2013 BMW 328i xDrive Luxury Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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A little bigger, a little more efficient and, if you'd like, a lot more luxurious. Since its introduction way back in mid-1970s, BMW's iconic and much-emulated 3 Series sedan has continuously evolved. With the sixth generation version it manages to come full circle while also branching off entirely from the original.

It comes full circle because it represents the reintroduction of four-cylinder engines into the lineup here in North America following their disappearance in 1999. It branches off because the latest 328i xDrive, unlike all its forebears, is no longer available here with a manual transmission (the 335i xDrive will still have a manual option). The break will be even more pronounced next year when the coupe version of the sixth generation car debuts not as a 3 Series but as a 4 Series, so the icon that began life as a two-door sedan will soon strictly be a four-door.

None of this is really news, however, because BMW already replaced the spirit of the original 3 Series with the smaller 1 Series, a line was launched in 2004 and introduced to North America in 2008. What is news, thanks to BMW's distinctly differentiated Classic, Sport, Modern and Luxury trim lines, is the extent to which you can now tailor the 3 Series to your own taste, and the extent to which you can layer on the luxury.

Climbing into the 2013 328i xDrive (which is BMW-speak for all-wheel drive), my wife was taken aback. Her regular car, our mid-'90s black-on-black 320i, is the epitome of old-school Teutonic BMW sportiness: all business, with no decoration whatsoever inside or out. My white-on-beige Luxury line test car stood in resplendent contrast, with its anthracite wood trim and pearl gloss chrome accents inside, and its chrome-slatted grille and exterior trim. "It's nice," my wife remarked, "but a bit Beverly Hills for my taste. Does it still drive like a BMW?" Well, yes and no.

Fire it up and the 2013 328i's direct-injection 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine sounds nothing like the silky inline-six from the previous-generation 328i. The turbo four makes an impressive 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, and gets decent official city/highway fuel consumption ratings of 9.1 / 6.2 L/100km (though it requires pricier premium fuel). These numbers represent 11 additional horsepower, 58 lb-ft more torque and 2.7 L/100 km better city economy than the naturally-aspirated six-cylinder it replaces, although my own economy wasn't quite as good at about 11.5 L/100km in the city (I was clearly driving a little harder than most because the test car showed an indicated long-term average of 10.9 L/100km).

What the new four-cylinder engine gains in power and efficiency it loses (a little) in refinement. The direct-injection system is partly responsible, adding a characteristic and vaguely diesel-like chatter to the intake note. The inherent imbalance of the inline four-cylinder layout also contributes its part with a noticeable thrum at idle, which is accentuated by a fuel-saving auto stop-start feature that shuts the engine down at traffic lights or when you might otherwise be idling - making everything suddenly still and silent - and promptly restarts it when you take your foot off the brake pedal (a nice touch is separate "ready" and "off" bottom marks on the tachometer so you can tell at a glance whether the ignition is off or the engine is just auto-stopped).

The 328i xDrive offers three driving modes, and tootling around town in default Comfort mode the new car definitely feels somewhat softer and tamer than its forebears. The eight-speed automatic transmission shifts seamlessly through the gears, and at low revs the engine is muted and unobtrusive. The ride is admirably compliant and refined, but while it feels very well controlled it also leans a little bit away from "sporty" towards "cushy." So not very BMW, right?

Well, no … wrong. The 328i xDrive is certainly comfortable in Comfort mode, but switch into Sport mode, mash the gas pedal and the car bursts to life, its sports sedan heritage clearly shining through. Sport mode sharpens the steering and throttle responses and provides higher, more aggressive shift points, allowing the 328i xDrive to scurry from 0-100 km/h in a quick 5.7-seconds with a lusty growl from the engine. When pushed hard, the chassis has the buttoned-down feel typical of BMW, with excellent balance and nice sharp reflexes. Meanwhile, xDrive's intelligent all-wheel drive and dynamic stability control systems work unobtrusively in the background to help provide an additional level of confidence and control compared to the rear-wheel drive 3 Series, with all kinds of grip even on slick roads. This makes the 328i xDrive a perfect partner for Canadian winters, especially if your driving includes runs to local ski slopes.

A significant chassis change for the latest-generation 3 Series is the migration to variable electric power steering, and while experience indicates that electric steering typically doesn't offer the nuanced feel of traditional hydraulic setups, the 3 Series has one of the best electric systems I've encountered. It's not only nicely weighted, but offers enough feedback that you can indeed feel the front tires starting to lose bite well before they actually break loose.

For those who are counting, the third driving mode is dubbed EcoPro. It dials back the throttle response and lowers the shift points, while providing a driver feedback display that helps you maintain an efficient driving style. To provide encouragement a "bonus range" readout displays how much range you've gained so far, motivating you to stay within the engine's optimal efficiency zone.

The one thing I found slightly annoying is that this 3 Series kept returning to Comfort mode after a shutdown, so I had to remember to turn it back to Sport or EcoPro mode if that's what I wanted. Likewise, you can disable the auto stop-start system, but it also defaults to "on" after shutting down.

All of these foregoing technical driving details are of course entirely necessary for a proper review of a BMW, but they leave unanswered an important question for buyers of Luxury line cars, which is, just how well does the car do luxury? The answer to that is, very nicely thank you. The doors close with a reassuringly solid "whump." High quality soft-surface materials are used throughout the cabin (including lower door panels), with good-looking hard-touch plastic limited to the inner doorsills and the bottom portion of the centre console. My test car's eight-way power-adjustable front seats proved very comfortable and supportive, and its anthracite woodgrain trim contrasted with supple, light-beige leather upholstery to provide a sense of airy elegance (this sense of airiness was cultivated throughout the design process according to BMW design director Adrian van Hooydonk, and includes such touches a freestanding flat screen display that to me looks like it should be retractable).

In back, the slightly enlarged dimensions of the latest 3 Series have been put to good use to provide a big 495-litre trunk (with split-folding seatbacks for longer items) and enough rear seat legroom that not only will kids and friends be perfectly comfortable, but you'll feel comfortable offering rides to clients and colleagues.

In the competitive compact luxury segment the BMW 3 Series goes up against a range of formidable rivals including the Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Cadillac ATS and Infiniti G. Pricing for the 3 Series starts at $37,995 including destination for the rear-wheel drive 320i, with the all-wheel drive 328i xDrive starting at $42,085 for the Classic line and climbing to $50,595 for the Sport line (all prices destination in). A long list of available features and packages  - including but not limited to a Driver's Assistance package (with blind spot detection and lane departure warning) an Executive package (with a Harmon/Kardon sound system, rearview camera and lumbar support) and a Premium package (with an alarm system, on-board navigation, auto-dimming mirrors, comfort access, park distance control and plenty more) - allows extensive personalization and should help the 3 Series Luxury entice new luxury-oriented customers, even as the Classic, Modern and Sport lines keep more traditional BMW buyers in the fold. The long list of available features and packages can also quickly escalate the final price: equipped with just the $3,500 premium package, my Luxury line test car priced out at $51,795 including destination fees.

Just the same, this tailored and luxurious approach to BMW's iconic compact executive sport sedan is a welcome addition.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Sport Sedan, Luxury Sedan, BMW, 2013, 328i, $40,000 - $49,999, $50,000 - $74,999, Compact,

Organizations: BMW

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