The 2012 BMW 3 Series sedans represent the sixth generation of these cars. The 3 Series began with the 1975 BMW 320i, a small, premium sports sedan that appealed to the young and upwardly mobile. The groundwork had been laid here in the U.S. by the popular BMW 2002 and related models that came before. You could even go back to the swoopy pre-war BMW 328 designed for well-to-do gentlemen. However you look at it, the 3 Series is an icon for the brand and remains to this day the quintessential BMW. The 3 Series is the most important product line for BMW and the benchmark for its class. We think the 3 Series is the car BMW does best, and the sedan is the most important iteration.
Though completely changed, the new 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan looks similar to the 2011 model, and it will be recognized by everyone as a BMW 3 Series. Whether it will generate attract additional attention for being new is another matter, although BMW aficionados will have no trouble spotting it. Park a 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan next to a 2011 model and the differences become obvious to casual observers.
For starters, the new sedans are slightly larger in nearly every dimension. The distinguishing styling difference of the new 3 Series sedan is the area around the headlights and grille. Most noticeable is that the headlights now connect to the grille. The grille on the new 2012 3 Series sedans still uses BMW's trademark twin-kidney design but it's shaped differently. The design changes freshen its appearance and add character. Functionally, the new fascia design affords bigger air intakes through the grille and under the front bumper. The sides of the new sedan has broader shoulders, giving it a more muscular stance.
The back seats are a bit roomier on the new 3 Series sedans. We found them cozy but comfortable for two adults, with slightly more headroom and legroom. Also, trunk space has been usefully increased by 1 cubic foot, bringing the 3 Series up to the modest standards of the class.
While the 2012 BMW 3 Series sedans are all-new, the 3 Series coupes and convertibles will continue on the previous-generation chassis through the 2012 model-year. Look for the coupe and cabriolet to be redesigned and introduced as either 2013 or 2014 models. This fall, BMW will introduce a high-performance 3 Series M Sport model with a sports suspension, an all-wheel-drive 3 Series xDrive model, and an ActiveHybrid 3 powered by an electric motor and a 300-hp six-cylinder.
The BMW 3 Series is one of the lightest cars in its class, and the new 2012 BMW 328i sedan weighs 3,406 pounds. That's 88 pounds lighter than the previous 3 Series, says BMW, 99 pounds lighter than a comparable Audi A4, and 22 pounds lighter than a comparable Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The biggest news for the new 3 Series sedans is a return to the four-cylinder engine. The 3 Series was introduced with a four-cylinder engine 37 years ago, but for many years these cars have been powered by inline six-cylinder engines. The new 2012 BMW 335i is indeed powered by an inline-6, but the new 2012 BMW 328i uses a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4. The twin-scroll turbocharger helps the 2.0-liter four-cylinder generate 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. The 3.0-liter six-cylinder, also turbocharged, produces 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque for the 335i. We found both engines to be responsive and willing partners and either is a good choice, their advantages and disadvantages subtle. Each model offers a choice between the new 8-speed automatic transmission or a 6-speed manual gearbox, and we enjoyed all combinations, testing them out on a variety of roads and on a race track in dry and wet conditions.
BMW says the 328i can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds with 8-speed automatic or in just 5.7 seconds with the 6-speed manual. This same feat takes the Mercedes-Benz C250 a full 7.1 seconds, the Audi A4 2.0T 6.5 seconds (both equipped with 6-speed manuals). The BMW 335i is quicker, claimed capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds, with either transmission. We found the power advantage of the 335i over the 328i to be negligible in most situations. We discovered the 335i can accelerate more strongly up long, horsepower-robbing grades, important for winning lap times at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Greater torque gives the BMW 335i a more easy-going robustness when cruising around town, on back roads and on the highway. One difference: The BMW 335i purrs like a kitten when idling, the four-cylinder in the 328i clatters like a diesel. But you're usually inside the car, so you may not care.
Fuel economy for the BMW 328i is an EPA-estimated 23/34 miles per gallon City/Highway with 6-speed manual, 23/33 mpg with the new 8-speed automatic. The BMW 335i rates just 20/30 mpg with 6-speed manual, but an impressive 23/33 mpg with the new 8-speed automatic. Premium gasoline is required for all 3 Series models.
The new cabins can be upgraded from base to three distinctive themes, Modern, Sport, and Luxury. The new 3 Series models are loaded with technology but are easy to operate. iDrive comes standard. The technology is deeply integrated yet doesn't get in the way when you don't want it. When you do want it, you can listen to New York radio stations in California. You can locate your car with your iPhone. You can plug into Pandora and MOG. There's a head-up display in color.
The 2012 3 Series sedans are more comfortable than last year's versions, offering significantly more front headroom than before (an increase of more than 1.5 inches). Back-seat riders will benefit from more rear legroom and slightly more rear headroom (like you care what they think).
Whether on the road or on the track, we found the handling response sharp and precise and braking capability excellent. Well-tuned active safety features step in to assist should you overdo it. Exterior dimensions for all 3 Series models are relatively compact, making them good cars for crowded city centers. The four-door sedan is the most familiar of the 3 Series body styles, and among the most passenger friendly.
The BMW 3 Series is the benchmark among entry-luxury sports sedans, a class that includes the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, and Lexus IS. This class is mostly rear-wheel drive, though Audi is the exception with its all-wheel drive. Front-wheel-drive entry-luxury cars, such as the Lexus ES, are comparable from a features standpoint and are similarly sized but don't offer the sporty dynamics of the rear-wheel-drive sports sedans. All are superb cars, but the new 2012 BMW 3 Series sedans reconfirm themselves as the benchmark for their brilliant balance of performance and driving pleasure with technology and rationale.
The 2012 328i sedan comes standard with leatherette upholstery, automatic climate control, HD radio, USB, Bluetooth, silver matte trim, multifunction leather-trimmed steering wheel, Auto Stop/Start, fog lights, rain sensor and auto headlights, ambiance lighting, 12-volt power socket, Dynamic Cruise Control, 17-inch alloy wheels, floor mats.
The 335i sedan upgrades to power front seats with dark burl walnut wood trim, driver seat memory, lumbar support, moonroof, xenon HID headlights, automatic high beams, 18-inch wheels.
Dakota leather upholstery ($1,450) is optional for both models. A Technology Package ($2,550) includes navigation system, real-time traffic information, head-up display; the Premium Sound Package ($950) includes Harman Kardon surround sound with satellite radio and one-year subscription; the Parking Package ($1,550) includes rearview camera, side and top-view cameras, park distance control; the Driver Assistance Package ($1,100) includes Lane Departure Warning and Active Blind Spot Detection. The Cold Weather Package ($1,350) adds heated seats front and rear, heated steering wheel, retractable headlight washers, split-folding rear seat.
Safety features that come standard include front-impact airbags that deploy at different rates depending on the severity of impact, front passenger side-impact airbags and full-cabin, curtain-type head protection airbags. Active safety features designed to help the driver avoid collisions include Dynamic Stability Control and the latest generation antilock brakes. The ABS preloads the brake pedal when the driver suddenly lifts off the gas pedal, and includes a feature that lightly sweeps the brake discs dry every 1.5 seconds when it's raining. Run-flat tires eliminate the need to change a tire on the road. Optional rearview camera and side and top-view cameras can help the driver spot a child behind the car when backing up. Lane Departure Warning and Active Blind Spot Detection are optional. All-wheel drive is not yet available.
The most noticeable styling difference for the 2012 sedans is that the headlights and grille are connected. A wide, squat interpretation of the upright, slightly forward-slanting BMW kidney grille is used. LED accent lights positioned like eyebrows above the striking twin headlights with corona rings (if xenon headlights are specified) add intensity to the classic BMW focused look.
The 2012 BMW 3 Series replaces the central air intake of its predecessor with two larger intakes, which are positioned underneath the headlights to the outer edges of the front fascia and add depth to the sporty styling. On the far left and right of the main ducts are small vertical intakes which help create an air curtain for improved air flow around the front wheels, enhanced aerodynamic efficiency and reduced fuel consumption at higher speeds.
The new 3 Series sedan is slightly larger than the outgoing model. The 2012 BMW 3 Series is 3.7 inches longer than the outgoing version, measuring 182.5 inches in overall length. Its wheelbase has grown by 1.8 inches to 182.5 inches. Front and rear overhangs are about an inch longer, though the 3 Series still has short overhangs for the class. Overall width is about the same, measuring 71.3 inches wide, 0.2 inch narrower than before. Track (the distance between the left and right wheels) has grown to 60.3 inches front and 61.9 inches rear; a significant increase of 1.2 inches in front, 1.7 inches rear. Overall height of the 3 Series sedan is 56.3 inches, an increase of 0.4 inch. The engine is set back behind front axle to improve weight distribution and handling. The 3 Series sedans are aerodynamically slippery, with a 0.29 Cd for 328i, 0.30 for 335i. Wheels are an inch larger in diameter for each model than previously.
Sport, Luxury, Modern, and M Sport are each distinguished by their unique trim. We had an opportunity to see a range of colors and found the brown and blue beautiful. Red not so much.
The standard interior looks like traditional BMW with matt-satin silver-colored trim. The base seats are nice. The leatherette looks and feels like leather. It's functional but boring. If you're spending this much on a car you deserve to be rewarded with one of the upgrade interiors.
The Modern interior is distinctive with its textured trim, interesting and fresh. We checked out one in the oyster-colored leather and liked it. If you enjoy design you may love it. Being traditionalists, our instinct was to reject the Modern trim but we forced ourselves to keep an open mind and were able to convince ourselves to like it. We're not sure how it will wear in the long-term, though it may make for a collector car someday. The Luxury interior is traditional, attractive and, well, luxurious, our choice for commuting, business, vacationing. Warmest and prettiest is a Luxury with tan leather and burr walnut wood. The Sport line is all about the business of driving, featuring black seats with high bolsters and black and red interior trim, our choice for serious driving or a day at the circuit or just looking manly.
Regardless of trim, the new 3 Series cockpit is oriented around driving, the dash angled slightly toward the driver bringing all controls within easy reach. Four circular dials (fuel gauge, speedometer, tachometer and oil temperature gauge) come with a black panel display. Climate controls are traditional BMW, intuitive and easy to operate. Overall, the trim is nice. Soft-touch plastic inside the interior door handles feels upscale. One gripe was the plastic glovebox latch, which looked and felt cheap.
The iDrive monitor sticks up above the dash, reminding us of a flat-screen television that pops out of a piece of furniture when switched on. Except this little flat-screen is always there: It never retract into the dash, and it isn't beautiful to behold, though it is easy to see and it does work well. The high-resolution display is wide, allowing a view of more real estate and more roads to the sides, useful when navigating. Real-time traffic information is provided, handy in metro areas that support it. Shift into Reverse and the rearview camera automatically displays what's behind the car, valuable for helping the driver spot a low post or a small child. In addition, Surround View with Side View and Top View offer a bird's-eye perspective of the vehicle and the area around it, very helpful in tight confines. If that's not enough, Parking Assistant helps the driver parallel park by finding a space, turning the steering wheel, practically parking the car itself.
With new Bluetooth office functions from BMW ConnectedDrive, internet-based weather and news is available as well as calendar entries, text messages and e-mail. All of this can be viewed on the display, and the system will even read the messages via a Text to Speech function. Passengers can access their personal music library on their iPhone or iPod inside the car. Their playlists, stored song titles and relevant album cover artwork are then displayed on the on-board monitor. The BMW Connected app allows full in-car use of web radio and calendar functions in combination with the Apple iPhone. Pandora and MOG can be accessed safely and conveniently through the iDrive controller and screen. BMW has worked diligently with Silicone Valley companies in Northern California and has established itself is a leader in this technology.
Rear-seat roominess was increased for the 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan, and there is slightly more legroom, slightly more headroom in this latest version. A pair of us sat in the back seats and found them roomy with good headroom. We think the 3 Series sedan would be a fine choice for transporting four adults out to dinner. Getting in and out of the back seats is easy. When we swung our feet out, our toes didn't hit the B-pillar.
Getting into the trunk is easier. Kick your foot under the rear bumper and the system will sense your remote control and pop the trunk lid for you, handy when walking up to the car with two armloads of groceries. The trunk is 1 cubic foot larger for 2012, and it's now about average for the class at 13 cubic feet.
The 328i delivers great acceleration performance, which we experienced in Northern California's Carmel Valley. The 328i gets to 80 mph quickly. The turbocharger provides boost through a broad torque range, delivering 255 foot-pounds of torque from 1250-4200 rpm. We found ourselves giving little thought to the engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (one turbo with twin scrolls). The only time we really thought of it being a four-cylinder rather than a six was when we got out and walked to the front of the car when it was running. That was when we noticed the 328i engine clatters away like a diesel when idling. The 335i six-cylinder engine purrs like a contented cat.
The 335i has more torque, and this is most noticeable going up steep hills or accelerating from a standstill. We found the 335i could rocket up the long, steep hill between Laguna Seca's Turn 6 and the Corkscrew, while in the 328i it felt more like we were chugging up the hill, albeit we were chugging enthusiastically. The differences were more subtle on the road, where the 328i never felt lacking. While the 335i is slightly more enjoyable, we heartily recommend the 328i. The 335i comes with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. It uses a single twin-scroll turbo, which offers better fuel economy than the earlier twin-turbo version. It makes 300 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 300 pound-feet of torque from 1300-5000 rpm, a broad power band that gives the 335i strong response to throttle input at all engine speeds. In other words, just stand on it and she goes. Turbo lag is nonexistent, and 0-60 mph comes quickly, just 5.4 seconds with either transmission, according to BMW.
An automatic Stop/Start function comes standard on both the 328i and 335i. We found it to be an annoying feature, likely installed to satisfy government regulations more than any real-world benefits. Auto Stop/Start shuts off the engine whenever the car is stopped. The re-start is rough, reminiscent of manually cranking the key to re-start the car at every intersection. It lacks the elegance of the system in, say, a Buick Regal with eAssist, where the restart is so smooth and seamless that it's difficult to discern when it occurs. On the BMW, the restart feels more comparable to that of a 1950s-era vintage pickup truck. Strangely, we grew used to it. Fortunately, the feature can be completely overridden by pressing a button, whereupon the engine continues to idle like a normal car whenever stopped. How much fuel this idle-off feature on the 3 Series saves is a question only a BMW engineer can answer, but car manufacturers aren't eager to say anything that could harm their relationship with the government. Today's engines idle at much lower rpm than they did in the not-too-distant past, and they burn little fuel while idling. However, installing an idle-stop feature earns credits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that an automaker can use toward satisfying the federal government's tightening Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements. However, the system probably does reduce emissions slightly and leaving it on may be slightly less harmful to the environment. The 3 Series is also equipped with an Eco Pro system that coaches the driver to help achieve better fuel economy. Some people may want to be coached, but we don't want to be coached, so we didn't use it.
The new 8-speed automatic works very well. Some drivers prefer to shift semi-manually, but it often seems just as effective to put it in Drive and let it do its thing. We enjoy the manual transmission. The connection through the manual allows the driver to more thoroughly exploit the car. Clutch-pedal effort makes taking off easy, without having to think about it, and the gear ratios are perfectly spaced for either engine. Choosing between the two transmissions comes down to personal preference. The automatic is easier for stop-and-go commuting.
Handling is excellent whether in the 328i or 335i. These cars offer a good balance of ride quality and handling response. The steering is light at low speeds, with proper resistance and feedback at higher speeds. Nearly equal front/rear weight distribution, aided by locating the engine behind the front axle, leaves the driver in full command. It's an easy car to drive fast. We drove hard up a primitive mountain road, overdriving the tires, allowing the active safety features to limit speed around the bumpy switchbacks. At Laguna Seca, we strapped on helmets, switched off the electronics, and pushed hard around the turns. These cars are very easy to control at the limit, giving the driver confidence, delivering joy.
The 328i comes with 225/50VR17 tires on 7.5x17-inch wheels, while the 335i gets 225/45VR18 tires on 8x18-inch wheels. In theory, this should yield a harder ride and sharper handling for the 335i, but we were hard pressed to tell much difference. The wheelbase on the new 2012 BMW 3 Series is longer than that of the previous generation, and the track is slightly wider. There are many upsides to this, the downside is that the new model needs another foot of space to make a U-turn.
Traction control kicks in when accelerating hard out of low-speed corners, eliminating wheelspin and reducing the chance of a spin. When driving hard, on a race track, for example, we found it beneficial to switch the system off, allowing the car to slide more and the tires to spin to achieve higher cornering speeds and more responsive acceleration performance coming out of the turns. Traction control is useful on an unfamiliar mountain road, but won't help you win an autocross. The active safety features can be switched off or dialed back in degrees, allowing the driver to tune the system to conditions and his or her preferences.
Braking is excellent in both models. The large brake calipers and rotors deliver more clamping force than most competitors. And thanks to BMW's electronic management, the brake pads move within a hair of the rotors if the driver suddenly releases the gas pedal, even if the driver hasn't yet considered slamming on the brakes. The pads also lightly sweep the rotors every few seconds if it's raining, just to be sure there is no significant moisture build up.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Monterey, California.
Model as tested
BMW 328i sedan ($34,900)
4 years/50,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
Model Line Overview
BMW 328i sedan ($34,900); 335i sedan ($42,400)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual front airbags, front passenger side-impact airbags, full-cabin head protection airbags, tire-pressure monitor, traction control, anti-lock brakes, Dynamic Stability Control and post-impact system to unlock doors, switch on hazard and interior lighting and disable fuel pump
Safety equipment (optional)
2.0-liter inline-4 turbocharged
Specifications as Tested
leatherette upholstery, automatic dual-zone climate control, AM/FM, HD Radio, Dynamic Cruise Control, power windows, remote keyless entry, leather-wrapped tilt/telescoping steering wheel with multi-function controls, rain-sensing variable-speed wipers, xenon high-intensity discharge headlights, halogen foglights, 17-inch wheels
Engine & Transmission
2.0-liter inline-4 turbocharged
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
240 @ 5000-6000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
independent five-link, coil springs, twin-tube shocks, anti-roll bar
independent, double-pivot lower control arms, coil springs, twin-tube shocks, anti-roll bar
independent five-link, coil springs, twin-tube shocks, anti-roll bar
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear