2012 BMW 3-Series 335i

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BMW’s 3-Series
The sixth generation of BMW’s 3-Series is the best one yet.

Back when owner’s manuals were in Latin, the list of BMW options fit on a cocktail napkin and nothing was driver-adjustable.

The thinking was, We know how to make performance cars. This is what you need. Trust us. No more. Now we can fiddle with suspension stiffness, brake and throttle response, steering ratios and what the backup camera sees.

The less we can really drive—thanks to congestion and the long arm of the law—the more important such things become. If we can’t use the speed and handling, well, let us be entertained with choices instead.

Thus there’s a lot going on in any 335i, even in basic trim. Click through the iDrive computer menus and you’ll find options for the options, and information screens for everything but your carbohydrate intake. (I like the power readouts, but shouldn’t I be looking at the road?)
The fuel-saving feature that shuts off the engine when the car stops and then re-starts when it’s time to go is annoying enough that I disabled it. BMW provides a switch next to the ignition button for this.

Did the Bavarians add stop-start to be environmentally correct—but make it less than perfect so we won’t actually use it?

Last I heard, stopping and starting an engine causes more wear than letting it run.

The door latches are irritating too. Pull them once to unlock the door; pull them again to actually open the door. There may be a way to dial out the first pull—the owner’s manual devotes eight pages to the door locks (and three more to locking the trunk), but I don’t have the patience to sort through all this just to set my personal door-locking profile. On the outside, however, you can lock and unlock the doors just by touching the handle, and even pop the trunklid by sticking your foot under the bumper—if you do it just right.

The suspension and the 8-speed automatic transmission can be switched from economy mode to comfort, sport or, on some models, sport-plus. (A slick 6-speed manual gearbox and a clutch are also available.) Economy mode does much more than just shut down the engine at stoplights; it also minimizes the A-C and other energy-hogging systems, along with throttle and turbocharger response.

BMW claims up to 20 percent better fuel efficiency in EcoPro, but I suspect most BMW drivers will save it for the gas-price apocalypse. Until then, sport mode is so appropriate for this car that I adopted it as my everyday setting. Sorry, Mother Earth.

Carmakers everywhere are downsizing engines and adding turbochargers, to squeeze more miles out of a gallon of fuel without sacrificing power. Thus, despite its model number, this car doesn’t pack a 3.5-liter motor; it’s a 3-liter straight-six.

But thanks to twin turbos, it’s rated for 300 horsepower, and strong horses they are, too. BMW says the 335i will hit 60 MPH from rest in 5.4 seconds, and it feels even quicker than that.

The engine is brilliant; so is the chassis. Even the electrically assisted steering now feels wonderfully dialed-in.

On the outside, from some angles the subtly restyled 3-Series can now be hard to differentiate from its bigger siblings, the 5- and 7-Series dreadnaughts. From behind the wheel, however, despite its near two tons, the lithe and lively 335i evokes some of the exceptional BMWs of yore—the Bavaria sedan, for instance. At $43,000 and up, the various 335i models are hardly inexpensive. (The 4-cylinder 328i can cost much less.) However, they are now as sophisticated as their bigger, much pricier siblings, yet more pleasing to drive.

As the “ultimate driving machine,” BMW no longer stands out as distinctly as it once did. A number of other companies have finally learned to build credible 3-Series wannabes, but just the fact that we keep comparing them to these BMWs should tell you something: The 3s are still the midsize sedans to beat.