The 328i sedan is BMW's entry-level ultimate driving machine here in the US. Last redesigned in 2006, the car boasts yet another variation of the long-hood-short-deck shape that's been a 3-series hallmark since the early 90s. For 2007, the 3-series gets a boost in power and new model names: The 325 becomes the 328 as horsepower rises by 15 to 230; the 330 becomes the 335 with a turbocharger that boosts horsepower from 255 to 300. Does that make it any more "ultimate"? Read on. $33,175 base, $39,825 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 19-21 MPG city, 27-30 highway.
First Glance: 328i meets the BMW cynic
When it comes to BMWs - as with many things - I am a cynic. Maybe it's because I'm not much into cars as status symbols. Maybe it's because I like to root for the underdog. Maybe it's because I usually am the underdog. Maybe it's because it drives me nuts when people automatically assume a car will be awesome just because it's German (or boring because it's Japanese or crap because it's American). Whatever the reason, I went into this week-long test drive with a chip on my shoulder the size of a Buick Lucerne... and came away with a new-found respect for the BMW 3-series, particularly the entry-level 328i sedan.
Yes, the 328i is good to drive, but that's hardly the only reason to buy it. The 3-series is exceptionally well thought out, showing the sort of attention to detail that made Japanese automakers famous. Furthermore -- and this is something I never thought I'd write about a BMW -- the 328i delivers surprisingly good value for money.
The 328i starts just over $33k including destination charge, with automatic headlights, dual-zone climate control, sunroof, and safety kit galore, including front-seat-mounted torso and side-curtain airbags, four wheel antilock disc brakes, and electronic stability control. That price also includes all scheduled maintenance for 4 years or 50,000 miles -- a huge cost savings. My tester added genuine leather seats (heated and power adjustable in front), dynamic cruise control, and other goodies, and still stickered below $40k.
In the Driver's Seat: Well thought out but with glaring faults
Of all this car's attributes, it was the interior that impressed me most. A tilt and telescope steering wheel helps drivers of all shapes get comfortable. Front seats (link goes to photo) have a slide-out thigh bolster, giving taller drivers the same thigh support usually reserved for us short people. My car had an airy and bright tan interior, but the dashboard was thoughtfully topped in glare-cutting black.
The back seat is designed with a nice long bottom cushion, favoring the reality of good thigh support over the illusion of more legroom (in truth, there's plenty of both). The LATCH child seat anchors are easy to access, and the center headrest folds down so it won't block the driver's view out the rear window. The trunk is small, but since the 328i comes with run-flat tires (and, ergo, no spare tire), there's extra storage space below the trunk floor.
The 328i's interior has two glaring faults. First, the seat belts aren't height adjustable, so drivers have to rely on the seat-height adjustment to ensure the seat belt lies properly on their shoulder. Virtually every other car on the market has height adjustable belts; why BMW missed this is beyond me. Second, split-folding rear seats don't come standard; they are part of a $1,000 cold weather option package (and darned if I can figure out what expanding the trunk has to do with cold weather).
On the Road: Good -- almost too good
I found the 328i's 230 horsepower engine to be very powerful and flexible (unlike, say, the Lexus IS250, which has to be revved to get at the power), and the six-speed manual was an absolute delight to use. My observed fuel economy - 23 MPG - was par for the mid-size six-cylinder course. Frankly, I think the 3-series could do with a smaller and more fuel-efficient engine, but less power wouldn't really fit with BMW's image.
I pushed the 328i hard on my favorite twisty road; the steering was lovely and the tires almost uniformly refused to give up their grip. When I got going too fast, the stability control system would cut in suddenly and decisively. After a while, though, I stopped pushing and slackened my pace. Was the handling good? Definitely. But was it fun? Not as much as I expected. The Bimmer felt bored, as if I wasn't taking advantage of its superior handling abilities. But doing so would require driving at speeds much faster than I consider to be prudent -- and trust me, I drive this particular road pretty darn fast. Bottom line, the 328i isn't as involving as the all-wheel-drive Audi A4 or the Infiniti G35. Those cars make me feel like I'm part of the process; in the 328i I felt like I was just along for the ride.
Journey's End: The 328i earns my respect
Naturally, the 3-series is not without rivals. I like Audi's A4 for its available Quattro all-wheel-drive and stellar 4-cylinder turbo engine. But the A4's interior lacks the 328i's attention to detail and its controls are even more complex. Lexus' IS250/IS350 is much more user-friendly but not nearly as good drive; ditto for the bigger ES350, which is strong on space and value but lacking in driver appeal. The Infiniti G35 is another great sport sedan, but if the 328i is a blue-blood European gentleman, the G35 is a bouncer from Brooklyn in an Armani suit. Expanding my realm beyond luxury sedans, I'd consider the Subaru Legacy GT and Spec B, which lack cachet but are outstandingly enjoyable cars to drive (and great in bad weather, too).
A lot of people buy BMWs as status symbols, and that alone has always been enough for me to steer clear. But a week with the 3-series left me really impressed by this car's attention to detail, build quality and safety -- to the point that I might even consider buying one myself. -- Aaron Gold