BMW puts one of the most solid feeling cars on the road with the all-wheel-drive 2007 BMW 328xi. Our test car was the sedan version and, although it didn't come with a navigation system or premium sound, we were still impressed with its cabin tech interface. Its handling was also impressive, although accelerator modulation proved difficult and its power steering made low-speed turning require serious effort.
A Sparkling Graphite Metallic paint job and its sedan body at first glance made our test car look mundane. But a second look reveals the car's performance cues, such as how the cabin is set back slightly, allowing a longer nose. The hood rises up in a muscular manner, making room for a potent power plant. A door-handle height crease breaks up the monotony of the otherwise smooth sides. All of this adds up to an understated performance note.
The cabin of the 328xi features classic European luxury. All of the interior materials have a feeling of quality, while the switchgear, even the plastic buttons, feels solid. A navigation-equipped 328xi would have an LCD taking the place of the radio display. Without this option, as in our test car, you get an orange LCD, which is starting to look a little dated in this era of cell phones with full color screens.
Test the tech: Out of control
Because this was the all-wheel-drive version of the BMW 328, we felt compelled to see how it handled under extreme conditions. So we resolved to corner it so hard that the wheels would break free of the pavement. And we ended up getting it a bit further loose than we expected, but the car really showed what it could do under the circumstances.
First, we found an area free of traffic and other obstacles. We were also fortunate in that our pavement was very dry with a thick coating of dust from a nearby construction site. For this cornering test, we jammed the accelerator as we entered a tight turn. The car dutifully slid, with its rear end breaking free and swinging out a little farther than we had expected. We applied counter-steer and the car quickly got back in line.
The heavy feeling of the steering wheel translated to ultimate control as we got the car back in line around a corner.
Notable about this experience was that the car never felt particularly out of control. Even when the rear of the car went out wide on the corner, the 328xi still felt planted. As we counter-steered, we didn't feel traction control exert itself in any undue manner. We used the steering wheel to tell the car where we wanted to go, and it did exactly what we wanted it to. In other cars we've put into these types of situations, we've felt very intrusive traction control, giving us something else to negotiate with as we tried to get the car back in line. But the 328xi was exceedingly well-mannered during all of this, making us feel like we were in control even when we weren't entirely. It's quite an ego boost.
In the cabin
Because so many cars we get have a navigation screen in the center of the dashboard, the BMW 328xi looked bare in comparison. As mentioned above, we appreciated the luxury feeling of the cabin. The steering wheel has a nice, new design, with the side spokes curving down into the bottom spoke. Metal accents between the spokes mirrored the metal inset on the automatic transmission shifter.
We got the base stereo in our 328xi, but you would have never known it by the audio quality. The stereo put out a strong sound, which seemed in keeping with the driving feel of the car. The audio system uses 10 speakers, including two subwoofers. But this system doesn't put out heavy bass. The audio quality is refined along the entire range, from highs to lows. Overall, the quality of the audio is very good. An upgrade is available, to a Harmon/Kardon Logic7 13 speaker system.
BMW makes the most out of this simple two-line display, making navigating MP3 CDs easy.
Our base stereo system was prepped for Sirius satellite radio, had a standard auxiliary input in the center console, and came with a single disc slot capable of reading both MP3 and WMA CDs (the upgraded system comes with a six-disc changer). We were particularly blown away by the system's presentation of tracks on MP3 and WMA CDs. Even some systems with LCDs we've seen haven't done a very good job of presenting track and folder navigation. But the BMW does an excellent job with minimal space. It reads and indexes all the tracks very quickly, and, when you press the List button, the tracks are shown two at a time on the display. Turn the right-hand knob and you can quickly scroll through them. The display shows folder contents in tree form, making it easy to collapse one tree and expand another.
The Premium package, with which our car was equipped, includes Bluetooth cell phone integration. As with other BMWs we've seen, the cell phone integration is excellent. Pairing our Motorola V551 phone to the system was quick, and the system almost immediately made our address book available on the radio display. Dialing numbers by voice worked flawlessly, and call quality was very good.
Phone integration is excellent, with the phone's address book available at the touch of a button.
The 328xi includes various other tech amenities, such as the smart key system. Unlike other smart key systems, where you can keep the key in your pocket, BMW requires that you push the key fob into a slot in the dashboard. Then you can push the engine start button.
Under the hood
BMWs tend toward an extremely well-engineered feeling, and the 328xi is no exception. Its 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine makes a great sound and puts out very steady power, up to 230 horsepower at 6,500RPM. Our car came equipped with a six-speed automatic, although we would have preferred the standard six-speed manual. The transmission can be set to normal drive mode, sport mode, or a manual gear selection mode.
Acceleration in the standard drive mode feels sedate, but greatly improves in the sport mode. We found the accelerator was difficult to get used to, and we could never really tell when we were going to get power. Sometimes there would be lag and sometimes not. Regular drive mode produced acceleration lag, while sport mode minimized it. But even in sport mode we sometimes got odd lags while cornering. We could never quite pin down how to use this accelerator to get consistent performance.
Another oddity of this car was the heavy steering, which seemed to be a product of the all-wheel-drive system and the variable power steering, which is designed to adjust its assistance based on engine speed. Most cars we get at CNET tend to be easy to steer at low speeds, in our parking garage, and harder to steer at higher speeds. The wheel of the 328xi required serious effort to turn at low speeds, although it felt perfect on mountain roads. This car is meant for more than just trips to the mall.
We covered the handling in our tech test, where the car passed with flying colors. BMW's versatile xDrive, or all-wheel-drive, system generally keeps power at about 40 percent to the front wheels and 60 percent to the rear. In performance driving, such as tight cornering, all the power is transferred to the rear wheels. But if the rear wheels are slipping, all the power can be transferred to the front wheels.
The EPA rates the 328xi at 20mpg in the city and 27mpg on the highway. Our mixed city and freeway driving showed 21.3mpg, a good real-world rating, considering many cars struggle to meet even their EPA city ratings. The car also gets a good emissions rating, with a ULEV II from the California Air Resources Board.
Our car also came with nice, bright xenon headlights, which include adaptive steering on the BMW, meaning the headlights point into a curve when the steering wheel is turned appropriately. BMW's new active cruise control, which can lightly apply the brakes to maintain your desired speed, is also standard.
Our test car was a 2007 BMW 328xi sedan, with a base price of $34,300. We had the pricey ($3,150) Premium package thrown in, which includes power folding mirrors, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and Bluetooth cell phone integration. We would have preferred to get some of these options a la carte, hopefully at a much lower price. The Sport package added $1,200, while the automatic transmission added another $1,275. With various other options, including an $850 Cold Weather package, the total for our car came to $43,395. We would have configured this car differently, bringing in the premium stereo system and losing the automatic transmission, for example, but would have probably ended up around the same price point.
Most of the 328xi is quite good. Even at their base level, the cabin gadgets don't disappoint. The car has an extremely good, solid, quality feeling. The handling is what really distinguishes this car, although drivers expecting to be pampered shouldn't get behind the wheel. In a week with the car, we couldn't really get the hang of the accelerator, one aspect that could become really nagging in the long run.