The BMW 3-Series coupe is the benchmark for sporty performance. Basically, it's the sport coupe that all others aspire to be, and has been for years. The 2008 335i is a step up from the basic model, if there is such a thing. Handling is superb, but that's expected; the 3-Series is best known for its ability to hug the road and tear through the twisties like a jaguar zigzagging after small prey. What truly separates the 335i from the rest of its siblings — and its competition, for that matter — is the twin-turbocharged inline six-cylinder under the hood. It's simply one of the best engines on the market.
The 2008 BMW 3-Series lineup is comprehensive. It includes convertibles, coupes, sedans and wagons. The "i" versions are equipped with rear-wheel drive (2WD) and the "xi" models get BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive (AWD) system. The M3, BMW's legendary high-performance sled, sits at the top of the line and is fully loaded from the factory. It comes as a coupe, sedan, or convertible (no wagon — sorry soccer moms).
Convertibles come with a power-folding hardtop that retracts into the trunk, limiting space for luggage. Otherwise, standard equipment varies by model and body style. Vinyl upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, an AM/FM/CD stereo with auxiliary input jack, and alloy wheels are standard on all 328s. Coupes are equipped with a sport suspension that includes firmer shocks, springs, anti-roll bars, and bushings, as well as a half-inch-lower ride height — all of which make the ride feel a little firm. Sedans and wagons come with 16-inch run-flat tires, while coupes and convertibles get 17-inch run-flats. The 328i convertible is better equipped than the other body styles, with power front seats, memory for the driver's seat and mirrors, and adaptive xenon headlights.
Standard safety equipment for the 3-Series line includes dual front airbags, front-side airbags, anti-lock brakes, a tire-pressure monitor, traction control, and electronic stability control. All come with head-protecting front- and rear-curtain airbags except the convertible. Instead, it has automatic pop-up roll bars. Manual transmission versions also get a hill-holder clutch that prevents the car from rolling backward on a hill. The only safety option is rear park assist.
Under the Hood
Two engine choices are available. The 328i and 328xi come with a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder that produces 230 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque, mated to either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. Steering wheel-mounted shift paddles are included with the available Sport package. EPA fuel economy ratings are 19/28 mpg (city/hwy) with 2WD and the automatic (18/27 for the convertible and wagon); 18/28 with 2WD and the manual (17/27 for the convertible and wagon); and 17/25 with AWD and any transmission or body style.
The 335i and 335xi come with the exceptional twin-turbocharged version of the 3.0-liter inline six. It makes 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque, and is offered with the same transmissions as the base engine. Its EPA figures are 17/26 with 2WD and either transmission, 17/25 with AWD and the automatic, and 16/25 with AWD and the manual.
The high-performance M3 comes with a 414-horsepower 4.0-liter V8.
Hop in the driver's seat, pull the door handle and the first thing you notice is the door closing with a vault-like thunk. The controls are all easy to reach and to move with precision. The materials used to make the dashboard, door panels and center console have a weighty feel and quality appearance. BMW's iDrive control system, which operates numerous entertainment, climate and communications controls, has been criticized by reviewers over the years for overcomplicating many functions. It is optional in the 3-Series, and is only available with the navigation system. Although I've become accustomed to the iDrive, I still don't prefer it because simple tasks such as setting radio stations can require a long look away from the road. An iPod adapter is available, but it's a rather pricey option at $400.
If you have a bad back, you'll probably want to avoid a ride in a BMW 3-Series coupe. The raked windshield and low-slung design make ingress a ducking, twisting exercise that requires some flexibility. Once inside, you may feel somewhat claustrophobic as the front seats envelop you. The sport seats' abundant bolstering does a great job of holding passengers in place during spirited driving, but big people may feel pinched by the sport seats' ample bolstering. Small item storage is limited to a shallow center console, a tiny glove box and a pair of fold-out door pockets for maps and papers.
The two-person back seat has more room than you'd think, and considerably more headroom than the Infiniti G37 coupe. In fact, two adults can sit back there, provided the front-seat occupants aren't very tall. The back seat has a center console with a fold-down armrest. The Cold Weather package adds a center pass-through with a ski sack to protect the leather covering from water and salt damage. The rear seats also fold down, making the shallow but deep trunk's 11.1 cubic feet of cargo volume a fairly useful space for a couple of suitcases or golf bags.
On the Road
The auto manufacturers hold the BMW 3-Series in esteem for its ride and handling prowess for good reason, and the 335i coupe is a special example of the breed. It changes direction like a smaller, lighter car. Grip in turns is tenacious, and the suspension provides a lot of feedback when it is approaching the edge of adhesion. The steering is quick with a lot of road feel, and the brakes are easy to modulate and inspire confidence. The only two complaints involve the steering. Without BMW's Active Steering system, low-speed steering can feel weighty. With Active Steering, which quickens steering response at low speeds, some complain that steering ratio changes can kick in unexpectedly.
The 335i handles and performs better on a racetrack than rivals' high-performance models, namely the Audi RS4 and Mercedes-Benz C63. During a media event comparing all three cars on the 4.1-mile road course at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, the BMW accelerated as well as the RS4, which has 125 more horsepower, and gripped in turns considerably better than either competitor. The 3-Series is a marvelous piece of engineering.
The flip side of handling is ride quality. Usually engineers have to sacrifice one for the other; the better the handling, the harder the ride, and vice versa. That's not the case with the 3-Series — even the 335i coupe with its sportier suspension settings. The coupe's ride is firm but forgiving. It doesn't offer a soft Lexus-like ride, but it doesn't rattle your kidneys, either, which is often the case with other sport models. Only the sharpest potholes affect passenger comfort. The base sedans and wagons feature softer rides, so they are a little better on the bumps.
The base 3.0-liter inline six in 328i versions provides smooth, linear power that actually gets you moving faster than it feels. The twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter six in 335i iterations has V8 punch and no turbo lag. Quite frankly, this is one of the best engines on the market. It has power at all rev ranges and, unlike most turbos, it even delivers willing muscle when you may be a gear or two too high. Zero to 60 mph comes in a brisk 5.3 seconds. It provides plenty of giddy-up in sixth gear, but downshift a gear or two and you'll blow by a line of cars in the blink of an eye.
Right for You?
If you love the automobile, appreciate masterful engineering, or revel in the experience of driving, the BMW 335i coupe is right for you. For many it will just be a toy. Availability of all-wheel drive can make it an everyday driver for the single auto enthusiast. But its low-slung stance, high price tag and cramped back seat make it impractical for families. If you can afford it, keep one for the occasional break from the daily grind. Trust us, this sled is a whole lotta fun to drive.
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.