We know that modern diesel cars no longer spew foul-smelling black smoke from the tailpipe, that the engines don't rattle so much you'll think the sun visors are going to fall off, and that they can accelerate quicker than the time it takes the light to turn back to red. But can a diesel be a performance car? BMW answers the question with the 2009 335d, a new choice for the U.S. market that combines the brand's engineering prowess in making sports-luxury cars with new technology that makes the car meet the most stringent emissions requirements.
In fact, the 335d looks the same as a gasoline-powered 335i, and even has the same displacement engine, a 3-liter inline six cylinder with twin-turbochargers. But the power specifications make the driving character insanely different.
On the road
The 2009 BMW 335d delivered to our garage came plastered with an Efficient Dynamics and BMW Advanced Diesel wrap on the sides, just as we've seen on auto show floors for the past couple of years. Fortunately, you can get it without the wrap, in one of 12 colors.
We were ecstatic to find the car equipped with the new generation of iDrive, which does away with the quad-menu in favor of the much more practical list menu. Better yet, the new system uses a hard-drive-based navigation system with live traffic and detailed maps. We spent a half hour just scrolling the map around to see 3D models of major buildings in San Francisco. Transamerica Pyramid? Check. SF MOMA? Check. Exploratorium? Check. AT&T Ballpark? Check.
We paired an iPhone up with the Bluetooth system, and it made our Contacts database accessible on the car's LCD. Then we plugged the same iPhone into the iPod port, and could play our music through the car's stereo.
Our cabin tech set up, we headed out for the open road, immediately noting that the 335d felt no different from any other BMW. The wheel had the right amount of resistance as we crept through city streets and the throttle gave plenty of room to modulate power to the wheels through the car's six-speed automatic. Although there is slightly more engine noise outside the car than a gas version, inside the 335d sound is nicely deadened.
As we got the car onto faster roads, we noted the low rpms on the tachometer--the engine speed hung between 1,000 and 2,000 revs, with redline at only 5,000. But the 335d had no problem keeping up with and passing other cars, and ably climbed hills at speed, showing no strain.
Into the twisties, with the automatic in its sport program, the high torque of the diesel engine made itself known. A turn was coming up; we hit the brakes, and then powered through, and that unbelievable torque started to make bad things happen. Traction control lights came on, the car shimmied back and forth, and we wrestled it back into a straight line.
OK, with less power in the turns, the car behaved better, but the torque was still making the traction control lights flash on the dashboard. We started to suspect the 335d was equipped with extra slippery tires, but no, just the same stock Bridgestone Turanzas as on other BMW 3-series cars. The truth is, you just can't drive the 335d like you would a gasoline-engine car. During some fast-start testing, we determined that BMW probably retuned traction control and the automatic transmission to keep that huge torque from constantly lighting up the tires, as we could only pull off a too-controlled launch.
On a very positive note, an entire day spent in a mixture of high-speed freeway driving, ripping around country roads, and idling in a bit of slow traffic left the tank down by only half, and the trip meter showing an average fuel use of 30.9 mpg, on the high side of the EPA range of 23 mpg city and 36 mpg highway.
In the cabin
After years of iDrive hatred, BMW finally modified the system to make it much more usable. The hardware is essentially the same, with a joystick/knob/button as the main controller, but BMW added some buttons for quick access to major functions such as navigation and audio.
We've always contended that the real fault in iDrive lies in the software interface, and this part has been completely redone by BMW. The main menu, which had four function areas you would select with the joystick, has been swapped for a simple list, where you select a menu item by pushing down on the knob. With the former system, BMW was limited in how many new applications it could introduce without burying everything under submenus. With a list, as many items as needed can be added.