KUALA LUMPUR, July 10 — In case you’ve missed the memo, BMW has been on a bit of a turbocharging spree recently. In a span of just a few years, it has binned all of its old naturally aspirated fours, sixes and eights, and in its place, fitted turbocharged, downsized engines across its range.
There is now not a single engine in the BMW range that isn’t turbocharged. This move has seen the surprising return of a four-cylinder engine to the 5-series range — something not seen since the Euro-only 518i E34 many, many years ago — and, rather more crucially, a 3-series range that is, for the first time in over 30 years, powered predominantly by four-cylinder engines.
I know, I know. A BMW with just four cylinders up front has always been seen as a bit of a bastard child. The poor cousin of “real” BMWs which always had six cylinders, lined up neatly, humming under their lengthy bonnets. But in the age of strict emission regulations and diminishing resources, something had to give. Two cylinders from Munich’s finest paid the price.
However, having had the opportunity of driving a 328i at BMW’s F30 launch event just a few months prior, I had already pretty much banished the thought that having a four under the bonnet has, in any way, diminished the appeal of these sport sedans and saloons.
BMW’s new petrol fours are punchy and refined enough to make you almost forget that under the hood, your RM300k car shares the same engine layout as the Proton Iswara parked in your neighbour’s driveway.
While the performance of these new downsized petrol fours are unlikely to ever be found wanting, my curious side couldn’t help but wonder what if, like BMWs of yesteryear, the new F30 packed a good ol’ petrol six under the bonnet. Would the F30 have gone from “great” to “legendary” if BMW had, instead of lopping off two cylinders, stuck with downsized and blown sixes instead?
As luck would have it, the BMW Malaysia Press Office had a 335i laying idle in its car park. A few calls later, I found myself with the keys to the said 335i, with four days to find out if having a six under the bonnet, fed on a diet of premium unleaded, made any palpable difference to the F30 driving experience when compared to a similarly-fuelled four.
The Power of Six
The benefits of having a perfectly balanced six under the hood of any car have been well documented. With perfect primary and secondary balance, straight sixes are blessed with inherent running smoothness that no amount of engineering trickery can replicate.
BMW built its reputation on this layout, and as a driver of a 5-series with one of its last all-aluminium M-series engines under the bonnet, I can vouch for this layout’s silkiness. At idle, these engines are nearly imperceptible. Stab on the throttle and the engine responds with turbine-like smoothness. Whether you’re at 1,000rpm or 6,000rpm, the engines remain unflustered to the point where you wonder if they’re powered by internal combustion at all.
The 335i’s TwinPower Turbo 3-litre in-line six is no exception, and the benefits of this layout are immediately obvious. Compared to the N20 four cylinder in the 328i, the 335i’s six’s smoother machinations are immediately noticeable from inside and outside the car.
The 328i’s N20 four’s slight gruffness as it approaches its redline is completely missing in the 335i. And perhaps more seductively, in place of the slightly flat blare that the N20 emits as it revs, the six literally sings its way to the red line, accompanied by the throbbing burble of its twin exhausts. The harder you push, the better it sounds.
BMW’s TwinPower Turbo technology, which utilises a twin-scroll turbocharger strapped on to the 3-litre six, helps the engine pump out 302bhp and 400Nm of torque which, when mated to a standard-fit eight-speed automatic transmission, produces a neck-snapping 5.5sec 0-100km/h time and serves up a torrent of silken, relentless acceleration right up till the 250km/h limiter. The ease at which this car picks up its skirt and flies down the road is simply astounding.
The car’s 8-speed ZF gearbox, standard across the range here in Malaysia, is a masterpiece — it has the uncanny ability to always be in the right gear for any situation, making the most of what the engine can dish out. Admittedly with all that power on tap, it can sometimes prove abrupt in taking up drive when moving off from a standstill — especially if you’re uncharacteristically lead-footed on the throttle — but once on the move, the shifts up and down the box are beautifully silky.
Manual shifts commanded through the standard-fit paddle shifters on the steering wheel are thankfully without the lag that can plague some systems. However, be careful when clicking through the gears. With so many ratios at your beck and call, it’s all too easy to lose count and find yourself in overdrive when all you really wanted was 5th. But then again, with that much power and torque to summon from the engine room, being in the wrong gear is seldom a problem.
It’s obvious that the engine stands out as a highlight of this car.
Freude Am Fahren
Power without control is nothing. In many less talented cars, putting this kind of performance into a less than ace chassis would have resulted in... shall we say... “amusing” handling traits.
I remember distinctly having had the opportunity of driving a heavily modified Proton Wira with a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo engine transplanted up front. The bloody thing was borderline undriveable. Every spurt of power was accompanied by torque steer, even though the car had been modified to accept the Lancer’s 4WD driveline. Cornering was pretty much a “steer-and-pray” affair. You were never quite sure if the car was going to stay on the road or head into the bushes.
The F30, by all accounts, steers away from such handling shenanigans and has garnered a reputation for its seemingly unimpeachable handling. The foreign press has almost unanimously given glowing reports on the car’s road-hugging prowess. However, there is one caveat: Outside Malaysia, you can spec your F30 with BMW’s M-Adaptive suspension, which constantly adjusts damping firmness to the conditions of the road and in response to the driver’s selected drive mode on the new Driver Experience Control (“DEC”).
DEC, for the uninitiated, is a system that allows the driver to tailor the steering, powertrain and suspension to suit his or her mood. From Eco-Pro to Sport Plus, the engine, gearbox and suspension would adjust to increasing levels of aggression to accommodate either fuel-saving strategies or a balls-out blast on a country road. For most foreign reviews so far, the tests have almost always involved F30s equipped with the adaptive chassis.
Malaysian F30s, however, make do with passive dampers on a non-adaptive chassis set-up. Toggling the DEC control from Eco-Pro to Sport Plus merely changes the steering weight and adjusts the responses of the engine, gearbox and stability/traction controls with no changes whatsoever to the suspension settings. I did, therefore, worry a bit that the “less advanced” chassis selected for the local market would deny local drivers of the F30s true talents.
It took just a few kilometres of driving along KL’s roads to realise that any such worry was largely unfounded. Passively damped, it may be, but the F30’s ride and handling competency still shines through. Sure, there is just a hint of float on long-wave undulations, and a little more roll in the corners than I would have preferred, but it’s not something that would severely mar the driving experience.
The car remains blessed with a chassis that has an uncanny ability to blend big-car ride comfort with hot-hatch handling competence. It achieves this by having a comfortable reserve of compliance in its springs, isolating its occupants from the turmoil underneath its wheels, whilst having sufficient firmness in its dampers to maintain a ham fisted control over vertical body oscillations.
Here, BMW’s adage of blessing its cars with near-perfect front-to-rear weight distribution also pays dividends as the car takes to corners with that rare sense that both front and rear wheels are working equally hard to keep the car on the road.
Understeer only sets in if you’re being particularly silly with the steering, and even when it does eventually rear its ugly head, instead of just sitting there, running out of ideas and heading straight for the Armco barrier, the F30 chassis gives you the option of backing off the throttle to tighten the line or, with the flex of your right toe, a glorious transition to an easily controllable tail-happy slide on the exit.
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies though. If you drove a 328i and a 335i back-to-back, the one thing you WILL notice is the 335i’s extra weight over its front axles. In the twisties, where the 328i would roll a little and quickly settle into a steady, neutral cornering state when asked to, the 335i’s helm relays a slightly nose-heavy cornering balance which when pushed, will succumb to understeer sooner than its smaller-engined brother. This is the price one pays for having two extra cylinders sticking out up front.
But really, we’re splitting hairs here, for the 335i will still take to your favourite mountain road like a fish to water. The new electrically assisted steering helps to no end here. Although many feared the switch from hydraulic to electric assist would numb the 3-series’ helm, the new system proves to be sharp and direct, and gives more than enough information about what the front wheels are doing to allow you to make informed decisions about where to place the car in corners, more so if Sport mode is selected on the DEC.
The Luxury of Space
It’s all good to have a car that carves roads with alacrity, but it’s quite another if the car in question fails to accommodate a decent pair of proper adults for road trips. In creating the new F30, BMW stretched the 3-series to the very limit of what could be considered “compact.”
It may not look it, but under the F30’s sinewy, muscular skin, is a car that is almost 10cm longer than its predecessor. Doesn’t sound like much, 10cm, but this latest 3-series is now about the size of the legendary E39 5-series from two generations ago.
What this means is that for the first time in its lifetime, the 3-series is a genuine 4-seater car. I say 4 because putting five adults in this car is really pushing it. The large central transmission tunnel sees to that. A small child could get comfortable in the central rear perch, but little else would.
While it could never be described as palatial inside, legroom, headroom and shoulder room have all improved. By some margin, the F30 is now the most accommodating car in its class, bettering even the spacious Audi A4 on the measuring tape.
Our car was trimmed in BMW’s “Luxury” line. This meant that the cabin was awash with soft brown leather, satin chrome and fine wood trim on the dash. It was also specced to the gun walls with kit — a tilt-slide electric glass sunroof, heads-up display and a thumping Harman Kardon hi-fi justifying, in part, the almost RM200k premium over its 328i sibling.
I’m glad that BMW has ditched the odd “double-bubble” instrument panel for an elegant dash design that places the iDrive screen high up on the dash, now no longer shrouded by its own hood and looking for all the world like a Samsung Galaxy tablet computer stuck on the dash-top. The lowering of the instrument panel as a result of ditching the bulky double-hoods has made the interior airier, lighter and in the process, increasing the sense of space inside.
The driving position is spot-on, and it’s dead easy to find a comfortable perch. At 6ft 3in, most cars have trouble accommodating my stature — but not so the F30. And with its new-found length and girth, the car could miraculously fit another two adults at the back. The F30, it seems, is finally large enough to perform family duties instead of being principally a bachelor’s choice of transport.
The Little Things
During my tenure with the 335i, there was really only one thing that I simply could not come to terms with — the Auto-Stop-Start system, part of BMW’s Efficiency Dynamics initiative. Increasingly found as standard fitment on many cars from the EU, BMW’s application of the technology isn’t unfortunately, completely transparent to the driver.
Every time the car came to halt, the engine would shut down. Which was fine, since by killing the engine, the car doesn’t unnecessarily burn fuel at standstill. What I found slightly unnerving was the rather uncouth way in which the system re-started the engine. It literally makes the car shudder and lurch forward slightly when the engine kicks back in. In our climate, the system simply couldn’t keep the engine off long enough to be as effective as it should be in keeping emissions down. After just 10-15 seconds waiting in lunchtime rush hour traffic, the engine would re-start with a shudder to keep the air-conditioning going.
Thank heavens the engineers in Munich saw it fit to let the driver turn the system off. Which I did, within the first hour of getting the car.
In the four days I had the 335i Luxury with me, the overriding feeling was one of joy. Unqualified, unmistakeable driving joy, palpable from the moment I grabbed the keys to the car every morning, to the point where I parked it in my condominium parking lot, after having taken an unnecessarily long drive home. There really aren’t many cars out there that would hold a candle against the monumental talents of the 335i.
Except perhaps one: its smaller brother — the 328i.
I set out on this test trying to establish if a six cylinder engine would make the F30 an even better car than it is in petrol powered, four-cylinder form. In doing so, I’ve come away from the drive with a bit of a mixed feeling about the necessity for sixes in cars like the 3-series. Sure, the 3-litre six thumps the four in any measure of refinement you care to mention. And it will sing for its dinner when asked to. But really, that’s about the only advantage the engine has against the 328i’s N20 four.
In the performance stakes, the 328i trails the 335i to 100km/h by barely half a second. And given enough time, they both max out at the same 250km/h electronically-limited top speed. And perhaps more importantly in this day and age, the N20 four consistently dishes out this sort of performance with a comfortable lead in fuel economy. Everything else being equal, the conclusion to this test, therefore, is one that simply must have a caveat attached to it.
If you value absolute engine refinement above all else in your F30, the 335i is about as good as it gets. It is, in my mind, the pinnacle of the breed. If I had half a million ringgit burning a hole in my wallet and I had to put it all down on a compact executive, I have little doubt that the 335i would be the car I’d ultimately want parked in my driveway. In Luxury trim, painted imperial blue, and upholstered in black leather, thank you very much. Its blend of comfort, space, performance and handling is nigh-on perfect.
But if you, like me, can live with a slightly gruffer four under the hood of your car, the 328i is really all the 3-series you need. While some may lament the loss of the legendary six-cylinder refinement of the F30’s forebears, what you get in return — all the performance of a six coupled with real, 40-plus mpg fuel economy — more than makes up for it, I reckon.
I wouldn’t blame you if you fell for the charms of the 335i. I certainly did. The 335i, with its lusty six, simply tugs at your heart strings. But you can’t ignore the fact that the 328i (and the 320d, to a lesser extent) gives you 90 per cent of the 335i’s ability at almost half the cost. Fact of the matter is, you don’t NEED a six to make the F30 an awesome drive.
Rest assured, with either a four or a six up front — perhaps more than any other car in BMW’s stable at the moment — the F30 represents an absolute triumph of attainable driving bliss. To drive one, is to absolutely fall in love with one.