In the past couple of decades, no luxury sports car embodied BMW’s famous “the Ultimate Driving Machine” mantra more than the segment-defining 3 Series. In 2010, enthusiasts panicked as the company tried to reach a broader range of bourgeois consumers with the “Story of Joy” campaign for the flame-surfaced Z4. BMW assured its purist fanbase then that nothing would change — iconic phrase included — to alienate them. But driving the 2013 BMW 328i M Sport, I’m not so sure.
It's not that the sixth generation 3 Series is bad; on the contrary, it’s brilliantly honed and refined to mainstream perfection. There’s nary a bad crease nor awkward character line to be found on the sculpted exterior. Moreover, the upsized body means improved practicality, with an increased wheelbase providing adequate legroom that's no longer cramping your knees. The front seats decadently coddle you like a high-end office chair while still offering adequate bolstering for the twisties, and the Bavarian-chic fit and finish makes the Audi A4's cabin seem outdated by comparison. I’d still opt for the base model without the all-show-no-go M Sport aero kit and trim, and save the $3,500.
Part of the reason is that the 328i lacks the connected feel of the previous generations, no matter which line of trim you get. It feels artificially soft — like a forged scalpel with giant plastic safety grips. Yes, the taut chassis communicates well, and the silky suspension never gets choppy on Martian-landscaped pavement. The mild push through corners is countered by a tightly rotating rear that only steps out when you really want it to--and the traction control set to Sport+ almost indiscernibly intervenes for the weekend racers. But while the body motions are contained, it's softly sprung enough that you're happier staying on the boulevard and off the track. The most obvious flaw is the electric power steering: it darts into corners with the precision of a laser-guided missile, yet has none of the tactile feedback that epitomizes the brand; when losing grip, it’s felt in the chassis but not through the steering wheel.
Surprisingly, one of the more controversial aspects of the new 3 Series — the shift from the traditional inline-six to a 240-horsepower turbo four-cylinder — fits like a glove for the car. Torque feels more linear than the A4’s 2.0 turbo, and the exhaust note rasps to life with a more sedate hum as the revs climb. Plus, the Bimmer hits 0-60 in under 6 seconds while still doing 26/34 city/highway mpg. It's paired with a crisp-shifting eight-speed automatic that's not quite as seamless in gear changes as the higher-end models, but performs flawlessly.
In more predictable BMW tradition, the pricing (starting at $36,850) quickly inflates once tacking on packages and options. Budget vehicles such as the Honda CR-V increasingly offer amenities like a back-up rearview camera as standard, but the BMW forces you to purchase expensive bundles (such as the $1,900 Driver Assistance Package) to play technological catch-up. A fully loaded 3 Series bumps up the price to over $50,000, well beyond the brand cachet.
Whether the sixth generation 3 Series delivers depends on where you stand on the enthusiast spectrum. For the budding account executive who wants to sit in a car befitting his True Religion jeans, or the average Joe who doesn’t care whether the wheels are spun from the rear or not, it’s an ideal blend of luxurious comfort and agility. But those yearning for the ultimate driving machine need to go back to the roundel-badged cars of yore — or hold a candle for the next M3.