Always a benchmark, both as a sports sedan and as status symbol, I spent a week with the BMW 328i to see if the little 3er still ticked all the mid-level executive boxes it has since debuting 40 years ago.
Launched the same year I was, the 1975 BMW E21 3 Series revolutionised the sports sedan market. Available only as a two-door coupe and cabriolet, the E21 was the first BMW to feature the now familiar driver-centric dashboard and center console.
Moving into the 1980s came the iconic second-generation E30 3 Series that spawned not only the original M3 sports coupe, but also the concept of the 3 Series as a variable-style model to anchor the BMW brand.
For the numbers fans, the E30 was available in seven ‘shapes’: a two-door coupe, cabriolet, convertible, wide-body coupe and convertible (both exclusive to the M3), and a four-door sedan and touring wagon.
With the launch of the F30 in 2012, the BMW 3 Series was introduced in its sixth and current generation. The F30 saw two-door and M models split into separate ranges, leaving just the sedan, touring wagon and GT hatch as ‘proper’ 3 Series cars.
The range is due for a facelift this year – or Life Cycle Impulse (LCI) in BMW speak – but the current car is still a smart looking sedan.
My aptly coloured ‘Melbourne Red’ test car, features the Sport Line option. One of three style choices you can have on your 3 – along with Modern Line and Luxury Line – the packs bring with them slightly different wheels, trim, colour? and front air dam designs.
All ‘Lines’ of the 328i start at $69,400 (plus on roads), but for mine, Sport Line is the obvious choice for the ‘ultimate driving machine’. That is, of course, except for the eBay-style ‘Sport’ badges that feature on the front guards, which look cheap and awful. The red dash strip (another Sport Line add-on) is also initially a bit gawdy, but it does grow on you.
Mind you, given BMW has to divvy up its ‘sport’ between Sport Line, M-Sport, M-Performance and pure M-Division cars these days, I should be thankful for any sportiness at all…
Overall though, the 328i ticks the boxes for how I want my 3er to look – smart but sensible, sporty but restrained.
Inside (aside from that red strip), things are typically BMW. The driving position is comfortable and everything is where you expect it. It’s a place that makes you feel at home very quickly.
Over my first few days in the F30, I try not to like it.
I know that sounds silly, but I had previously driven the 328i’s little brother, the 320i, and came away underwhelmed.
They share the same basic engine and drivetrain, a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder and an eight-speed automatic transmission, but the 328i has 45kW and 80Nm more than the 20, and you can feel it.
The 320i felt sluggish and uninspiring. The smaller 6.5-inch iDrive screen and lack of BMW niceties like a top-view camera or sunroof made if feel overpriced at $60,400.
The 328i, however, with more goodies, a larger 8.8-inch professional iDrive screen and that extra punch, is what an executive sports sedan should be.
As well as professional navigation (standard in the 328i), my 3 is fitted with Connected Drive Freedom (a $923 option) that provides live telematics data and on-the-move communications.
While the concierge and SOS functions of Connected Drive are great, the standout function is the live-traffic map and navigation re-routing. The system displays roads in green, yellow or red to identify traffic volume, but also suggests and re-routes you to avoid heavier snarls where possible.
Once you have used it, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
Driving around town in the default ‘Comfort’ setting, the 328i feels pleasant and, well, comfortable. Drop into ‘Sport’ and response is greatly improved to return a much more entertaining and rewarding experience.
What about the synthetic engine note, pumped through the stereo speakers as part of BMW’s Active Sound Design, you ask?
Well, like something else I was once told was fake, it only enhanced my curiosity. Everything seems real and natural but you can tell it is a little too perfect and that some enhancement has taken place. But in both cases, the enjoyment of the synthesised product was so good, I didn’t really care and grew to enjoy it. It’s just a pity it is so hard to find Tang in stores now…
As my days with the 328i pass, my attachment to the Bimmer grows.
I recently sold my 30-year-old E28 528i and found the connection to the new ’28 a bit of an emotional one.
The F30 is not as flat-out cool as the classic 5er, but to be able to enjoy every drive – to school, to the office, anywhere – is a rare thing. I miss my E28 but the 3 Series does a good job of helping to heal the wounds.
As I near the end of my time with the red sedan, and despite the 328i not putting a foot wrong, I can’t help but start to pick on its faults.
Even with its shiny red paint and sharp-looking 18-inch alloys, the 328i does look like every other 3 Series out there. Even the design change between the previous generation E90 cars isn’t a huge enough step to make the F30 stand out in a crowd. You can tick the M-Sport option or add some M-Performance parts at the dealer, but before you know it you’ll be pushing six figures (beginning to defeat the purpose of not getting a genuine M car).
Another flaw is the climate control. Why can’t you quickly sync the temperature between driver and front passenger? Why?
It’s a button and a concept I’ve seen in cars across the globe for years, but only just now making its way into BMWs (the ‘futuristic’ i8 for example). I don’t consider myself to have OCD, but if I’m the only person in the car, I want the aircon to punch out 19.5-degrees both sides of the transmission tunnel. Not 18 and 19, not 20 and 20.5. The same.
While on a tech rant, if by mere proximity the key remembers my seat and mirror position, iDrive configuration and radio stations, why can’t it remember that I want stop-start turned off and the car in Sport mode? Every time.
It’s fair to mention too, that the once littlest Bimmer has gotten a bit fat over its 40-year life – not unlike someone else around here…
For the record, the F30 is longer and heavier than my E28 5 Series (4624mm and 1385kg plays 4620mm and 1370kg).
This added heft no doubt translating into an on-test fuel consumption figure of around 11.2L/100km – almost double the claimed 6.2L/100km. Or perhaps, I enjoyed it and ‘Sport’ mode a bit too much.
To me, the mark of a good car is one that makes you smile. And for me, the BMW 328i did just that, and in a big way.
It is a proper 3 Series true to the sporting nature of the E30 that made the nameplate so famous.
In this BMW fan boy’s opinion, it is the absolute sweet spot of the range, and while I miss my Polaris silver E28 sedan, I would happily choose the 328i – ideally as an Estoril blue M-Sport Touring wagon – as my current favourite Bavarian happy-place. Just fix the sync button.
Click the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.