A few months ago I picked up a 2012 BMW 328i sedan with a manual transmission. It’s about time I gave it a proper write-up and review. I’d like to say I’m unbiased, but if I was Iron Man, that light in my chest may look a bit different. Cause, you know…it’d be a roundel. Get it? Alright, without further ado, my 2012 BMW 328i review. Wait! Gotta take off my $60 //Motorsport hat. Now I’m ready.
Something to Complain About
What would auto “journalists” do if there was nothing to stir a controversy? There’s got to be something wrong, something trivial to blow up. 911 electric steering, anyone? How about turbo-only 911s?
Today, 4 years after production started, we’re talking about the F30 BMW 3-Series. The once undisputed King of Sport Sedans that now has been relegated to four cylinder propulsion and electric steering. Sounds a lot like a the makings of Corolla.
It’s true. BMW not only replaced the sweet sounding, and much heralded inline six, for a four-banger, but also dropped the hydraulic steering which fed aligning torque straight to our fingers. On the surface, the latest 3-series seemed to have taken steps backward. How could the King have stepped down to Jester?
Or, it could be that the auto journalists were all wrong.
In With The New
The era of global warming and $5/gallon fuel prices have forced change in the auto industry. Namely, the demand for more efficient vehicles has made cars lighter even though they continue to get larger. That means engines need to make equal or more power while sipping less.
First, the F30 chassis is lighter than the outgoing E90 by nearly 200 pounds through the use of lighter materials. As an enthusiast, we’re starting with a chassis that is being asked to do the same with less mass. Chalk one up for the F30.
Eliminating hydraulic power steering means fewer components to fail. That means it’s instantly more reliable. Removing the power steering pump also mean less power loss being as the engine is no longer being asked to spin another drive. No more whining power steering units and leaking hoses! Looking at you, E36 and E46 crowd.
The electric steering is light. Turning the wheel can be done with the pinky finger. There is little feedback to inform the driver of what the front tires are doing. Calling the steering sporty in the Eco or Comfort modes is plain wrong. And this is where the F30 gets knocked the most, especially by those who are stepping out of the previous generation.
Keep one thing mind when comparing the steering feel to the previous generation. The 2007-2011 E92 sedans had the heaviest steering of just about any car on the market. Don’t mistake the F30’s light steering for being slow. Fact is, the F30’s steering ratio is 8% quicker than the E90.
The N20 engine has several maps to choose from based on your driving style and desire to maximize fuel economy. Both Eco and Comfort drive modes are quick to remind you that this is a small displacement engine. The turbo is somewhat lazy and the throttle input desensitized. But select Sport or Sport+ mode and something astonishing happens. The steering tightens up and the nuances of the road can be better felt. The engine mapping is now in its most aggressive configuration and throttle response becomes razor sharp. There’s torque right off of idle. Even in stock trim, the turbo can be heard making awesome spooly noises. This things moves! THIS! This is much better!
Acceleration video of a 328i with 8-Speed automatic. Notice how it shifts. The upshift to 3rd is just after 55 MPH.
BMW introduced an 8-Speed automatic transmission to the 3-Series in 2012 and it is well mated to the N20 engine. The close ratio gears keep the engine at peak power so it really feels like you’re moving quicker than you are. The ZF made 8-speed automatic can also be paired with paddle shifters and the transmission software can be tweaked to really tighten up the shifts. This is no slug. It’s the same transmission used in many big horsepower cars. Jaguar uses it in their F-Type.
But I’m not pulling paddles. I’m rowing my own gears with a traditional 6-Speed manual transmission and 3rd pedal. The shifter is typical BMW. Cable style rather than direct linkage. The shifter is a smidge tall, throws are a tad long and there’s just a little too much slop. There’s no click-click feel through your hand as the shifter is pushed in to the next gear like there is with a direct linkage transmission in say, a Subaru STI. That’s what you get. It’s similar to the Porsche 911 or Subaru WRX if you’re looking for a comparison.
The problem I’ve experienced with the manual transmission stems from the engine and exhaust being so quiet. Maybe it’s just me, but I had problems rev matching smoothly because I couldn’t hear the engine. BMW does offer an M Performance exhaust to liven it up, and I’d say that’s definitely worth considering. I took a cheaper route and had my own custom axle back muffler made by Hi Flo Exhaust, a shop local to me. My rev matching complaints have been resolved and the exhaust sounds much better!
On Track Performance
After not being on track since 2008, I somehow managed to get on two different tracks within a month. The first was at New Jersey Motorsports Park as part of SCCA’s Track Night. The second, Monticello Motor Club in New York as a guest on /Drive TV. This was Oreo cookies chased by a root beer float. Yum!
The N20 turbo four cylinder engine was equally impressive on the track. BMW rates the N20 engine at 240 horsepower and 260 torque. But that’s a conservative number. The N20 has just as much power as the outgoing inline 6 engine but with more torque in the lower to mid-range. This means you can pull out of corners in a higher gear. You can zip around without burying the tachometer. But you can if you want.
Tossing the F30 328i through twisty back roads, it becomes evident that the factory suspension is not as tight as the previous generations. Most specifically, the rear suspension is soft and does not feel solid exiting corners. The reason for this is because BMW used softer rate springs in the rear to introduce a little understeer to compensate for the change to non-staggered rear tires, which would introduce oversteer.
Now a confession must be made – my suspension was not totally stock. Dinan springs were installed the day before the SCCA Track Night event NJMP because I knew I would be cursing BMW the entire time. And that’s no way to spend a day trip.
Dinan claims that the factory dampers on the F30 with M-Sport suspension are very good. They’re just severely under sprung. These springs are currently the only fixed rate springs on the market and Dinan claims are a perfect pairing to M-Sport dampers and those with the Dynamic Handling Package.
With the Dinan springs installed, nose dive under braking has been significantly reduced and stayed much flatter through the corners. On track, the F30 was near neutral, exhibiting mild understeer in the fast sweepers and a little more through the tightest low speed sections. Even then, at this trim level I had no trouble keeping pace with a stock 335i and Porsche Cayman. Fact – the 335i over heated while my peppy N20 was still moving strong. Here’s a video from SCCA Track Night at New Jersey Motorsports Park that I edited using various camera angles. I think you’ll enjoy it.
But you know what sucked? The base model 328i brakes. They may be fine on the streets but on the track they sucked big time. All it took was the first brake zone on the second lap of the first session at NJMP and the front pads were done. Pedal feel was never the same after that. Sure, I was able to complete the rest of the track day but I was braking lighter and earlier in the brake zone than I otherwise would have if the brakes were up to the task. That’s why I opted for a big brake kit. Zero fade now.
If there’s one thing piece of advice I can give an F30 owner it’s to make sure the brakes are up to the task.
Comforts and Daily Driving
Visiting the cabin, the seats adjust nice and low – just what’s needed for doing sporty thing in a motor car. They sit far lower than what you’ll find in the Subaru WRX or STI. Odd comparison, perhaps, but it’s what came to mind. And they’re bolstered well enough for a daily driver. If you track your car on the regular perhaps you may look to the aftermarket or if you’re lucky enough, find a set out of the F80 M3.
The Sport steering wheel is ever so slightly thicker than the non-sport wheel and includes red stitching and silver trim. The steering column allows for four way adjustments – in and out, up and down. I personally pull the steering wheel as far out as possible so that I can keep the seat further back and still not stretch my arms to rest my wrists over the top at 12 o’clock. But that’s just me.
Drop the right wrist and it lands precisely on the shifter – which is maybe a little sloppier than I’d like. But that’s nothing a short shift kit can’t fix. The F30 offers a proper driving position.
On to the back. Rear sear head was sufficient and leg room plenty for even 6 ft tall adults. Behind the center console are two vents that can be aimed individually with a temperature dial. Below that, a single 12-volt outlet. As utilitarian as the 3-Series seems to be, I don’t know why BMW stopped making standard fold-down rear seats. Are fold-down rear seats too blue collar these days? Sheesh.
My car also came with the Cold Weather Package, Comfort Package, Technology Package, and M Sport wheels. Won’t waste any time talking about those. They all work well enough. The only thing I disliked was the presence of the sunroof. And I wish it had the backup sensors. Call me lazy, but the back up sensors are great for effortlessly backing in to a spot quickly without breaking my neck. They’re perfect for somebody like me with a tiny ass garage.
BMW’s have always been known as great driving machines. And make no mistake – Germany’s finest made sure that hasn’t changed. Drivers can now choose when they want to transform their every daily cruiser in to a mean sport sedan. The 3-Series has evolved.
Sources: Steering and Weight information from Car and Driver