I was once the proud owner of an E30-era (1982-1990) BMW 325i, and the car's simplicity tickled me. Controls were stripped down, straightforward and decidedly analog. Air conditioning was managed by a set of dials and sliders, and there were no transmission or traction control modes to speak of. In fact, the only digital display on the dash could be found on the aftermarket Pioneer CD player, which, believe it or not, somehow made the car feel more modern than it actually was. Compared to my old Bimmer, our 2012 BMW 328i long-term tester reveals the technological leaps and bounds this Bavarian sedan has taken.
Though it seems light years ahead of my ancient '89 325i, a few iconic trademarks have stuck with the 2012 BMW 328i. The nose still sports BMW's twin kidney grilles, but, more significantly, there's a distinctly familiar feel to the cabin, from the white-on-black analog speedometer and tachometer to the way the seats relate spatially to the dashboard. But, if you look more closely, contemporary reinterpretations abound. The fuel economy gauge, once analog, is now a digital representation of the old sweeping needle, and switches format depending on drive mode. In addition to the standard speedometer, there's a heads-up display that projects onto the windshield a digital speedometer, turn-by-turn navigation info and audio tuning details--part of a $2,550 Technology Package. Despite the iDrive controller wheel, which is surrounded by seven buttons, not all is lost to centralized controls. There are physical switches for air conditioning and stereo control that work intuitively enough, with a touch-sensitive feature on the radio that allows you to view which station you're about to select. Press harder and that station is tuned in.
iDrive Learning Curve: Deep, Deep Menus
Though BMW's iDrive interface has become significantly more intuitive over the years, that innocuous little wheel still unlocks a Pandora's box of menu options. The root list offers eight choices, including stuff I'd never dreamed of back in my earlier BMW driving days, like an Office selection and BMW Connected Drive, which uses the optional $250 Apps feature to connect to your smartphone and display simplified Twitter, Pandora Radio, and Facebook information on the nav screen. You can also call up fuel and vehicle location information on your phone, though it must be synced to the vehicle using a USB cable. (The Bluetooth connection is reserved for music and telephone streaming.)
Delve deeper into those menus and no fewer than 56 sub-settings are accessible. Need to view your fuel economy history or switch to Sport Display (which offers dial-style depictions of the engine's output in kW and Nm units)? This information is embedded in there somewhere, just a few wheel turns and clicks away--likewise a digital version of the 321-page owner's manual, in case you forgot where the wiper fluid goes.
In Practice: Rise of the Computers
While there's a mild learning curve required for the menus and sub-menus that control the BMW's complex electronics systems, a few of the simplest interfaces have proven frustrating during day-to-day driving. For starters, the 328i's sole Lock/Unlock button on the center stack makes me pine for a more mindless setup. The system can be set to automatically lock or unlock one or all doors under a variety of conditions (and, if specified, personalized key fobs). But if you're at a standstill and trying to unlock the door, sometimes you have to push the button, then push it again in order to allow access from outside. Cluttering the dash with separate Lock and Unlock buttons would make the whole affair far more painless. Another issue pertains to the Sport/Eco Pro rocker switch to the left of the shift knob. While the functionality of being able to switch into a fuel-sipping mode is appreciated, having to hit Sport every time a sharper response is desired is not--especially since the default throttle response setting is a bit soft. This makes rev-matched downshifts challenging during aggressive driving. Sure, it's just one button tap away, but it would make the car feel substantially more personalized if the setting weren't reset every time the engine switched off--possibly a concession to how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluates fuel economy numbers. And the nav system sometimes offers confusing destination options, requiring extreme zooming to display street names. Weirdly, a $700 Driver Assistance Plus package bundled with lane departure warning is required for speed limit info, a feature that's typically thrown in on inexpensive aftermarket nav systems.
The Human Interface, In Sum
The breadth of the BMW 328i's gadgetry is considerable, and delving into the iDrive's sub-menus reveals a tech lover's dream of programmable preferences, data logging and sundry informational tidbits you never knew you needed. Sure, it's neat (and potentially distracting) to read your Facebook feed on the pleasingly wide nav screen, but there is also enough minutia to send you hunting for the right menu. Admittedly, these are first-world problems, and the BMW's interface is rather effective at controlling a vast array of variables (even if the single door lock/unlock button is annoying). But looking back at my two-decades-old 325i, I can't help but wonder if I'd trade some of the modern complexity for the nostalgia of simple, straightforward mechanical vehicles. I'll take a few more months of tech immersion to see if it changes my mind. After all, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.