On Track with the BMW 335is
Lisbon, Portugal—The 2011 BMW 335is is an interesting addition to the manufacturer’s justifiably popular 3 Series fleet.
Intended solely for the North American market—at least at this point in time—the new coupé and convertible will slot into the lineup above the 335i and below the M3.
Why did BMW decide that such a model was needed? Their research showed that people who purchased the 335i were soon visiting aftermarket suppliers in search of more performance.
Also, the recently announced all-new BMW 335i brought a slight change in direction for the BMW 3 Series; gone was the award-winning twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engine, replaced by a new 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder equipped with a single turbocharger. But rather than consign the twin-turbo to the scrap heap of history, the brain trust at BMW elected to use this engine (boosted a bit more) to power the 335is. Smart.
Whereas the original 3.0-litre twin-turbo developed 300 horsepower (224kW) and 300 lb-ft (407 Nm) of torque, the new version slotted into the 335is produces 320 horsepower (238kW) and 332 lb-ft (450 Nm) of torque, a nice little increase. In addition, a temporary overboost feature of the engine allows it to create up to 370 lb-ft (502 Nm) of torque, a great boon when it comes time to overtake or merge onto a highway.
The 335is comes with a six-speed manual transmission as standard equipment, while BMW’s dual-clutch seven-speed automatic (DCT) is available as an option. In the DCT coupé, the run from 0 to 100 km/h is estimated to take a scant 5.3 seconds or one-tenth faster than the coupé with the six-speed manual. Over the course of a too-brief encounter with the coupe at the Estoril race track just outside of Lisbon, both versions were tested.
The day started out a little damp, the track a bit slick, so we were encouraged to take it easy with the fleet of eight pre-production coupés. We were also advised to leave the traction control engaged, a decision that nearly altered how this review would go. You see, the BMW is a fairly quick car and its power easily exceeded the traction available—at least according to the car’s on-board computer.
For five painfully frustrating laps, I attempted to maintain momentum through the technically challenging turns and put the overboost feature through its paces on the straight sections. For a good 85% of the lap, the traction control light on the instrument panel flashed, indicating that there wasn’t enough grip to allow for anything close to full power to be brought into play. The track surface seemed to be drying out, but the computer clearly thought otherwise and the 335is felt like it was boring through quicksand.
Convinced that the car had more to offer than those five laps would indicate, I swapped the 6-speed manual for a coupé fitted with the DCT. This was a wise move. Even before I cleared the pit lane, I could tell that this session would be a different story altogether: the engine revved more freely, the exhaust note reached its full glory, the car jumped ahead with more gusto and BMW’s reputation for creating ultimate driving machines was, happily, restored.
Still, there are some areas in need of improvement, particularly given that the 335is is supposed to dissuade buyers from replacing stock parts with more specialized equipment.
Issue one: the brakes. While an upgrade over the 335i might be expected, the 335is is equipped with the exact same braking system. Estoril is a fairly unforgiving racetrack that features at least three turns requiring incredibly strong brakes. In the BMW, one of those turns is taken at about 70 km/h, but on the straight leading towards said turn, top speeds hit 210 km/h. (You do the math.)
After seven consecutive laps and seven consecutive approaches to this turn, the brakes began to lose their edge: pedal travel increased and braking distances did likewise. Not fitting bigger and better brakes to the 335is is a missed opportunity, plain and simple.
Issue two: the suspension system. Although the 335is is fitted with a sport suspension system, a few high-speed transitions on the track left me wondering whether a more buttoned-down setting would’ve been a better fit, maybe something with a larger anti-roll bar. Make no mistake, the BMW is not an old-school Cadillac in this respect, it simply revealed more body roll than expected.
The 335is is well-suited to performance driving from a comfort and ergonomics standpoint, particularly the DCT version. While I find BMWs fitted with manual transmissions to have a slightly awkward driving position—the pedals are either set too far away or the gear lever is set too far back—the dual-clutch automatic puts an end to this criticism with the choice of a well-placed gear lever or shift paddles on the steering wheel.
A new development with this year’s model improves things even further: the push-pull paddle design from last year’s 335i has been supplanted by the more common upshift paddle on the right side and downshift paddle to the left. (A long overdue move.)
Inside the cabin, the 335is boasts some choice features including an M sport steering wheel, sport seats, a racier instrument cluster and steel pedals. The net effect is very positive; the car seems just a shade shy of an BMW M3—exactly what it’s supposed to be.
In that the coupé and convertible are, of course, two-door vehicles, they are considerably less useful than sedans. But the 335is is, nevertheless, a very comfortable car with which to run local errands or cruise the countryside on a Sunday drive, particularly the DCT version. Simply slip the car into the fully automatic mode, resist the urge to hit the ‘sport’ button just below the shift lever, sit back and enjoy the ride.
The 2011 BMW 335is is a car that very nearly hits the intended mark. With a bit more attention to the braking system and (possibly) the suspension system, it would be the perfect middle ground between the sporty 335i and raucous M3. As it is, the 335is feels like a 335i with a slightly upgraded ECU—likely not the kind of impression BMW wanted to make with this new entry.
Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining car that should meet with approval from the enthusiasts out there. When it arrives in North America this spring, the 335is will likely be priced at least $5000 more than the 335i (final pricing has not been set), but it’s important to note that the car will come standard with what is essentially the M sport package—including a special front fascia, side skirts and five-spoke wheels.
At this stage, there are no plans to bring the 335is to Australia.