published Saturday, March 17th, 2012

BMW 3-series blends German styling, beauty, brawn

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    Test Drive BMW 328i Staff Photo by Mark Kennedy
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At a glance

Model: 2012 BMW 328i.

Exterior color: Black Sapphire Metallic.

Interior color: Dakota Beige.

Engine: 2.4 liter, 4 cylinder.

Horsepower: 240.

Transmission: 8-speed automatic.

Fuel economy: 24 mpg city, 36 mpg highway.

Dealer: BMW of Chattanooga.

Price (as tested): $50,340.

If the BMW 3-series sedan were an article of clothing, it would be a blue blazer. Cashmere. Two-button front.

BMW's best-selling vehicle has been the benchmark for luxury sport sedans for more than two decades. Like a blue blazer, it's simultaneously classic and sporty.

The sixth-generation of the 3-series sedan has just hit American shores from an assembly plant in Munich, Germany. Motor Trend magazine already has lined up the new sedan against the usual suspects and pronounced it, again, king of the hill.

Meanwhile, BMW enthusiasts eager to trade for a new 3-series will have an interesting choice to make: Opt for the new turbocharged, four-cylinder version, the 328i, or step up to the 335i, equipped with the company's unbeatable inline six.

STYLING

Our test car was a Black Sapphire Metallic 328i. From a distance, styling changes are subtle. The new 3-series is a bit longer, giving it a stance that resembles the existing 5-series, notes Brian Roberts, a client adviser at BMW of Chattanooga.

Character lines in the side panels are carved a bit deeper than before, giving

the 3-series a more ripped physique, as well. Overall, it measures 4 inches longer and 2 inches wider than the outgoing model, which only enhances the car's legendary handling.

Inside is where BMW enthusiasts will notice the biggest styling changes. Instead of all hard lines and right angles, the dash and doors are tastefully contoured. New, arched door pulls, capped with wood inlays, are especially handsome. Our test car's interior was a blend of black and tan materials. The dash contains the normal four-gauge cluster behind the steering wheel. A navigation screen rises from the center of the dash and displays maps from an interesting perspective a few degrees above the horizon.

PERFORMANCE

There's a secret back road in Brainerd where all the car guys go. I call it the Goldilocks road. It's not too curvy, not too straight, but just right for a test drive.

There, we put the 328i through its paces, toggling through the Driving Dynamics Controls, which allow you to dial in more or less throttle response, steering weight and suspension stiffness. In Sport Mode, the 328i danced through a series of S-curves with plenty of steering response. Meanwhile, in Comfort Mode, the sedan relaxes into a softer ride.

BOTTOM LINE

The arrival of a new 3-Series sedan is a cause for celebration among BMW enthusiasts who rightly see it as the benchmark for mid-size performance sedans. Especially those who prefer the classic, rear-wheel-drive setup.

Our test car, which makes 240 horsepower, turns in a stunning 36 miles per gallon highway (24 city), so owners will be ready for whatever is to come at the pump. That's not bad for a car that can sprint 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds. With nearly every available option, our tester stickered for $50,340. Routine maintenance for the first four years or 50,000 miles is free -- an impressive bonus.

BMW engineers are careful not to tinker too much with the 3-series, lest they mess up a good thing. Not to worry, the new 3-series contains many evolutionary changes that keep the car at the head of the pack.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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