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BMW 3 seriesBMW 3 series – still the "Ultimate driving machine?"

By Jim Bray
February 7, 2013

The "ultimate driving machine" is back with a new generation, and it will undoubtedly arouse the usual lust in BMW fans and wannabe fans. And it's very nice to drive.

Not as nice to live with, however, but much of my angst in this department can be fixed, apparently, at your local BMW dealer. More about that later.

For 2013, the BMW 3 series has been redesigned and fortunately it's still a very handsome vehicle. It's actually the nicest looking 3 of the past couple of generations, in my never humble opinion, modern and classy.

The new look is definitely evolutionary rather than something startlingly new – and it's also kind of customizable, in that the new 3 Series is now available for the first time in Sport, Luxury and Modern versions. My test vehicle, provided by BMW Canada, was the Luxury model, which features tweaks such as more use of chrome.

As the company says, "opt for one of the expressive character models and adapt your new BMW 3 Series to your own unique person." And to that end, BMW also offers a whole host of individualization options designed to make your 3 even more uniquely yours.

So what does the Luxury configuration really give you? Here's what you can expect, according to BMW's Canadian website:

"The BMW kidney grille with eleven chromium-plated bars creates an intricate yet striking impression. Added to this are two slightly offset chromium-plated bars in the air inlets of the front bumper, which fit in perfectly with the overall image of the line.

"A side view of the special 18-inch light-alloy wheels in the multi-spoke design emphasizes the elegance of the new BMW 3 Series Sedan with Luxury Line. The surrounds of the side windows are chrome-plated."

There's more stuff, too, none of which is related to the ultimate drive, but which may be important to you. For example, there's a high-gloss chromium-plated trim strip running along the rear bumper, the exhaust pipe finisher is styled in high-gloss chromium. And inside, you can get "a high-quality decorative wooden surface in anthracite with a high-gloss accent trim strip in satin chrome and, alternatively, an elegant root wood surface with artistic inlay sets standards in terms of exclusivity." There are also choices of leather and a chromium-plated strip surrounding the sound system and the climate control unit.

BMW also gives you a dizzying array of tweaks you can do yourself – as well, apparently, as others you can have done at the dealer. Heck, there are so many adjustments you can make to this car that it could require living with it for a while (certainly longer than the time I had it!) before you figure everything out.

I like flexibility, but I wonder when it crosses the line to unnecessary complexity. I mean, the Luxury Line tweaks are nice but, really, in the grand scheme of things do they make this more of an ultimate driving machine?

On the other hand, I've traditionally had issues with BMW interiors, which I've found rather stark and ergonomically questionable. And with this new version of the 3, they've made some nice steps forward. It's a comfortable and reasonably efficient cabin and, at least in this Luxury edition, very classy and comfortable.

One of the tweaks I'd like to see – in fact, the default setting drove me nuts – was the double pull required to get out of the car. Pull the door handle once and the door unlocks – but you have to pull it a second time to actually open the door. This bothered me enough (hey, who wants to waste energy?) that I checked with a local BMW dealer, where the sales dude told me that particular annoyance can be reset in their service department.

And that would be the first thing I would do were I to order a 3 series.

BMW 3 Series
BMW 3 Series

Besides the Luxury lineage, my test 3 series was a 328i with xDrive. This car would have once been called the 328ix, but they've now moved the xDrive badge to the other side of the trunk. It also used to mean the car "sported" a fuel injected 2.8 liter inline six cylinder engine, but the trend throughout the industry these days is to downsize – and that means the new 328i now only comes with a two liter four cylinder engine.

To be fair, the power plant features a pair of turbochargers and offers decent power: 241 horses and 258 pound-feet, so performance is more than adequate. Turbo lag is minimal, fortunately, but I missed the inline six of the last 3 series I drove: the 335i. That 3 is still available, and it still comes with a three liter, twin turbo inline six that cranks out a lovely 300/300 horses/torque. So if you're looking for an ultimate drive, it might be an even better choice.

The transmission of my test car was an eight speed automatic, with manual mode on the console but no paddles and the steering wheel. Shifts are very good, in manual and automatic mode, but the shifter itself feels just plain weird – more electronic/computer than a gear selector, kind of reminiscent of what you'd find on a Prius.

The xDrive works well. BMW says it's normally set to a 40:60 distribution ratio, but can distribute up to 100 per cent of the power to either front or rear axle within a tenth of a second. This came in very handy during our winter driving experience as the 3 handled our snowy and icy streets with aplomb.

Needless to say, driving the 3 is a delight. Its balance, handling and performance still show why this is a car considered by many to be the benchmark in this class. The ride is customizable via a three position switch on the center console that lets you opt for eco, comfort or sport, each of which tweaks the car's performance accordingly. If you're looking for "the ultimate driving machine" you'll undoubtedly enjoy the "sport" setting the most. I know I did!

Alas, it isn't perfect. Surprisingly, for a car that's supposedly designed for German conditions, I had real issues with its cold weather performance. Granted it was COLD!! during my time with the 3, but I learned quickly that we could have a defrosted windshield or warm feet, but not both. And that was with two people aboard; it was worse when we had a pair of folks in the back seat, too. Don't they have winter in Germany?

 And while the iDrive system – a cursor control thingy coupled with a dashboard-topping LCD screen – is better than I remember from versions past, I still found it excessively complicated. Good design, to me, means you shouldn't have to crack the user's manual for anything but the most esoteric features. Such wasn't the case here.

BMW says the 328 I xDrive sedan should get a combined city/highway gas mileage of 7.6 liters per 100 kilometers, which ain't bad for what's essentially a performance sedan. That's undoubtedly only true if you stick to eco mode as much as possible, which makes me wonder why such a person would buy a 3 in the first place.

My sample came with the Premium Package ($3500), which includes stuff such as an alarm system, auto dimming outside mirrors, a rear parking distance aid and navigation system. BMW had also loaded it up with an $850 "extended Bluetooth package" an $800 "driver assistance package" that gives active blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning, as well as an apps package ($300) that includes Smartphone integration (which really should be standard these days).

Add a heated steering wheel (a wonderful feature!), heated rear seats and a satellite radio-ready tuner and you add another $1300 to the $46,200 base price. 

Add it all up and you get an as-tested price of $52,950, which actually seems quite reasonable considering what else is out there. And that's for a legendary sports sedan that, despite my whining about unnecessary complexity and cold weather performance, will undoubtedly provide its owners with many years of smile-inducing driving.

Copyright 2013 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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