Pros: Efficient and powerful new turbocharged inline-4; stellar inline-6 engine range; improved ride and bigger cabin in new sedan; excellent handling in non-sedan models
Cons: New sedan isn't as sporty
The 2012 BMW 3 Series is a tale of two generations. The sedan has been completely redesigned, featuring stretched dimensions, a new turbocharged inline-4 in 328i form and revised styling inside and out. The coupe, convertible and wagon, on the other hand, have carried over from the previous-generation 3 Series, so they're the same models you've been seeing on the road for years. Yes, it's confusing, but that's just the way BMW handles its 3 Series launches: the sedan comes first, and the other body styles get their redesigns the following year. So we're here to break down the differences for you and make sure you end up with the 3 Series you want.
Let's start with the new one, the 2012 3 Series sedan. Its external appearance hasn't changed dramatically-the front end and taillights have received most of the surgery-but the interior has been both restyled and enlarged. Results? The dashboard has more visual flair than before, and lanky adults can sit in back now without problems. These are good things, and the incredibly efficient turbo four is an unequivocal win.
However, those who think of the 3 Series as The Ultimate Driving Machine may be disappointed by some of the other alterations. Notably, the steering system is now electrically assisted, which dilutes its natural feel, and there's more body roll than in previous 3 Series sedans. Also, the view over the bulbous new hood accentuates the car's increased size.
If you're suddenly feeling nostalgic for the previous 3 Series, don't worry; it's still available in the other three body styles. The sleek coupe, handy wagon and sophisticated retractable-hardtop convertible are all carryover models, so the old sporting spirit lives on for another year. We probably don't need to tell you, but the outgoing 3 Series has been praised by virtually everyone, including us, for its more or less perfect combination of athleticism and refinement. It's less luxurious than the new model, but it's arguably more of a driver's car.
So now you know the two sides of the 2012 BMW 3 Series. Next, go drive them for yourself, and remember that whichever generation you choose, you'll be getting one of the best all-around cars in the world.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 BMW 3 Series is offered as a sedan, wagon, coupe or hardtop convertible in two basic trim levels: 328i and 335i. The high-performance M3 is reviewed separately.
The new 328i sedan comes standard with the turbocharged inline-4 engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, foglamps, Driving Dynamics Control with three different settings for throttle sensitivity and steering effort, push-button ignition, leatherette upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity and the iDrive infotainment system with a 6.5-inch screen. The 335i sedan adds the turbocharged inline-6, 18-inch wheels, adaptive xenon headlamps, a sunroof and power front seats with lumbar.
In addition to a laundry list of options, the new 3 Series sedans can be outfitted in Sport Line, Modern Line or Luxury Line trim. These trims are mainly comprehensive appearance packages that include unique wheels and interior décor. The Sport also has a lowered sport suspension.
The carryover 328i coupe, wagon, and convertible come with largely the same standard features set as the 328i sedan, but there are notable exceptions. The coupe, for example, comes standard with a sport suspension; the wagon gets standard 16-inch wheels and no model comes standard with iDrive, which requires a different dashboard. The Driving Dynamics Control and auto stop/start features are also unique to the new sedan. As for the old 335i, which isn't offered as a wagon, its standard extras are pretty close to those of the 335i sedan.
For 2012, BMW also still makes the 335is, a coupe or convertible that gets an older twin-turbocharged inline-6 with extra boost. Numerous sport-oriented features are along for the ride here, as the company has tried to position this model between the 335i and the M3.
One thing that hasn't changed over time is the excellence of 3 Series seats. They come in multiple forms, but there's really not a bad apple in the barrel, although you'll want the power seats with lumbar support for optimal comfort. The gauges in the new car thankfully remain; they're BMW's classic white-on-black variety, changing to orange on black at night. Perhaps the most significant change in the new sedan's interior is the cohesive design of the standard iDrive screen, which now sits comfortably atop the center stack like an integrated iPad. In the old cabin, an unsightly separate hump was required to accommodate the optional iDrive screen. Materials quality in both cabins is excellent, but the new interior layout scores points for its stylized, contemporary look, even if some might feel the Sport Line trim goes over the top with such touches as red stitching on the seats.
The new 3 Series sedan has grown in both wheelbase and overall length, and BMW has used the extra space wisely, creating a back seat that can finally accommodate six-foot-plus non-contortionists. Audi achieved this with the A4 a few years ago, so it's high time BMW joined the party. The other 3 Series models are a mixed bag in back: the wagon lacks rear legroom if the folks in front are tall, the coupe has decent rear space by class standards and the convertible is pretty tight.
The sedan's trunk has grown, too, to a respectable 13 cubic feet, while the wagon remains the cargo champ with 25 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and 58 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded down. The coupe has 11.1 cubic feet, while the convertible has a robust 12.3 cubic feet with the top up, but just 7.0 cubic feet with it down.
Speaking of the convertible, the standard power-operated retractable hard top doesn't do the car's styling any favors, but we suppose that's a small price to pay for its added security and all-weather capability.
If you think BMW scrimps on standard features, the 2012 3 Series will force you to think again. Across the board, you get standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, and the sedan adds gewgaws like three-mode electronic throttle/steering calibration (four mode in Sport Line models). It even comes standard with that nifty 6.5-inch iDrive system, which is optional on the older 3 Series models. So let's talk about iDrive-specifically, let's talk about how good it is these days. Remember when everyone loved to criticize it for not having enough buttons? Well, BMW learned from that experience, as the new sedan's iDrive controller is surrounded by no fewer than eight programmable buttons. The screen is wide and crisp-one of the best on the market-and iDrive is now hard drive based, which gives you higher processing speeds and the fringe benefit of digital music storage.
Performance & Fuel Economy
All 3 Series models start with rear-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission. The 328i sedan features a 2.0-liter inline-4, turbocharged to the tune of a claimed 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. The actual figures are significantly higher, independent testing has confirmed, which explains why this little engine feels so darn strong. Indeed, unless you're sensitive to sound and prefer the turbine-like hum of the turbocharged inline-6-standard on all 335i models, both new and old-you might find the bigger engine isn't worth the extra cash. But for the record, the 335i's rated at an even 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, and it brings sports-car-like acceleration and superior refinement to the table.
As for the "old" 328i models, they're motivated by a 3.0-liter inline-6 that makes 230 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque. It can't come close to the turbo four's fuel economy (or thrust, for that matter), but it's a lot smoother, and it pulls like a champ all the way to redline.
The other available engine is in the 335is-it's a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that's good for 335 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. This engine may feel a little stronger than the regular 335i's engine, but is it really worth the extra thousands? You can probably tell how we feel about it.
If you don't want the slick six-speed manual transmission, your options depend on what model you're looking at. The sedans offer a wonderfully responsive eight-speed automatic, while the rest give you a decent six-speed automatic-except the 335is, which offers a sharp seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual. Also, all-wheel drive can be added to every 3 Series model except the convertible and the 335is range.
Fuel economy gets as high as 23 mpg city/33 mpg highway for the 328i sedan (23/34 mpg with the manual), and the 335i sedan isn't too far behind at 23/33 mpg (20/30 mpg with the manual). Those are pretty amazing numbers. The older 3 Series models don't do as well, though, topping out at 18/28 mpg with the 328i and 335i coupes and dropping as low as 17/24 mpg with the 335is. Expect all-wheel drive to cost you a few mpg regardless of model.
The 2012 BMW 3 Series comes with standard stability control and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. The new sedan has eight airbags (front, front knee, front side, full-length side curtain), while the coupe and wagon lose the knee bags and the convertible loses the side-curtain bags.
The government has not crash tested the 2012 3 Series, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2009-11 fixed-roof 3 Series-which lives on in the 2012 coupe and wagon-its highest rating of Good in all categories except roof strength, where it garnered the second-highest Acceptable rating. The 3 Series convertible received the second-lowest Marginal rating for side impacts, even though frontal offset protection was deemed Good.
As we said in the introduction, the 2012 3 Series is a tale of two generations. The new 328 and 335i sedans drive more like luxury cars than sport sedans, prioritizing comfort and isolation over all-out athleticism. That's a mix that will probably suit most buyers just fine. Don't get us wrong, the new 3 Series sedans can definitely handle, although the previous 3 Series was built more with the enthusiast driver in mind. The 2012 3 Series coupe, wagon and even convertible have a tighter, more focused feel without sacrificing that air of refinement. This is particularly apparent in the steering, which feels more substantial and responsive in the older cars, but it's also a function of the relatively compact dimensions of the old 3 Series.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi A4/A5: Audi's answer to the 3 Series line ranges from basic (the entry-level A4 sedan with CVT) to beautiful (the slinky A5 coupe). You get less power here, but the interiors and driving dynamics are good enough to give BMW pause.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class: Armed with a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine of its own for 2012, the C-Class is down on power relative to its BMW competitors, but it can still get out of its own way, and it's got that premium Benz vibe.
Infiniti G: The base G25 may be uncompetitive in engine output, but it delivers a pretty spacious cabin and entertaining rear-wheel-drive handling for a reasonable price. The G37 is plenty strong and packed with features, though it's rather uncouth.
We love the outgoing 3 Series, but the excellent fuel economy and performance of the new 328i sedan are irresistible-plus the new interior looks great. So we'll take a 328i, please, without a single option. Hey, it comes standard with iDrive, USB/Bluetooth connectivity, and a lovely manual transmission. We wouldn't need anything more.