As it's one of BMW's lower-end cars, buyers of the BMW 328i have, in the past, tended to be less serious about driving and more into the status of the blue-and-white roundel. As such, the 2012 BMW 328i's focus on fuel economy would seem a boon to this demographic, who would otherwise be perfectly content driving a Camry.
But the technology that gives the new 328i its very good fuel economy may be either beyond the comprehension of this traditional buyer, or prove too disturbing in daily driving. Beyond such cool features as direct injection, a twin-scroll turbo, and BMW's double-Vanos system, the car's idle-stop system may feel a little rough for someone who gets the car more for a luxury sensation than for its responsive driving character.
BMW fits the 328i with a system that shuts down the engine at traffic stops. And unlike the system in the Buick LaCrosse I tested recently, BMW's starts with a shudder, the engine making itself felt when I lifted a foot from the brake. Likewise, the fact of the engine shutting down when sitting at stop might send more casual drivers into a panic, looking for the emergency flasher switch and the number for AAA.
When the tach needle sits at the Ready position, the idle-stop feature has shut down the engine. It will restart as soon as the brake pedal lifts.
Although BMW says it uses an electro-mechanical power steering system, the wheel becomes immovable when idle-stop kicks in, something I would expect more from a hydraulically boosted system. At one stop, as a strength exercise, I pulled the wheel hard, moving it half an inch, at which point the engine kicked back to life as it sensed I needed the power-steering boost.
BMW makes idle-stop defeatable with a button near the ignition, useful for situations such as stop-and-go traffic. Working as a complement to idle-stop is BMW's regenerative braking system, converting stopping energy to electricity to run various car systems when the engine is off, and reduce alternator drag on the engine at speed.
The complexity of those systems is enough to make engineers salivate and send status buyers scrambling for a copy of E Magazine. But it does not stop there.
The new 328i heralds the return of a four-cylinder engine from BMW to the U.S. Throwing its model-name logic further out the window, BMW fits this car with a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine. And not only does this engine get fuel sprayed directly into its cylinders, mixed with air forced in from a twin-scroll turbocharger, but its valves use computer-driven logic to vary timing and lift.
By the numbers, all that technology results in 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. BMW even includes virtual gauges on a screen that show the output while you drive, except using kilowatts and Newton-meters instead of our quaint English measurements.
The sport gauges are on a cool, somewhat hidden screen that shows horsepower measured in kilowatts and torque in Newton-meters.
What will make the status buyer comfortable is the lack of turbo lag in the new 328i. Stepping on the gas propelled the car smoothly forward, helped along by the nicely geared eight-speed automatic transmission. The power was not enough to torque the tread off the tires, but it proved more than enough for typical city and freeway maneuvering.
The result of BMW's engine tinkering, or what the company calls Efficient Dynamics, is 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. During a week of driving, the car proved those numbers reasonable, never dropping below 25 mpg in tedious city driving and averaging an even 30 mpg, with a bit of aggressive mountain and moderate highway driving added to city and high-speed freeway roving.
And true to BMW's reputation, the 328i begged to be driven exuberantly. Maybe I had spent too much time behind the wheels of boring cars lately, but from the first feeling of how the steering and suspension responded, I wanted to be hammering this 328i. At every city stop light I yearned to be getting the power down in a tight mountain curve.
Along a mountain testing route, the car showed that uniquely responsive BMW handling. No understeer or oversteer; the car tended to keep grip and go precisely where I pointed it. In BMW's overly complex manner, the car had a button on the console to cycle its accelerator response through Sport, Comfort, and Eco Pro modes, while the shifter also had a Sport/Manual position.
BMW's sculpted-looking shifter puts the car in normal and sport modes, and performs manual gear selection.
Using manual gear selection, shifts from the eight-speed showed slight hesitation, but weren't nearly as laggy as with most automatic transmissions. Taking the mountain curves at a healthy 50 mph, I found fourth gear kept the revs at the right balance, showing that BMW cut up its ratios evenly between all eight.
This 328i had come in Luxury line trim, as opposed to Sport or Modern, a new scheme BMW found to exact an extra $2,100 from buyers. As such, it seemed the suspension had been tuned for some level of comfort to make it more palatable to the typical status buyer. In the turns, it made the car feel slightly floaty, a little looser on its feet than would have been optimal.
The luxury line also meant chrome elements on the exterior and the opportunity to pay even more for paint and interior options. If there is one thing BMW does well, it is making brilliantly handling cars. But a second area where the company shows its expertise is option pricing. Although you can get a 328i for its base price of $34,900, CNET's car weighed in at close to $50,000.
A good chunk of that price came from what we at CNET regard as necessary technologies, such as navigation, Bluetooth phone integration, and a stereo with a USB port. One of the coolest new features, a heads-up display, comes with navigation under the heading of the Technology package. This display shows the vehicle speed and route guidance, using multiple colors to distinguish information. It is a sharp, good-looking display with adjustable height on the windshield.
3D rendering of buildings may or may not aid navigation, but it sure looks cool.
BMW's navigation system is also very worthwhile, with perspective and plan maps stored on hard drive. In bigger cities, the system shows 3D-rendered buildings. Browsing the maps to look for a destination or see where a road went, I was impressed that there was almost zero lag when moving to new areas. In the mountains, the maps showed topographic detail, letting me see where a road went up a mountain or through a valley.
Traffic integration is also very good, showing incidents and traffic flow information on the map. This data is also integrated with dynamic routing, so the car will try to find a way around particularly slow traffic. As part of the BMW's ConnectedDrive telematics service, I could do a Google search for nearby locations on the car's LCD. The results are integrated with the navigation system, making it easy to select one and set it as the current destination.
Additionally, this 328i came with the BMW apps option, which integrates the ConnectedDrive iPhone app with the car. This integration let me get Twitter and Facebook updates in the car, or listen to Pandora or MOG online music services. Impressively, using either Pandora, MOG, music stored on the car's own hard drive, or a connected iPod, the BMW's screen showed album art for the currently playing track.
The premium Harman Kardon audio system in this car, only a $950 option that includes satellite radio with a one-year subscription, produced very well-balanced sound. I was pleased by its detail and treble production. When listening to the extraordinarily challenging deep bass on the track "Fantasy," by The XX, the system came through with flying colors. The low tones emanated distortion-free through the car with palpable force, but did not rattle panels.
Not only does BMW's Pandora integration let you choose or create a station, it also shows album art.
An interesting note about BMW's Bluetooth iPhone connectivity: once you connect for hands-free, you can also select audio streaming. If you connect the iPhone through its cable for music playback, the car will disable its audio streaming.
This step might seem unnecessary, but it is actually a good thing, as the iPhone cannot stream music through Bluetooth and its cabled connection at the same time. With many other cars, if I plug in the iPhone before starting the car, that wired connection will not transmit audio after the automatic Bluetooth pairing kicks in. Either way it is going to be inconvenient, but BMW prevents a situation where you choose iPod as the source but get no music playback.
The 2012 BMW 328i shows what good engineering can accomplish. BMW does not compromise the power or handling of the car while at the same time dropping two cylinders and significant displacement from the engine. The idle-stop feature could have been made to come on a little smoother, but I get the feeling that BMW thinks its drivers should not be afraid of the engine.
As for cabin technology, BMW is at the top of the game, keeping up with competitor Audi by bringing in connected features. You do have to pay for every little feature, but the quality of the tech makes it worthwhile. The navigation system's maps respond quickly and look good, while integrating traffic data and Google local search results. The stereo plays just about every source you can imagine and the Harman Kardon system does not buckle under stress.
The body of the 328i has a more conservative appeal, being a nice, smooth design without drawing particular attention to itself. It is recognizable as a BMW but not terribly different from recent generations of the 3 Series. It offers some good practical features, though, such as the way the rear seats fold down, allowing full pass-through to the trunk.
|Model||2012 BMW 328i|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, 8-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||24 mpg city/36 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||30 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based navigation system with traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Pandora, MOG, onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon 420-watt 13-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Heads-up display, blind-spot detection, lane departure warning, surround-view cameras, backup camera|
|Price as tested||$49,070|