Driven: 2014 BMW 328i
By Bradley Iger
December 10, 2013
Already into its third year of production, the sixth generation 3-Series remains the benchmark by which all other sport sedans are measured. While there haven't been many dramatic changes since the F30's introduction for the 2012 model year, when we were offered a go in a new 328i equipped with the rarely optioned row-your-own six speed manual gearbox, it didn't take much coaxing to get us behind the wheel.
Our tester, equipped with the Sport Line trim, certainly looked the part. It's a delicate balancing act to find the middle ground between athletic intention and outright bravado, but BMW continues to be one of the most successful brands in the industry when it comes to defining that boundary. While the bodywork here is not as aggressive as what you'd find on the M Sport Line trim, the Sport Line's objective is still made clear via the 18-inch wheels wrapped in summer tires along with the hunkered down stance of the M Sport Suspension package, which is standard on both Sport Line and M Sport Line models.
Inside, the story is much the same. The usual suspects of leather, aluminum, carbon fiber and alcantara abound here, and the general feeling of quality in both materials and construction won't be of any surprise to those familiar with the brand. And while the purposeful steering wheel, massive multi-function display and generally plush surroundings serve to bolster the sense of occasion here, it's the shifter on the console and the third pedal on the floor which immediately steal the show.
By now we've had plenty of time get used to the N20 four cylinder motor since it made its debut in the F30 back in 2011. Despite this, we still find ourselves surprised by this pugnacious 2.0-liter, both in terms of the sounds it can generate and the eagerness with which it can propel this 3400-pound sedan. Turbo lag from the Twin Scroll unit found here is quite minimal, but can be felt when generous throttle is applied from lower revs, or if coming out of a corner in too high of a gear. Truly, this is a motor which is happiest when pushed, be it from the snorty bark it generates at upper end or the torque that really starts to make its presence felt beyond 3000 rpm. This, combined with the notchy and precise throws of the six speed shifter, equates to a car which beckons you to keep the throttle on boil.
But for a number of reasons, in all likelihood you typically won't. In its normal "mode" setting - which the 328i starts in by default regardless of the setting it was last set at - the car operates much like any other sedan. The ride is softly dampened and abundantly compliant, the steering is light, effortless and generally uncommunicative, and a muted throttle response makes engaging and disengaging the clutch proficiently a somewhat nebulous endeavor. The gas-saving start/stop feature makes its presence known regularly, and continues to be a source of either annoyance or concern depending on the situation. While none of these issues are really a deal breaker, and probably make for a more pleasant commute on a day-to-day basis, in this mode, you may start to wonder why you got in league with the 328i in the first place. Fortunately, with the flip of a switch, the answer becomes obvious.
Setting the 328i over to Sport+ mode has a fairly profound effect on the character of the car. If there were a way to do so, we could imagine ourselves setting the car to this mode by default and deviating only when absolutely necessary. With body roll corralled significantly, tightened up steering feel, more urgent throttle response, and a total reprieve from the likes of stability and traction control, Sport+ makes the 328i feel like the 3-Series you signed up for.
Even in this sportiest of modes, we did find that dampening was still a bit soft for our liking, as the car still exhibits a fair amount of vertical motion and brake dive, but we suspect that for people like us, the optional M Performance Suspension package largely alleviates this issue.
At an as-tested price of nearly $45,000, it's difficult not to feel like there's some brand inflation afoot here. That may be true to some extent, but with four years of scheduled maintenance (which includes oil changes and brakes) and roadside assistance, at least some of that premium can be justified. Additionally, with the ability to change from an acquiescent runabout into the kind nimble and capable sport sedan that made the 3-Series the standard in this segment at the push of a button, perhaps you're really getting two cars for the price of one.