2008 BMW 328 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The quintessential sports sedan.
The BMW 3 Series comprises a range of sedans, coupes, convertibles and wagons, with different engines, a wide variety of options, and a spread of $35,000 from the bottom to the top of the line. Yet from the least expensive 328i sedan to the ultra-high performance M3 (reviewed separately), all 3 Series cars put an emphasis on one thing: Sporty driving dynamics that appeal to enthusiast drivers.
For 2008, BMW matches its xDrive all-wheel drive system with its 300-horsepower, twin-turbo six-cylinder engine for the first time in the 3 Series, introducing the 335xi sedan and coupe. The 3 Series also offers paddle shifters on the steering wheel with the optional six-speed automatic transmission. And with introduction of the new 1 Series coupe, the 3 Series cars are no longer the smallest in BMW's North American lineup.
All 3 Series models share mechanical components and similarly compact exterior dimensions. Differences lie in body style or exterior design, though the coupe and convertible have belts for four passengers rather than five. All are a blast to drive.
BMW sells more manual transmissions in this class than any manufacturer, and that probably says something about the type of drivers choosing the 3. These are rear-drive cars, though all-wheel drive is available, and even the optional automatic transmission is tuned for crisp, sporty shifting. Handling response is sharp and precise, and braking capability is best in class. The base engine in the 328s, BMW's trademark 3.0-liter straight six, is more than powerful enough for brisk acceleration and a sinfully good time. The upgrade twin-turbo six in the 335s is one of the most viscerally satisfying engines in production.
The four-door 3 Series sedan is most familiar, and among the most passenger friendly. The Sports Wagon adds substantial cargo space and utility. It's great for couples or families who often bring the dog, though it isn't available with the twin-turbo engine.
The 328i and 335i Convertibles might be the sexiest 3s, with their fully automatic, one-button folding hardtop. With the top up, the convertible is nearly as solid and quiet as the coupe. The tradeoff, aside from the substantial price increase, is that the convertible seats four and has very little trunk space.
The two-door 3 Series coupes are the sportiest. The firmer sport suspension, optional with other body styles, comes standard on the coupe, and these are the lightest cars in the line. They seat four, like the convertible, but they'll appeal to those who want sporting capability something like a sports car's but need a reasonable back seat and decent-sized trunk.
The emphasis on sporty driving shouldn't put anyone off. Even with the firmest suspension, the ride in all 3 Series models remains reasonably supple. There's room inside for young families or four adults for a night out, in well-designed, nicely finished interiors.
The 3 Series offer gizmos you'd expect in larger, full-on luxury sedans. Those powerful engines are also efficient, and EPA mileage ratings go as high as 28 mpg Highway. Exterior dimensions for all models are relatively compact, making them good cars for crowded city centers. All are distinctively styled and clearly recognizable as BMWs, which should get you a good valet spot, depending on the places you frequent.
All 3 Series models have a full array of airbags, with good scores in government and insurance-industry crash tests. Available all-wheel-drive adds extra security in foul weather. All models feature the electronic wizardry that has become BMW's stock-in-trade over the last decade, including one of the auto industry's most complex stability-control systems.
Some competitors offer more room, more power, better mileage or maybe better interiors for less money. But aside from subjective price-value analysis, the noteworthy hitch in the 3 Series is the downside of the electronic gizmos. There are long-time fans who'll tell you that the basic appeal of their favorite Bimmer is getting mucked up with too much annoying stuff.
With that in mind, the bottom line remains. The 3 Series cars accelerate, turn and stop with remarkable agility and balance, without seriously compromising comfort or common sense. These cars still define sports sedan (or coupe or wagon), and they remain the target for every luxury car brand from Acura to Volvo.
The 2008 BMW 3 Series includes four-door sedans, wagons, two-door coupes and convertibles in 10 distinct models, not counting the extra- powerful M3s. All the standard 3 Series cars are powered by BMW's familiar inline six-cylinder engine, and all-wheel drive is available. It's really a choice of body style and engine power.
Model designations are consistent across the body styles and standard equipment is similar, though the coupes and convertibles include a few more features in the base price. Minimally, all 3 Series cars come with automatic climate and headlight control, a climate-controlled center console, heated windshield washer nozzles, rain-sensing wipers, a power moonroof, 10-speaker AM/FM/CD and BMW's self-braking Dynamic Cruise Control. Wheel size varies from 16 to 18 inches. All offer a choice of aluminum or different wood interior trims, with vinyl upholstery and a six-speed manual transmission standard. BMW's six-speed Steptronic automatic ($1,325) is optional on all models.
The rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger BMW 328i sedan ($32,400) is powered by a 230-hp 3.0-liter inline six. The 328xi sedan ($34,600) adds BMW's x-Drive permanent all-wheel drive system, noted by the x-designation on all 3 Series models so equipped.
The 335i sedan ($38,700) and 335xi sedan ($39.300) feature a turbocharged version of the 3.0-liter six, delivering 300 horsepower. The 335 models also add features, including power front seats with memory and BMW's Logic 7 audio upgrade.
The 328i Sports Wagon ($34,300) and 328xi Sports Wagon ($36,100) offer more load-carrying potential and versatility than the sedan, with a rear tailgate and rear window that can be opened separately. The wagon is not offered with the turbocharged engine.
The 3 Series coupe is available in four versions: 328i ($35,600), 328xi ($37,400), 335i ($41,200) and 335xi ($43,000). The slinky coupe has two doors, a two-place rear seat and a slightly smaller trunk than the sedan, with a firmer, sport-tuned suspension that's optional on other body styles.
The 3 Series Convertible offers a retracting metal hard top that opens and closes with the touch of a button, and either engine: 328i ($43,500) and 335i ($49,500). The convertible seats four, like the coupe, but it's not offered with all-wheel drive.
Options are plentiful, though most are grouped in three packages. The Premium Package ($1,650-$3,350, depending on model) adds Dakota leather upholstery and a number of conveniences, including Bluetooth cellular phone interface, power folding side mirrors, a digital compass in the rear-view mirror and hardware for BMW Assist, the telemetric package that provides safety, convenience and concierge services. The Cold Weather Package ($600-$1,000) adds electrically heated seats, high-intensity headlight washers and a split-folding rear seat with ski sack.
The Sport Package ($500-$1,800) includes sporting suspension calibrations tuned by BMW's M performance division for the sedan, wagon and convertible, more heavily bolstered sports seats and a wheel-performance tire upgrade.
BMW's Active Steering system ($1,400) and radar-managed Active Cruise Control ($2,400) are available as stand-alone options on all 3 Series variants, as is a DVD-based navigation system ($2,100). Sirius satellite radio hardware ($595), the Logic 7 stereo ($1,250) and most of the features in the three packages are available as stand-alone options.
Safety features include front-impact airbags that deploy at different rates depending on the severity of impact, front passenger side-impact airbags and full-cabin, curtain-type head protection airbags. The convertibles add knee airbags that help keep front passengers from sliding under the seat belts.
Active safety features, designed to help the driver avoid collisions, include Dynamic Stability Control and the latest generation antilock brakes. The ABS preloads the brake pedal when the driver suddenly lifts off the gas pedal, and includes a feature that lightly sweeps the brake discs dry every 1.5 seconds when it's raining.
All of the 2008 3 Series models are different. But all are immediately recognizable and BMWs, and every 3 Series body style shares design traits with the others.
The similarities start with a shared 108.7 wheelbase, which is the only obvious hint that under the body panels all 3 Series models are nearly identical. By every other exterior dimension, all body styles come within two inches of the other. In general, these are the largest 3 Series cars ever. Most of the extra width and length translates into more interior space compared to previous generations, particularly in the back seat.
The 3 Series sedan is the best seller, and perhaps most familiar to the motoring public. It features BMW's traditional double-beam headlights, now under clear covers that wrap around the corners and taper to a point that emphasizes the car's width. The Sport Wagon is identical to the sedan from the center roof pillar forward. Rearward, its roofline tapers slightly all the way to the rear of the car, while the bottom line of the rear windows tapers upward slightly, creating a teardrop shape.
Roof rails are standard on the wagon, and its rear gate opens electrically, with a switch on the key fob or dashboard. The rear glass opens separately, which is convenient for quickly loading lightweight items.
Overall, the 3 Series coupe is a bit longer and lower than the sedan, and not as wide. With standard xenon headlamps, its front light clusters are smaller. The coupe's hood looks longer, and it's fashioned with a subtle dome that suggests a powerful engine underneath. The windshield flows into a roofline that's long and curved in a continuous arc, and lower than that on the sedan. With extensive use of plastic composite materials for parts such as the front fenders, the coupes are also the lightest cars in the line, even though they carry more standard equipment.
In profile or front three-quarter view, the 3 Series Convertible closely resembles the coupe. Its front end, and the arc its roofline, are nearly identical. The difference, of course, is the convertible's retractable metal hardtop, which opens or closes at the touch of a button in just 22 seconds. The top folds in three pieces and stows itself under the trunk lid. That lid is hinged both front and rear, so that it can open toward the back to swallow the folding top, and from the back to load the trunk. Thanks to the weight of the top's operating mechanism, as well as body reinforcements intended to maintain structural integrity when the top is open, the convertibles are heavier than the lightest 3 Series cars by some 400 pounds.
The 3 Series' high-tech theme is visible from the outside. Most models come with adaptive bi-xenon headlights that turn with the steering wheel to aim into a curve. All feature BMW's adaptive brake lights, which are based on the idea that drivers in the cars following a 3 Series will know when the 3 is braking hard. The LED lights illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the driver applies the brakes full-lock or when the ABS operates.
There are subtle interior differences in various models across the 3 Series. The coupe, for example, has different instrument script and a third wood trim option not offered in the sedan (dark-stained poplar). But the essentials, including dashboard, console and front seats, are the same across the four body styles.
The cabin takes the best of several ideas first applied in the larger BMW 5 Series and 7 Series models, synthesizes them for a smaller car and improves them in the process. We aren't completely enamored with everything inside the 3 Series, but we have few serious gripes.
The soft vinyl and plastics improve on previous generations in both appearance and feel, and they put the finish on better footing with the best in class. All models offer a choice of real aluminum or various wood trims, and there's a lot of it on the dash and doors. BMW's Leatherette vinyl is not the least bit tacky, while the optional leather is soft and thick. The 3 Series follows BMW's tradition of soft orange backlighting for the instruments. Some will like it, some won't.
The dashboard has a pronounced horizontal format, with more community and less driver orientation than previous 3 Series cars. There are actually two dash designs. The standard setup has a single bubble, or hood, over the gauge cluster, while the optional navigation system is installed in a dash that accommodates it with a second hood in the center.
The front door panels are different on each side, as well. The passenger side has a sloped, vertical door pull, while the driver's door lays the door pull horizontally in the arm rest. Window switches are clustered near the driver's arm rest, where they're easy to locate without glancing.
The 3 Series has no keyed ignition switch, relying instead on a slot-type key fob and a starter button. We do not like this system, and we're not sold on the benefit it has over a conventional key. The fob slides into a slot next to the steering column, and you push the button to fire up. The Comfort Access option makes everything automatic, and the thinking here is more obvious. With fob in pocket, the doors unlock automatically as the driver approaches, and the seats are waiting in their proper position. The driver just pushes the start button, and pushes it again when it's time to get out. Still, we'd prefer a traditional key.
Seats have long been a 3 Series strength, and these are better than ever. Even the standard-trim front buckets provide excellent support without feeling too hard. The manual adjustments work great, though we recommend using them when the car is parked. The 335 models get power adjustments with three memory positions. The power seats that come with the Sport Package are outstanding, though the additional back and bottom bolstering make them harder to slide into. As passengers we might like them less, but as drivers we love them.
The audio controls could be higher in the center stack for easier access, and the buttons for station presets and assorted functions demand a bit more concentration than they should. Switching between AM, FM and other modes can be distracting while driving, for example. The orange readout on the stereo is almost invisible when wearing polarized sunglasses on a sunny day, even though similar readouts for climate control are perfectly legible.
The automatic climate control (which comes standard) features separate temperature adjustments for driver and front passenger. A mist sensor measures moisture on the windshield and automatically adjusts the defroster, while a heat-at-rest feature keeps the cabin heated for a time after the car is turned off.
The single-CD stereo (standard) sounds good, with 10 speakers and separate subwoofers under the front seats. The 335 models come with an audio upgrade called Logic 7. It adds wattage and three speakers, with the latest digital sound processing and surround technology. Audio controls on the steering wheel work well, once they're mastered.
BMW's multi-layer, mouse-style iDrive interface is optional in the 3 Series, but if you want the GPS navigation system, you'll have to take iDrive. We'd probably do without navigation. We've encountered few people who remotely like iDrive. It makes simple tasks like calling up a map or pre-setting radio stations a challenge.
In other respects, the 3 Series cabin is more user-friendly than ever. The coupe, for example, has seatbelt presenters, or motorized arms that emerge from little doors built into the rear side panels. It used to be that the driver and front-seat passenger had to reach way back to find their shoulder belts. Now occupants just sit down and close the doors, and the belts come to them.
There are more storage pockets and nooks than before, and those in the doors are much larger. The new climate-controlled center console is a huge improvement, in both function and appearance. So are the cupholders, though they still aren't the best
Rear-seat accommodations are substantially better than in pre-2006 3 Series cars. For starters, the rear air vents can be separately adjusted for both temperature and air volume. There's also more space, particularly in front of the knees. Remember: this is still a compact car, and rear passengers with long torsos will still feel hair rubbing on the headliner. The center position is best left to children. Nonetheless, the rear seat feels more spacious than before, and moves the 3 Series closer to the roomiest cars in the class.
The rear accommodations are actually a little better in the coupe, though access is more difficult in the absence of rear side doors. Because the coupes are four passenger cars, the center space in back is replaced by a console, which includes individual storage boxes, additional air vents and footwell lights. There's decent legroom and more shoulder room. It's almost like sitting in a little limousine. There are even buttons on the outside edge of the front seats, in the shoulder area, so those in back can reach up and power the front seat forward to ease exit from the rear of the car.
The trunk is largest in the sedan, though still smaller than many comparably sized competitors (12 cubit feet capacity). The 3 Series coupe's trunk is smaller still (11.1 cubic feet), but the split-folding rear seatback is standard (an option on the sedan). A separate compartment under the trunk mat, measuring 1.75 cubic feet, adds some space for small items that won't slide around.
The 3 Series convertible offers the least cargo space. There's a maximum 9.0 cubic feet when the top is closed; lower it, and cargo space reduces dramatically. With the top down, count on maybe a medium-sized duffel bag, and make sure the top is closed before stowing anything.
For cargo hauling, the Sport Wagon is easily the best choice in the 3 Series line. From the handling, accelerating or braking standpoints, it gives up nothing the 328i sedan, and it adds a dimension of utility. Cargo volume increases to 24.8 cubic feet, floor to ceiling, behind the rear seat. With the rear seat folded forward, the 3 Series wagon can swallow 60.9 cubic feet of stuff, or more than some small SUVs.
The wagon's load area is flat, too, which is good for both dogs and cargo. It's fully lined with thick, soft carpet, and it's full of convenient features, including separate enclosed bins, cargo straps, bag holders, a power point, a cargo cover at seat height and a roll-out cargo net. The wagon is also available with all-wheel drive, giving it good winter-weather capability.
Every car in BMW's 3 Series is a fine performer and a technological tour de force. Driving has never been much better, or at least not with seating for four or five, decent mileage and a high level of comfort.
The 3 Series offers rear-wheel drive and manual transmissions in a class increasingly filled with front-wheel drive and automatics. BMW's x-Drive permanent all-wheel-drive system, available in all but the 3 Series Convertible, greatly enhances all-season capability. The x-Drive delivers most of the power to the rear wheels most of the time, maintaining the sporting feel associated with rear-wheel drive, but it's great for getting the 3 through the worst winter slop without dramatics.
If price is remotely an issue, don't hesitate to choose the less-expensive 328 models. They have as much power as most drivers will ever need, and they deliver the same inherent goodness as the 335s, without much less really useful stuff. We wouldn't recommend options such as Active Steering or Active Cruise Control except to technology buffs.
The heart of any BMW is its engine, and those in the 3 Series are first rate. They remain true to BMW's commitment to straight or inline six-cylinders, as other manufacturers have switched almost exclusively to V6s. The straight six presents more packaging challenges, but its unique performance characteristics and smoothness make it a favorite among enthusiast drivers.
In both the 328i and 335i models, the engine is fantastic. We found the 328s fun to drive, with good throttle response that made us feel a class above other cars in traffic. Few will feel short-changed on performance if they make the more economical choice.
Either engine delivers quick acceleration by any standard: 0-60 mph times of 6.3 seconds for the 328i sedan, and 5.4 seconds for the 335i sedan with the standard manual transmission, according to BMW. And despite the impressive performance, all 3 Series models deliver decent fuel economy. EPA ratings range from a low of 16 City, 25 Highway for all-wheel-drive 335xi models with the manual transmission to a high of 19/28 for the rear-drive 328i coupe and sedan with the automatic.
The 335s are particularly enjoyable, to be sure, with an engine that's more powerful than any 3 Series before, short of the limited production M3s. What's best about this twin-turbocharged version of the straight six is its linear quality, or the steady supply of acceleration-producing torque at any speed. So-called turbo lag, or a slowed response to the gas pedal as the turbos start spinning, is almost nonexistent. There's more torque down low than ever, but the turbo engine pulls like a sprinter all the way to its 6800-rpm redline and never misses a step. It also sounds great from inside the car, with an emphasis on clean mechanical noise from the engine bay rather than the tone of the muffler.
We prefer the manual transmission, even though it isn't perfect, mostly because it allows the driver to more thoroughly exploit the goodness in the 3 Series engines. Clutch-pedal effort makes taking off easy, without having to think about it, and the gear ratios are perfectly spaced for either the base or turbocharged engine. During a casual drive through the countryside in a 335i coupe, we were content to leave the manual in third or fourth gear, depending on the road, and enjoy the scenery as the engine's broad power band kept the momentum flowing.
In a more aggressive mode of travel, working the gearchange frequently to keep the engine near its power peak, the 3 Series manual shifter falls short of the car's overall high standard. The throws are shorter then ever, but the gears engage with a vague, slightly stretchy feel. It's as if the engineers tried cramming slots for six forward gears into a shift pattern more properly proportioned for five. Coming back down through the gears, drivers must take care if they choose a gear out of its normal sequence, as this requires some careful aiming.
For those who prefer not to deal with a clutch through their tedious morning commute, the six-speed automatic works very well indeed. The automatic can be a bit slow to react with an appropriate gear change in Normal mode, but leaving it in Sport mode solves the problem, with a slight payback in more abrupt shifting. Then there is the Steptronic manual mode, which allows manual gear selection. No problem with shift response when you do it yourself, and the steering-wheel paddles mean you can manually shift the automatic without removing hands from the wheel.
Beyond strong engines, every car in the 3 Series is characterized by an excellent balance of ride quality and handling response. For 40 years, this has been the prototypical sports sedan. It's about as close as you can get to sports-car driving dynamics in a more practical car, yet the fun never comes at the expense of beating up the passengers inside.
The current models ultimately hold true to this heritage, as we've discovered on roads and racetracks around the world. The balance front to rear, the right touch of suspension compliance, the smooth torque delivery is all there. The 3s are superbly balanced cars, and in the right circumstances they're almost sinfully fun to drive.
The standard steering is light when it should be, at low speeds, with proper resistance and feedback at the higher speeds these cars constantly tempts drivers to explore. Nearly equal front/rear weight distribution leaves the driver in full command of where the car goes when, with a nicely tuned stability control system to keep watch should a driver venture beyond his or her capabilities.
The 3 Series suspension layout is borrowed from the larger 5 Series sedan, with double-joint aluminum control arms in front and a five-link fully independent system in the rear. This is trick stuff, but it's nothing compared to the electronics that manage everything. If something is amiss, BMW's Dynamic Stability Control system senses that a particular wheel is losing traction, then applies the brake at that wheel or reduces engine power in an effort to keep the car going in the intended direction. On 3 Series models with Active Steering, the DSC can also help drive the car by making fairly significant steering corrections without driver input, or even driver awareness.
For many drivers in limited circumstances, this automatic steering adjustment could prove valuable, but the Active Steering has annoying drawbacks. It seems to be working all the time, as if it's hoping to guess what a driver wants and deliver it almost before the driver asks. The steering wheel can move ever so slightly in the driver's hands, without regard to any driver input. We found this unsettling at high speed on arrow-straight interstates, and on twisty, two-lane back roads. In each case, we had to concentrate on keeping the car going where we wanted, especially through sweeping turns, which required frequent steering adjustments to hold a desired line. In short, Active Steering works to diminish the intuitive, pure-bred feeling many buyers seek in the 3.
Some buyers may worry that BMW's firmer Sport suspension, standard in some coupe models, makes the ride too harsh. It most cases, it doesn't. With its tight, rigid body structure as a foundation, the 3 Series suspension can be fine tuned to provide the dynamic handling enthusiast drivers like without sacrificing a smooth ride that pleases passengers. The Sport suspension may be jolted by potholes, but it responds immediately and maintains a level ride rather than seesawing up and down.
Still, many drivers will find that the Sport suspension borders on stiff, and especially in the convertible, where it can emphasize the shimmies inherent in a fairly heavy, open-top car. Given the overall competence of the standard suspension, the Sport package could be considered an unnecessary expense.
In general, cowl shake and body flex is better contained in the 3 Series Convertible than it is in competitors like the Volkswagen Eos or Volvo C70. The open-top 3 is a solid as convertibles go, but the owner will experience little bits of twisting and shaking that he or she would not in any other 3 Series model. It's simply the price paid for wind in the hair and sun on the face.
The good news is that noise levels in the convertible are low, top up or top down. Top down, air flow is channeled in a fashion that allows front seat occupants to converse easily at freeway speeds. Top up, no surprise, it's as close to a coupe as it can be without actually being one. There's the slightest whistle from the seams between the top's pieces, but the thick headliner quiets almost all of the outside rumble.
Braking is excellent in any 3 Series car. The brake calipers and rotors are larger than ever, delivering more clamping force than most competitors. And thanks to BMW's electronic management, the brake pads move within a hair of the rotors if the driver suddenly releases the gas pedal, even if the driver hasn't yet considered slamming on the brakes. The pads also lightly sweep the rotors every few seconds if it's raining, just to be sure there is no significant moisture build up. Again though, the slick electronics come with a payback. The non-linear, progressive algorithm that controls the brake system can make smooth stops a challenge in casual driving, at least until the operator has had some time to get familiar with the feel of the brake pedal.
BMW's 3 Series cars are among the sportiest in their class, and also the most laden with leading-edge technology, which presents advantages and disadvantages. The 3 Series sedan and wagon are the most practical. The coupe is the sportiest, and the convertible, the most hedonistic. All remain class benchmarks for overall performance. Retail prices rise quickly and substantially from the bottom of the 3 Series line, and we'd guess that most buyers will find the least expensive models as useful and enjoyable as the most expensive.
J.P. Vettraino filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Detroit. Tom Lankard contributed from central California, and Larry Edsall from Marin County in Northern California.
BMW 328i sedan ($32,700); 328i wagon ($34,500); 328xi sedan ($34,600); 328i coupe ($35,600); 328xi wagon ($36,400); 328xi coupe ($37,400); 335i sedan ($39,300); 335xi sedan ($41,200); 335i coupe ($41,200); 335xi coupe ($43,000); 328i Convertible ($43,500); 335i Convertible ($49,500).
Options As Tested
automatic transmission ($1,325); Sport Package ($1700) includes M sports suspension, 17-inch wheels with W-rated performance tires, power sport seats and 155-mph speed-limiter; Premium Package ($3,350) includes Dakota leather upholstery, Bluetooth cell phone interface, power folding side mirrors with reverse tilt-down feature on passenger side, digital mirror compass and BMW Assist telematics; Cold Weather Package ($1,000) includes electrically heated seats, high-intensity headlight washers and split-folding rear seat with ski sack.
BMW 328i sedan ($32,700).
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