BMW ->

So for those following the story so far; I’ve driven a number of cars in my search for that perfect German automobile to replace my BMW 330i. My needs have been pretty specific; I wanted a powerful, fun to drive car that was in the compact or mid-size segment, though I didn’t really care much if it was a sedan or a coupe. At first, sedan was the only thing I looked at, but I have taken a look at coupes as life changes have meant I am rarely likely to use a back seat. Now that I’m reaching the end of my search and getting ready to actually buy, there are still a few interesting cars to look at including BMW’s latest foray into the larger compact coupe market; the BMW 335is.

This new model slots neatly in between the very capable 335i and the “track monster” M3, both in performance and price. At a roughly 6% premium over the 335i, one may wonder what you get for your hard earned cash. Well, basically you get the same recently redesigned 3-series coupe though many of the updated design cues are swamped by the standard M-Sport appearance kit, which gives the coupe some of the appearance of the M3 just the plastic parts though. Still, the current generation of 3-series coupe is an extremely handsome vehicle that has a somewhat timeless exterior. Though it remains to be seen how well it ages, it is still one of the nicer cars on the road today and has a subtlety to the design that seems lost in many of its Japanese competitors. While those same Japanese cars seem to be trying harder and harder each year to yell “Look at me!”, the 3-series like most BMW’s tends to just smile and say “Yeah, I know you’ll be back.”

The rather handsome 335is in red

Beyond the appearance, you also get an uprated version of the N54 that powered the 335i since its inception until this year when it was replaced with the N55. This new version of the award-winning engine produces a peak of 320hp and 332lb-ft of torque. Since it’s turbocharged, this also allows BMW to include an “overboost” function that’s good for around 369lb-ft of torque for about 7 seconds or enough time to get yourself a speeding ticket just about anywhere in the USA from a dead stop. Overboost has been common among many tuners for years trying to get fast quarter mile times, but here we have a factory version which means also that there’s no risk to your warranty. Also included with all this technical whiz-bangery is auxiliary cooling; read that as an extra radiator. Overboost makes heat in order to get rid of that you need more cooling. Seems logical. However, one thing to be aware of is that the 335is coupe loses its fog lights on the front in order to open up more cooling air into the new radiators so if you’re the kind of person who thinks foglights are important on a sports coupe then this probably isn’t your car.

Other differentiating items for the 335is are a unique interior trim, and a rather conspicuous number of badges announcing that you’re in a 335is including at the top of the RPM gauge. A blacked out grille is also standard on these, but there are light chrome accent lines across the actual grille slats, giving a really mean and purposeful appearance. The exhaust also gets a black-tipped treatment that looks really purposeful. BMW’s incredible sports seats are standard, as is the sports suspension. Equipped with non-metallic paint and a leatherette interior this “stripper” model will set you back just a few hundred dollars over $50,000 MSRP.

So the important part; what’s this car like to drive?

On July 31st, 2010 I got the chance to find out thanks to Autohaus BMW in Clayton, MO. I was chatting with one of their “Client Advisors” last week regarding manual transmissions and how they seemed to be fading away, and it came up in the conversation that they actually had a 335is they had just received with a manual transmission. I jumped at the opportunity to test-drive it as I have seen only three 335is’s since their release, and all of them had the DCT instead of the manual. What can I say? I’m a manual kind of guy. This car isn’t a stripper per-se but it does eschew many of the niceties like the iDrive for a purer driving experience. There was one big-ticket addition to the car in the “Style 269″ performance 19″ wheels; replacing the standard and extremely handsome standard 335is 18″ wheels which are unique to that car. The car also had black leather seats instead of the leatherette, and the Harmon Kardon sound system as well as including the Premium package and Convenience packages. Hardly a stripper but nicely equipped for those who want a luxurious coupe that can perform and not distract with things like navigation system. MSRP on this beastie was just a few shekels shy of $58,000.

So, fire up the engine and the first thing I note is the exhaust note. It’s louder than the 335i I drove before much more reminiscent of my old 330i. It’s also deeper and more resonant. The car sounds like it means business as soon as the engine is fired up. I just think it’s a pity that I have to drive today with the air conditioning running because I could just open the windows and sunroof and listen to that exhaust note all day. I just love St. Louis in the summer. Anyway, I sit there for a bit and adjust my seat. You can usually be sloppy in seat and wheel adjustments when you’re driving with an automatic transmission, but with a stick if you get it wrong you’re going to find clutch action uncomfortable, or your arms are going to feel cramped. So I take time and “feel” my way around the cabin, getting a feel for where the main controls are. Once my seat’s adjusted the shifter falls perfectly to my hand and the clutch moves all the way down without my leg feeling overstretched, but still doesn’t cramp me in my seat when all the way up. I don’t know how BMW do it, but they always seem to get these details right which is why drivers and enthusiasts come back time and time again to BMW’s cars.

The spartan but extremely functional interior

Now a quick note about the interior. Since this lacked the “second hump” of the iDrive, it was the same somewhat spartan interior I had encountered on my earlier test drives. The dash is clean and simple with few distractions from the basics of driving the car. This is a good thing, and certainly it’s something that some people really like. For my part, I still feel that the middle part of the dash lacks something without that second hump. My 330i put vents that curved neatly into the upper part of the dash, while these newer 3-series have more almost-vertical surfaces and a crease line that just serves to accentuate the fact that something’s missing from this section of the dash. I could live with the dash, but I personally think it looks better with the iDrive. One big difference here is the “Dark Glacier Aluminum Trim”. This is the only option you have on the 335is, and I have to say in photographs I pretty much hated it. It looked awfully glossy and distracting, but now that I see it in person I find myself humbled that I didn’t have more faith in BMW. This is nice it lightens up the interior and gives it a sporty feel without being at all glossy or distracting. In fact, it’s got a very nice “diamond” pattern where the raised parts are a darker almost matte color, while the deeper parts are shinier. Still not sold on that 335is badge over on the far passenger side but you’re never going to see that from the drivers seat.

The gauges also have a silvery blue color which is nice and adds to that sense of sportiness. Yes, this car has a singular mission in life; to be a sports coupe.

Badges abound, just in case you forget what car you purchased

So with only 8 miles on the clock of this car, I take it out onto the road turning right out of Autohaus onto South Hanley Road. It’s then that I note yet another change from the standard 335i which I am quite excited about; the shifter. Yes, BMW has included their short shift kit in this car which makes the throws of the shifter incredibly precise. Like many BMW manuals the shifter feels notchy, but in a way this is a positive attribute as you have a very precise indication in your fingers that it has gone into gear. It feels direct, and though the effort required to actually put the car in gear is higher than some cars I have driven (for example Audis), it’s in no way uncomfortable and again underscores the “sport” intention of this car. Also, the clutch is lovely very precise feel of engagement and disengagement. It’s not like the Audi I drove where I had to bury the clutch in the carpet; the bite point appears to be about 2/3 of the way through the full clutch travel which feels just right to me. BMW’s typical clutch delay valve rears its ugly head for me and tends to make my 1-2 shifts a bit harder than they might otherwise be, but that can be rectified with a simple modification. The CDV makes a lot of sense for the majority of the buying public when getting a stick as it reduces driveline shock from people who are not experienced with a manual; people like me who have driven manuals for years find it a bit annoying.

So as I cruise onto Laclede Station Road I do note that the suspension feels quite firm. Not uncomfortable but some might think so. The 19″ wheels and skinny rubber on this particular car definitely add to that on St. Louis’ less than perfect roads, but the suspension seems tight and unflappable. Again, I can feel the difference with run-flat tires which I am still not entirely sold on but for 99% of my driving they are almost certainly just fine. The exhaust note penetrates the cabin just enough that I can hear it nicely, not like the entirely-too-quiet Audi S4 or even the M3 which makes most of its noise much higher up on the tach. This has a rather self-contented burble to its exhaust note that’s entirely too addictive to me I find that I have a tendency to leave the car in a slightly lower gear than I normally do just so I can listen to that exhaust doing its thing.

As I come around onto the on-ramp for I-44 I figure it’s time to check out the overboost. I take the turn onto the ramp in third gear and delight in the flat, controlled manners and almost complete lack of body roll that the 3-series is so good at and I bury the throttle in the carpet. It takes a moment for the turbos to spool up that extra boost, but when they do you feel pressed back in your seat as the car launches. Since this is a new car I don’t let the RPMs climb too high, so I let off the gas and put it in fourth then bury the throttle again. The extra boost is still there. One of my biggest fears with the overboost was that you would lose it as you let off the throttle it would be almost impossible to get a full 7 seconds of boost in a single gear in this car because it is so fast, so being able to change gear and still have some of that overboost available is huge. Still, by this point I’m already at speeds that will get me in a lot of trouble so I reign it back in, drop the shifter neatly into 6th and try to get a feel for highway driving in this car.

Like any good sports coupe, the suspension is taught and responsive in corners, but once on the highway it becomes supple and controlled. I can still feel what the front tires are doing through the communicative and incredibly comfortable M-Sport steering wheel (one of my favorite steering wheels in any car). However the car seems to just relax back into eating up miles and just going where you point it. Cruising along at 60, the car just feels like it could run all day without breaking a sweat. I have to admit, I’m liking this a lot.

The blacked out grille in particular gives this car a menacing look

I turn off I-44 onto Kirkwood road and head North. I know exactly where I’m going; Big Bend Road. This road will take me back to the dealership through more “in-town” type roads where I can get a feel for how the car responds to city driving. When I see the coast is clear I goose the gas as I throw the car into the turn onto Big Bend road hard enough that I get the flashing yellow light that I have lost some traction at the rear but the nannies are reigning me in. Damn, should have turned that off. Anyway, the car tracks straight and true and the traction control never seems intrusive or obnoxious just keeping you out of trouble. My passenger comments that she has really missed how BMWs feel when they hit a corner her Jaguar just has too much body roll. This car feels flat and unflappable and the feedback I am getting through the steering wheel is just unreal.

As I continue my drive I can’t help but talk about the shifter. This short shift kit is just unbelievable in how good these shifts feel. I don’t miss a single shift the entire time and within a few minutes of leaving the dealer I was shifting without even thinking about it only now that I’m on my way back does it even occur to me that my subconscious is doing the driving for me. As good as the Audi S4 was, I was always aware of my shifts while I drove it and always aware of the clutch action that I was less than happy with. This connects me with the car like my 330i did; almost as though your subconscious reaches a partnership with the car itself and it becomes an extension of your own body. Never once do I find myself having to think about it, having to analyze it.

So to break from this a bit, what about the Harmon Kardon sound system? Well, I’m not a big one for listening to music in a car, but I do like good music when I do. I like quality and I like definition in my music. The HK system in my older 330 was decent but not the best, and the stock system in the current 3-series I heard in other cars previously is atrocious. The premium system in the M3 is sublime, but at a $2000 premium it should be. So where does the H/K fall? Actually it’s pretty damned decent. This is the first time I’ve heard it for myself. The source is radio so I take that into account but the definition and bass both seem to fit nicely what I want out of a sound system. At least, it’s good enough for my needs. Harmon Kardon are known for pumping the bass a little to hide imperfections in the midrange, but here the midrange sounds very good and the highs are crisp and clear enough that I can be quite happy with it. Is it worth the $900 premium? Oh hell yes. If you’re buying a $50,000 car then you should make sure you’re happy with the sound system. The only reason I would get the stock system in truth is if I intended to rip it out anyway and replace it the Harmon Kardon is good enough that I would probably leave that alone. At least for the first few years of ownership.

On Big Bend as you enter Webster Groves there are a couple of nice tight corners and some railroad tracks. Normally the latter is a serious test of the run flat tires but this car seems well composed as we go over them. The corners? Well, suffice to say I took them significantly faster than most people would and I won’t bore you with any more cornering superlatives suffice to say that I have nothing bad to say about that. Again as we go over the railroad tracks the run flats show their propensity toward slight harshness, but the suspension does nicely soak that up.

The rear seat of the 335is Coupe is actually quite roomy and inviting.

At this point I should make a point about the rear seat of the car. While most coupe buyers won’t be too worried about the size of the rear seat there are some (like myself) who would use it. While it’s not a really big deal, for those times when I would want to use it, I would want my passengers to at least be comfortable.

Well, the 3-series actually has an extremely useful back seat. It’s large and well sculpted for two moderate-sized people, and with the front seats in a reasonable seating position there’s actually some legroom back there. I put the front seat in my normal driving position then got in behind the drivers seat. I’m 5’10″, and I was able to sit quite comfortably with a good inch or two still left in front of my knees. Now, the height between the seat cushions and the floor might make extended trips rather uncomfortable for those with long legs, for most the seats are excellent. It also doesn’t hurt that the seat itself is far enough forward that you still get decent visibility out the side windows.

Finally, between the two rear seats there’s an armrest that folds down which also contains both the cup holders for the rear seat passengers. There’s also a cargo passthrough, and the seats are standard 60/40 folding rears that allow this coupe to become quite a decent cargo hauler in a pinch.

So returning to the dealership, my thoughts on the 335is. Well, when I drove the 335i I found it a great car. When I drove the M3 I found a car that almost defined those superlatives I use to describe my driving experiences in the “lesser” 3-series. While at the very edge of handling the M3 is the easy winner, it comes with a price tag and a maintenance cost that can best be described as “copious excess”. For someone who tracks their car regularly though, the M3 is absolutely the choice and I would never say otherwise. But as a daily driver? The M3 is good, but its capabilities are wasted on US public roads. You can’t push the M3 hard enough on public roads to perform any better than the same driver in a 335is in my opinion. Yes, the suspension in the M is better so cornering is definitely better when pushed hard enough but there’s a sensible part of me that wonders if I would ever push my car that hard given the rather spotty quality of maintenance on those corners. Tar strips, ripples in the surface, dead squirrels all of these things can upset a perfect apex on public roads and so the sensible driver will plan for those things to be present on those corners and drive accordingly. When driven with a modicum of reserve, the M3 in my opinion is no better than the 335is at its edge.

Can you make an M3 accelerate faster? Yes, but that’s not what these cars are for. Official figures put the 335is 0-60 around 5 seconds unofficial tests put it a bit lower. Realistically you’re looking at a half second difference between an M3 and a 335is, and unless you’re actually using your car to compete why would you care? Besides, the M3 will require a much better driver to beat a 335is so soundly; it requires high revs and holding those revs in while you shift. The 335is doesn’t rev as high, and in fact its torque curve says that revving high will actually be somewhat disappointing in that car. But if held in the power band it will get the jump on the M3 off the line due to more torque and unless the M3 driver is a good driver with plenty of M3 experience then a 1/4 mile run may be a dead heat. The DCT would make the M3 a sure thing against the 335is with the manual OR the DCT. But in truth something emotional is missing from the DCT. I have driven it, I liked it but I didn’t connect with it. The M3 with the DCT I drove felt like an appliance like buying a Mac. Yes, it works fantastically well in some ways better than any competing platform but there’s something that feels disconnected from the operator; a lack of control and “tinkering ability” that just feels off to me.

Where the M3 will beat out the 335is is on the track. But how many tracks does one drive on in a day? For carving up cloverleafs on the US Highway system and merging with interstates filled with truck drivers hopped up on caffeine pills and three day old Egg McMuffins both cars are equally capable and more car than most will ever need. If it were my money on the line, I would pick the 335is over either the 335i or the M3. Why? Well, the M3 as I said is copious excess particularly when considering my daily needs. Buy why over the 335i? Well, for the extra money you get a car that feels more focused, more like it has a specific mission in life. This is the enthusiasts 335i, taking all the performance bits from BMWs own catalogue and putting them in a factory “tuner car”. The short shift kit and performance exhaust alone make it worthwhile because they elevate the driving experience of the 335i as a whole. Add in the extra power and the extra thought that has gone into shedding the heat generated by that power and you have a car that’s obviously targeted at the enthusiast market.

If you want the latest and greatest in BMW tech, then the 335i has the N55. By all accounts this is an awesome engine that corrects a few of the shortcomings of the N54, and gets better gas mileage and lowers emissions to boot. But the N54 in its swan-song in the 335is also seems to get rid of the “normal” N54′s bad habits, or at least masks them under enough power and fun-factor to just ignore them. I for one can’t think of a better way for the N54 to go out than to have its waning years defined by cars like the 335is.

And as a side note, yes my money is on the line. Soon, I hope. What I spend it on well, we’ll just leave that for another article…