3 Series might have been mentioned once or twice. Or several thousand times.
Caddy drew down a bead on the 3 and took their best shot. Surprisingly enough, it's a pretty good shot - in fact, the hat tip has to go to the ATS for the better on-road handling dynamics.
Of course, this is Caddy's first shot, and there are some weak points, most notably the shoddy instrument panel and the wonky CUE control interface. Even so, the fact that a Cadillac can run toe-to-toe with Bimmer's best in the twisties says a great deal about GM's ground-up effort.
Audi A4 ($37,800)
If your commute has heavy snow, buy an Audi. If it's got a curvy road, buy a BMW - or at least, that's what common sense used to say.
These days, Audi's moved pretty far from its front-drive roots, and the A4 is just as capable of a backroad boogie as the Bimmer. While the BMW has the engine edge on paper, the Audi's 2.0-litre turbo engine has lovely grunt; it's a closer race than you'd think.