For more than a decade BMW’s 3-Series coupe has been – from a driving dynamics standpoint -immovably enthroned as the best entry-luxury sport coupe on the road. There’s nothing nefarious about the car’s success. No potions. No black magic. No incantation whispered into the engine bay before it’s sealed up at the factory.
It’s just engineering. But it’s BMW engineering. And that’s not a trifle, guys.
The 3-Series has been dissected, examined, scoped, and calipered relentlessly by its principal competition. And yet no one has been able to replicate this car’s moves: its liquid control of changing road contours, its claw-the-corners mastery of steering response, its effortless spin-up through the gears. They’ve certainly tried. Infiniti’s G35 comes close in athleticism, and the Lexus IS350 is a match – and in some areas superior – in refinement and build. But the Infiniti is thin-walled and unrefined compared to the German machine, while the Lexus can’t match the BMW’s composure in high-adrenaline driving. Only the Bavarians blend these traits quite so seamlessly.
And now the target has moved even further.
Turn the key (or, in the case of the 2007 model, push the starter button) of a 3-Series, and the first thing you notice is the engine. It doesn’t feel like other engines. It doesn’t sound like other engines. BMW is one of the last champions of the venerable inline 6-cylinder configuration. There are good reasons for this devotion. An inline-six has no offset crank angle as in a V-engine, and the firing of six cylinders is inherently smoother than an inline-four. Nothing ¬- including a V8 or a V10 – provides the creamy, turbine-like power delivery of an inline-six, except for a V12 (which is two inline sixes, anyway).
And for 2007, Bayerische Motoren Werke has pulled out all the stops with this engine, crafting what may be the most refined and artful expression of the inline-six. An aluminum block displacing 3.0 liters with direct fuel injection, this new engine features a first for BMWs sold in the U.S.: turbocharging. A pair of tiny IHI impellers pressurize the intake charge, feeding about 9 psi of boost to three cylinders each.
The numbers are stirring: an even 300 horsepower – nicely meeting the tuner’s goal of 100 bhp/liter. Even more significant is the torque – 300 pound-feet of it from as low as 1400 rpm, and remaining Salt Lakes-flat out to 5000 rpm. The result? A relentless surge of effortless, lag-free thrust (thanks to the two small quick-response turbos, rather than a single large unit), that will take the talented driver beyond 60 mph in about 5 seconds. That’s essentially the same performance as the last-generation M3, BMWs in-house hot-rod version. Hey, the name is Bavarian Motor Works, remember?
The skin of the new 3 Coupe is a refreshing refinement (finally) of the sharp creases and curvy wangdoodles that define BMW’s “flame surface” design ethic. That theme – developed under design chief Chris Bangle – has come under sharp criticism over the past few years, for being overtly tortured for the sake of bombast. It seems the Bavarian Boys have been listening. Not since the Z8 – or perhaps the M1 of the late 70’s – has any BMW been described as beautiful. But this 3-Series is far and away from the prettiest and most dynamically balanced design BMW now offers. With the same generous 108-inch wheelbase as the sedan, but with only two doors to accommodate, the form is allowed to flow more expressively and naturally and is handsomely coherent as you move around the car. Your eyes move easily over the flesh of this 335i, without the abrupt pauses and unsettling twists of the last generation car.
Inside, the typical BMW driver-oriented cockpit is also further refined, with somewhat warmer textures and colors to enliven what is still a fairly austere place to work. Ergonomically it’s a winner, with a firm “let’s get down to business, here” seats that still provide hours of comfort and a steering wheel-to-shifter-to-pedals relationship that makes getting down to business a pleasure. Notable options include Bluetooth phone synching, and of course the infamous I-Drive controller when you opt for the navigation system. Despite some recent tweaks to this hockey-puck-controlled interface, I-Drive is still a mess, the menus are stifling in their multiple layering, and it’s the last thing you’d expect to find in such a driver-centric vehicle. To BMW: dump this thing and study Acura’s system. To the potential buyer: go aftermarket with your nav.
Drive This Car. Period.
Despite the foregoing, the purpose of this car is to move you down the road with equal measures of dopey-grin entertainment and quiet, soulful satisfaction. If you’re new to BMW, you won’t appreciate the difference that comes from chassis, steering, and suspension tuning done to a fare-thee-well, until you light up the motor and start piloting this machine. Which you should, whether you intend to buy it or not. The immediate (and premature) impression is of a ride on the stiff side. But as you begin to move – accelerating, braking, and turning – you recognize that this car’s reactions to your commands are the most natural and intuitive you’ve likely ever experienced. Whether you shift with the tight 6-speed manual or the delightful 6-speed manumatic (with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel), give this car the spurs and the engine seems to anticipate your right foot as if there’s no inertia in the mechanicals at all. It simply moves you forward with an uncanny, eager insistence – as if to say “Thanks, Boss, this is what I’ve been waiting for.” As your pace increases, the car begins to respond in the natural rhythms of a dance partner. The slightest pressure on the accelerator or brake is met with instant changes in velocity. The steering wheel is calm and steady-state in your hands, but you can feel its readiness to react with whip-like reflexes, taking you easily around the most variable-apex curve you can find. This is why BMWs have the mystique they do – you feel like a virtuoso driving this car. Even to the corner market.
All this Tyrolean hotness isn’t cheap. You’ll start the conversation at around $42,000 for the 335i, and in typical BMW fashion, the options load up that number significantly. You can easily top $55,000 in a buffed and puffed 335i, and now you’re approaching another market altogether – one dominated by Mercedes’ E-Class, Infiniti’s M-series, the Lexus GS450, and BMW’s 5-Series. More at the strata of the 335i are the aforementioned Infiniti G35 and Lexus IS350, Mercedes C-Class, and Acura’s TL. All can be had for less than a 335i, and be more generously equipped. But none of these, despite their years of pursuit, have managed to capture so successfully that perfect mix – silken power delivery, minx-like agility, and fluid ride dynamics – that defines BMW. If you intend to savor the pure physical pleasure of driving, in this class there’s only one Ultimate Driving Machine.
…if you appreciate a vehicle tuned like a Stradivarius, and want to play it like Heifetz every time you drive.
DON’T GET IT:
…if you don’t want to be mistaken for the poseurs and dilettantes who typically buy this car, and know as much about driving as Paris Hilton.