Press launches enable journalists to sample the latest cars well before they're unleashed in showrooms, and a recent media preview gave us the opportunity to experience the newest iteration of what is arguably the Volvo S60's biggest foe: the BMW 3 Series.

BMW builds the undisputed 800-pound gorilla of the compact sport sedan segment; they sold a staggering 97,371 3 Series models in 2011 (among them sedans, coupes, wagons, and convertibles), helping the German manufacturer snatch the sales crown from Mercedes-Benz and beat Lexus in the luxury segment.

How does scrappy little Volvo compare against these juggernauts? Sales for the entire brand improved 25 percent in 2011 (aided largely by the S60), but that still only translated to 67,240 cars-a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly quarter million vehicles sold by BMW last year in North America. That said, let's see how our resident Swede stacks up against the formidable foreigner from Germany.

Fuel Efficiency and Acceleration

Though the 335i carries over its 3.5 liter inline-6, the 328i packs a new turbocharged, 2.0 liter, 240 horsepower four-cylinder that's more fairly compared to our Volvo S60 T5 long term tester. The BMW boasts a new 8-speed automatic gearbox and Stop/Start technology that helps it achieve 24 mpg city, and an impressive 36 mpg highway, while the Volvo's 2.5 liter five-cylinder and 6-speed auto gets 20 mpg city, 30 mpg highway. The more fuel efficient BMW also beats the S60 to 60 mph by .9 seconds, hitting its mark in 5.9 seconds. (Double) advantage: BMW.

Pricing

Let's equip a comparable Bimmer as closely as we can to our resident Volvo, which starts at $31,150 and rings in at $37,725 after a bunch of option boxes are checked. The BMW 328i starts at $34,900, with Modern or Luxury trims available at $2,100, and Sport commanding a $2,500 premium; for the closest apples-to-apples comparison possible, let's load up a base model BMW with metallic paint ($550) and a Premium Package ($3,600 for a moonroof, keyless entry, power front seats, and leather)-so far, we're at $39,945. BMW doesn't offer a navigation system a la carte, so let's opt for their Technology Package ($2,550) which adds a heads-up display that's not available on the Volvo. Our S60 also has split fold down rear seats, which adds $475 to the BMW's price. BMW's premium Hardan Kardon sound system with satellite radio runs $950, and Bluetooth with USB adds $650. A rear view camera ($400) can't be ordered without Park Distance Control ($750); though our Volvo is optioned with a rear view camera, it lacks sonar sensors. Out the door with an $895 destination charge, our theoretical BMW comes in at a hefty $46,820. Advantage: Volvo, for its incredible $9,095 savings.

Driving Impressions

There's more to a sedan than its MSRP, and it took a morning's worth of lapping Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway and an afternoon's romp through Central California's winding roads to put a finer point on how the BMW 328i feels behind the wheel compared to the Volvo S60. As evidenced at the 2.2-mile race circuit, there's no contest: BMW's outstanding chassis, rear wheel-drive setup, and 3,461 pound curb weight make it a joy to toss around the track, offering a smooth-revving powerplant, balanced handling, and confidence-inspiring composure. Though Volvo's sportier all wheel-drive package will become available on the S60 later this year, our front-drive T5 model simply isn't armed with the proper equipment for hard driving. The differences on public roads are less pronounced, but still clearly evident: though the Volvo has an incremental 10 horsepower and 6 ft-lb of torque advantage over the BMW, it's simply unfair to compare these two apples and oranges. But enthusiasts should note that the gap in steering feel is tightening between BMW and Volvo: the 3-series' hydraulic setup has been replaced with an electric arrangement that loses some of its predecessor's magically weighed and nuanced feedback. The new model still feels excellent, though connoisseurs will notice that something has been lost in the name of fuel efficiency. And if you doubt that the two systems display enough of a difference to notice, consider that BMW's flagship M5 has reverted to a hydraulic system. Though the Volvo offers surprisingly satisfying performance around town and a huge improvement over past models, this particular tête à tête certainly doesn't harm BMW's claims that they build the "Ultimate Driving Machine." Advantage: BMW.

Exterior and Interior Styling

Interior and exterior styling is considerably influential in this competitive segment, and it's not entirely fair to compare the just-unveiled BMW with the year-old S60: the BMW's crisp new lines offer a sleeker silhouette and more modern presence. And while the Volvo holds its own with supremely comfortable seats and pleasant interior touches like real aluminum trim, the BMW's comes across as a more contemporary product, with imaginatively formed shapes that might leave more traditional buyers cold. While the Volvo's interior is more conservatively styled, its materials feel more substantial and nicely finished than the BMW. [Subjective] advantage: BMW for its exterior styling, though we prefer the Volvo's interior.

Practicality

Kid hauling is not necessarily an issue of concern for many drivers, but if you're in the market for a sedan over a coupe, there's a decent chance you give a hoot about practicality. After the BMW press launch, I kept the car for a week and snapped the baby seat in the back to see how it compared to the Volvo. Though the BMW is 3.7 inches longer than its predecessor (and .3 inches lengthier than the S60), I found its 1.6 inch advantage in rear legroom didn't quite translate to an easier child seat setup; in order to accommodate the baby seat, the front passenger seat had to move uncomfortably far forward, perhaps because of the shape of the backing. Though the BMW's trunk is larger and offers a cool "kick to open" feature, I found the 328i lags in the area of keyless door entry, a more critical area if you're lifting a baby into the back seat. Whereas the Volvo offers a "touch to open" function at all four door handles, the BMW only works on the two front doors-forcing you open there before moving to the back doors. It's a close call, but given my needs, I found the S60 easier to live with in terms of accessibility. Advantage: Volvo.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, BMW's new 3 Series noses ahead of the Volvo in several categories. But after spending three months in the S60, those distinctions deserve clarification: the BMW emerges victorious on paper, but in the context of dollar-for-dollar comparison and real world driving, the Volvo makes a seriously compelling case for itself. Loaded up with much of the same equipment as the BMW, the Volvo offers an accommodating interior and lots of satisfying features.

Though the more extreme edge of driving enthusiasts will undoubtedly gravitate to the BMW brand, the Volvo still remains surprisingly fun to pilot, with more than enough power to entertain during day-to-day driving. We even like the fact that the Volvo is a bit of an outlier in the automotive landscape, a less frequently spotted alternative to the shockingly common BMW.

If money were no object, the BMW would be a no brainer, as it's a commendably improved spinoff of its already class-leading predecessor. In fact, we'll put that distinction to the test when we swap our long-term Volvo for a long-term 3 Series in a few months. But if we were spending our own cash, our time with the well-equipped T5 leads us to believe that the $9,095 savings outweighs the BMW's advantages - unless, of course, you're happy to spend extra dough on BMW's brand prestige. Call it the allure of the underdog or the thrill of the unexpected, but our nearly 5,000 miles with the S60 so far has left us pleasantly surprised by its endearing traits and involving personality; in a world of unlimited cashflow, the BMW would take the cake. But in our reality of budgets and value, we would be happy to make room in our garage for the Volvo.

author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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