Wednesday, February 28, 2007

DRIVEN: 2007 BMW 335i

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy BMW Canada

A year after launching its new 3-Series sedan, BMW has now taken the opportunity to fill out the remainder of its entry-level lineup. And, at the same time, introducing a brand-new engine that will sate power-hungry Bimmer-philes for quite a while.

While the 3-Series Coupe (codenamed E92) made its Canadian debut at last October’s AJAC Test Fest, it whetted our appetites enough to want a more ‘extended’ test when time permitted. Now that we’ve spent a week in BMW’s new two door, we’ve come to appreciate it even more.

Or should we say appreciate the engine even more. Certainly you’ve already heard about BMW’s first forced-induction gasoline engine since the BMW 2002 Turbo – the company has been making excellent turbo-diesels for years, so they’re not out of practice by any means. Combining a direct injection 3.0-liter inline six with two small light-pressure turbos, BMW has come up with nice round power numbers: 300 hp @ 5,800 rpm, and 300 lb-ft @ a ridiculously low 1,400 rpm.

While 300 horses in a relatively small car is a near guarantee of fun, it’s that torque figure that really stands out. With the peak hitting barely above idle, it’s the big-block-style shove in the back in any gear at any time that characterizes the 335i Coupe. Turbo lag is virtually nonexistent, and with this flexibility, the six speeds feel superfluous.

And, although the 335i weighs 150lbs more than the outgoing M3, the performance gap between the two is negligible. (All of which bodes well for the new V8-powered E92 M3 that makes its debut later this year.)

With such a spectacular engine under hood, you could almost excuse the 335i Coupe if it looked like a dog’s breakfast. Thankfully, it doesn’t, although photos don’t do the car any justice. In person, the Coupe is a more conservative evolution of Chris Bangle’s styling direction; in fact, from the rear, it looks remarkably like a 6-Series with the truck ‘fixed’.

The front isn’t anything special either, although you could argue it’s very much a Q-Car: understated on the outside, anything but underneath.

As with every 3-Series built, the 335i is a performance enthusiast’s dream, with BMW’s typically responsive and engaging chassis, although the run-flat tires do make the ride unreasonably harsh – the first thing M-sport engineers do is throw on ‘normal’ rubber. Why BMW doesn’t adopt that thinking across the rest of its range is a mystery…

Meanwhile, the optional Active Steering is still in the ‘Undecided’ category. At low speeds, only having to use half a turn of lock to maneuver is exceptional, and backing off at high speeds so you don’t go flying off into the weeds if you sneeze certainly is the smart thing to do. However, if you’re in the middle of a changing-radius turn, the combination of speed and angle change can be really unsettling. You find you need to take two bites out of complicated corners when one should suffice.

Non-Active Steering is still superb, though, so you might as well save some money by not selecting it.

The brakes are sufficiently beefy that they’ll take just about anything the road can throw at you, but a day at the track might find them wanting. Why a ‘big-brake’ option isn’t available on any of BMW’s models – including the M’s – is increasingly curious.

Inside, the main features will be familiar to anyone who’s driven a new 3-Series in the last year as the Coupe shares the sedan’s fitments; iDrive is (thankfully) an option, while the sport seats are firm and supportive. Ergonomically everything is correct, but finished with very little passion. Some extra verve would be welcome…

As with any German car, the pricing depends heavily on what options you check; value for money is not at the top of BMW’s game. The 335i starts at $51,600, while our reasonably well-equipped tester – Sport Package, Premium Package, Active Steering and Park Distance Control – rang in at $60,550.

Still, despite the gripes, the Coupe continues to set the bar further away from its rivals. The Infiniti G35 came closest, but we haven’t seen the new two-door version yet. The Lexus IS350 doesn’t come with two doors, and the Mercedes-Benz CLK350 isn’t focused enough. Until someone looks beyond ‘benchmarking’ the 3-Series and truly invests in perfecting the sport coupe, BMW has the enthusiast vote all locked up.

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