So in my search for a new car, I am looking now at a BMW 335i.

So for those who have lived under a rock for about the last 30 years, what is the 335i? Well, it’s an evolution on BMW’s 3 series, which is a car that can trace its lineage all the way back to the BMW 2002 and has been widely regarded as one of the best driving cars in the world. I have to admit I’m a little biased since I have a penchant for BMW’s, and the 3 series I think has been one of those cars that I would have pinned up in my bedroom when I was a kid except that I wasn’t into cars when I was young; that fascination came much later in life for me.

My passion for the 3-series was ignited back in about 1997 when I first got a chance to drive an 1996 328i (internally known as an E36) owned by a then-friend (who I have now unfortunately lost touch with). It was an automatic, and even then I was much more interested in cars where you row your own gears. However, despite that just sitting behind the wheel and powering it gently into a corner I felt that almost telepathic connection with the front tires as they traced the slight ripples of the road and let me know that I was nowhere near driving the car at its limits. It was that sense of absolute connection, absolute control and the sense that the car was literally an extension of my own body that hooked me. It felt refined, yet it had the raw feeling of being a true sports or enthusiast car. It went where I told it, it never argued… and that engine just sang to me.

Ahhh, only once did she ever look THIS clean...

It would be almost a decade before I would own a 3-series of my own. In the mid 2000’s I bought myself a used BMW 330i sedan, this time the internally known E46 platform. This platform was truly an evolution on the E36 that had come before it and in many ways if you weren’t familiar with BMW’s you would be hard pressed to say where the E36 line ended and the E46 line began. I think BMW decided “Why mess with something that people already think is perfect?”, so they really didn’t. At least not much. The new car was stiffer, and met with critical acclaim almost from the day it was released. Even the normally jaded Jeremy Clarkson who proclaimed proudly that BMW’s were “… only driven by cocks”, but at the same time when driving the E46 for the first time could do nothing but gush about its capabilities, and showing surprise that the traction control “… actually works.”

To me, the 330i sedan has been just about the perfect companion on the road. It’s an incredible car to drive on twisty roads… never feeling like it loses composure. It also beautifully telegraphs the state of the road, the state of the tires, even the state of the engine to the driver at all times. At first I wasn’t too sure about it because it does seem a little bit of information overload. But once you become accustomed to it, it’s hard to drive anything else because you just don’t have that feeling that you know the car intimately, and you never quite feel comfortable when pushing it. Today, my 330i to me is just about the ideal car. It drives soft enough when I want it to that it doesn’t become tiresome, and yet when I want to play it’s always ready and willing at a moment’s notice to go barreling into a turn and come out with a heady thrust into the straights.

Now, it must be said that if you’re the kind of person who thinks that performance only travels in straight lines, then the E46 3-series is probably not your car. The 330i has a 3-liter straight six engine. While this engine is superbly balanced, it is in no way a “straight line performance” engine. It is not shabby at 225 horsepower at 5900 rpm and 214 lb/ft of torque at a pretty accessible 3500rpm, but you’re not going to be leaving trails of smoke and burning Corvettes in your rear view mirror. This is exacerbated by the 3318lb weight of the car. But that’s not what BMW performance has ever been about. In fact, in many ways that’s pretty typical of European cars; they don’t accelerate incredibly fast, but what they lack in grunt they more than make up for with cornering and suspension. Now, since I got my fascination with cars and driving I have found that I am much more interested in a car that has that “European” philosophy to performance rather than the “American” philosophy of straight line acceleration. For me, with all the cars I’ve owned I feel the BMW E46 330i matches my desires and goals absolutely perfectly.

The Post-Facelift E90 Sedan

That’s all fine and intersting, but what about the 335i?

In 2005, BMW released the E9x. This was a range of platforms including the sedan (E90), wagon (E91), coupe (E92) and convertible (E93). These were all-new and redesigned cars that looked significantly different from the E46 predecessor. No longer a subtle evolution on the previous the new E9x was longer, wider and taller than the E46 and had gained a little weight. Of course, the engines had also been upgraded in part to compensate for this weight gain but also in order to try to keep ahead of the competition who had upped their power in the previous few years. The 2006 330i was pretty much a performance match for the E46 330i on paper but many BMW enthusiasts felt that the car had become softer and more “consumer friendly”. These comments were not unfounded as the suspension was a little softer, though the new run flat tires standard across the model range made it feel harsher. In 2007, BMW refreshed the only one year old platform with new engines to produce the 328i and 335i. For 2008, the actual bodywork of the sedan was facelifted producing (to me) a much cleaner look that had more in common with the E46 and was thus attractive to me.

The focus of this review is the 335i; the more powerful of these twins. That’s not to say the 328i is in any way a bad car; in fact it’s quite easy to drive very fast in the 328i and it can cruise at super-legal speeds all day long without breaking a sweat. However, at 230hp and 199lb/ft of torque it’s obvious this bigger, heavier and less powerful car is going to be a bit of a let-down after driving an E46 330i for a few years. However, it still has that awesome feel of being planted and connected to the road in a way no other manufacturer seems to come quite close to. That’s part of the reason for my history above; so you understand where I’m coming from and why I’m looking at the 335i and not the 328i.

So picture the day; it’s sunny and cool (though not cold) and dry. There are some clouds rolling in promising some cloudy and distinctly British weather coming in the immediate future… but for now, it’s just a lovely day to test drive. I go to the dealership and I’m greeted by the sales guy. For today, my dealership of choice is Suntrup West County BMW on Manchester Road in St. Louis. At first he seems enthusiastic and we quickly start into the patois of car geeks everywhere. We chat about the fact that I already own a lovely 330i that I am very attached to, but I am looking to upgrade. Immediately he pegged that I was interested in the 335i. That’s a good start. So we start looking around the lot. I told him I favour a sedan because I have a kid. He’s older now and it wouldn’t be so bad owning a coupe, but the rear seats are sometimes used in my car for something other than throwing stuff back there. Still, no worries about baby seats any more… thankfully!

Now, the first strike occurs when we talk and I realize that he has no 335i sedans with a manual transmission. In fact, he’s unable to tell me if there are ANY cars on the lot with a stick. I’m a little disappointed, but tell him that I’m more interested in seeing what the car itself is like and that if I buy one it’ll be ordered from the factory, anyway. Yes indeed, that European Delivery is still in my future, I hope. Besides, I’ve heard great things about the ZF-manufactured automatic transmission and I’m interested to see what it’s like… I already know what BMW’s pretty much standard shifter feels like from my 330i, and from all I’ve heard it really hasn’t changed much. The only other criteria I set is that I want to drive it with the sport suspension, not the standard setup. I am a driver at heart, and I already have a pretty good idea the standard suspension will disappoint.

So we find the car. It’s a 2009 model sedan with almost zero mod cons. Yes, it’s a stripper except for the sport suspension, sport seats and so on… so not exactly what I’d buy if it were my money on the table… but I’m here to test drive the car, not the technology that goes in it. Yes, I realize that in my Audi S4 review I went on about the rather cool technology… but this buying decision should be about the car, right? Still, it’s got the automatic transmission and the paddles behind the steering wheel. More about that later, but the car’s nicely appointed and as I settle into the seats I feel right at home.

Dash of the 335i without iDrive

The interior of the 2009 E90 is probably best described as functional and pretty, but a little spartan. The flowing and sweeping lines feel organic but not overly so, but for some reason the instrument binnacle just feels small. This leaves the rest of the dash with a rather open look that gives a feeling of airiness, but at the same time feels like something is missing. Adding the iDrive (NAV) system to the car does a lot to change this, adding a second hump to the dash that fills that space, but I guess in a way it’s rather a personal thing. I like my dash to feel wider, to feel more like it’s surrounding the driver. The dash of the 335i without iDrive feels flatter, more like a family sedan and less like a cozy sports coupe.

This is not in itself a bad thing; the interior reduces distraction significantly and means that you can focus on driving. However, I don’t feel personally that it’s a place that’s calling for you to touch every surface and surround yourself with the car the way you do in the Audi interior. Maybe that’s because there are fewer distractions. In general the interior is spartan and functional, and not a bad place to spend time. However, it seems like an evolution on the interior of my E46 330i rather than a revolution… quite the opposite of the exterior in fact.

Image of an E46 330i Interior

Even this is not in itself bad; I am comfortable with my E46 and have always been happy with it. However, for some reason the instrument cluster being the same size and the dash being just a smidgen wider, coupled with that flowing crease going across the top of the dash just seems… odd. Having said that, though; interior design has never exactly been BMW’s strong suit. If you look to the right, you’ll see a picture of a 330i dash very similar to mine, though my seats are black and I have a 5-speed. I just don’t have a good interior picture of mine. Although it’s still pretty spartan, it seems more flowing to me than the E90 dash.

Settling into the E90 is a lot easier than the Audi. That’s not to say the Audi was bad; I’m just familiar with BMWs now such that I pretty much know where everything is supposed to be. The learning curve is a lot easier, despite the fact that I find the interior to be a little less inviting than the S4. Perhaps with the S4 it was all those lights and buttons appealing to the technology geek in me, whereas the 335i lacks that “wow” factor. Still, it’s comfortable.

With the salesman still giving me the overview of the features of the car, I slip the key fob into the slot in the dash (as has become more common on cars in the last few years) and I touch the start button. In no time at all, the car has fired up and the engine is purring gently from in front, still sounding a little cold from having sat for a bit, but I can hear that it’s warming up well. With the door still open I note that the exhaust note is a tad more muted than my 330i. At first I wonder if BMW deliberately made it quieter in order to appeal more to the masses, but then realize that the twin turbocharger in the new engine also lends itself to muffling the sound of the exhaust a little. If anything, the “lesser” 328i has a more aggressive sound to it, but it’s still a nice growl.

So with a few parting words, and after taking a copy of my drivers license I enclose myself inside the 335i and get ready to drive off. Everything is nice and logical, well laid out. My right foot on the brake and at first my left foot goes hunting for a clutch pedal that’s not there. It takes me only a second to realize my mistake, but I think I still flushed a little with embarrassment. Now, with my left foot securely on the dead pedal, I pull the shifter into D and gently move forward. There’s a squeak as I release the brakes, but the car’s also been sitting for a bit (I can tell by the rotors it hasn’t been driven much) and I turn the car easily onto Manchester road. So far so good, and the brakes aren’t squeaking any more. I look ahead and see lots of traffic ahead, and I know this is going to be an abbreviated test-drive because I am on my lunch hour from work. So instead of continuing on Manchester, I turn onto Louis Avenue which leads up to the side of the dealership. I know this route well, and figure this ought to be a decent test of how the car performs.

At the top of Louis, I turn right onto Andersohn Drive, and then go straight ahead (technically a left at the stop sign) onto Henry Avenue.

So my first impressions are pretty good. While the car reminds me a lot in feel of my 330i, I can tell there’s a lot more power on-tap. My ability to get a true feel for where the power is on the RPM gauge is somewhat limited by the automatic transmission, but the official specifications say there are 300 horses available at 5800rpm, and 300lb/ft of torque at a paltry 1400rpm! That’s a hell of a lot of grunt off the line.

This is all made possible by BMW’s twin-turbo, direct-injection inline 6 engine internally known as the N54. This powerplant has already been the subject of many positive reviews and has in fact won many awards. It really is a marvel of modern engineering… though not without its flaws. Still, for the purposes of this test drive I have to say that it feels like a wonderful match to the chassis, and matched to a really decent automatic shifter.

First a word about acceleration. While I was not about to explore wide-open throttle in a car I wasn’t used to or owned, even under part throttle the car comes alive quickly and you can feel the rush of torque almost immediately. If you’re a fan of cars that you feel in the seat of your pants every time you press the gas pedal down then you will like the 335i. It’s immediate and very satisfying as that grunt is transferred to the back wheels without fuss or bother, and the gas pedal is very well modulated. It’s predictable and linear… no glitches and no vagueness.

There’s also a distinct lack of turbo noise or lag. If I hadn’t known going in that the 335i was a turbocharged car I probably never would have guessed. Now, understand that previously I have owned forced induction cars… one of my favorite of which was an old Saab 900 turbo. That car was a blast, particularly for a front wheel drive car… but turbo lag was a killer and there was always that distinct turbine whistle as you accelerated. I also got horrible gas mileage in that car, but that was probably my lead foot to blame more than the car.

The 335i feels like a much bigger engine than it is; the grunt is immediate and it feels like it’s never going to end. If I pay close attention I can feel a moment of lag as I first press the pedal, but that small initial turbo takes such a small amount of time to spool up that the effect is almost completely immediate. Even I had to pay attention to notice it and I am pretty good at noticing stuff like this.

As I travel up Henry Avenue (it’s all uphill by the way) I really start to settle into driving this car rather quickly. I am also shocked to note that the automatic transmission seems to be almost spot-on with its shifts, changing gear at almost the exact point I would if I were the one controlling it. Quite impressive actually. The shifts are also crisp and smooth… probably smoother than I sometimes am with a manual gearbox. Still, I feel the involvement isn’t there; that feeling that the car is an extension of my body just isn’t there like it is with my E46. I attribute most of that to the lack of the shifter, so I flip the shifter over into DS mode and try to shift using the paddles.

The "paddles"

Oh dear god no. OK, now I’ve found something to hate. The paddles aren’t paddles; on each side you click a button behind the wheel to downshift, and press a button with your thumb to upshift. Or was it the other way around? See, that’s the problem; they’re not intuitive… and even afterward I was unclear which button I was supposed to be pressing for what… but I still had to use my thumb for one of the two. Who the hell thought of that? Every other paddle shifter I have ever seen or used has been right-up, left down… and true paddles. This is just different for the sake of being different and it’s such a pain. This isn’t an enthusiasts idea of a paddle. This is paddle shifting by committee!

So OK, the “shift buttons” aren’t my cup of tea. So leave it in DS mode and see how the auto transmission copes with being in the sport mode. Nicely, actually. She shifts are a bit crisper and even closer to where I would shift but I’m still not feeling that interaction with the drivetrain… and no, the “buttons” didn’t help! Still, it’s not half bad and I realize that I could live with this automatic if I were in a crunch… but I would never have it down as my first choice if it were my money buying it.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way… the handling. Honestly, the differences between the handling of this car and my 330i are almost negligible. However, I can definitely feel the stiffer sidewalls of the run-flat tires as I push the car into a corner. They’re good, but not nearly as good as even the relatively cheap Yokohama Advan S4’s I put on my car. I will write an article later about run-flat tires and what I think of them, but for now I will just say that they’re OK but I am not sure I would keep them on my car once they wore enough that I could justify replacing them.

All that said, the road feel is excellent. I am still totally aware of the engine, the transmission and where the wheels are going to go as I push it into a corner. The handling is still crisp and the drive is still elegant. That’s the essence of a BMW to me and the extra power from the engine just enhances that. In fact, I’m surprised in a sense that the 335i has given up none of the great handling and feel of the E46 just for the sake of added power, size and weight. Whether this would be true of the same car with the standard suspension instead of the sport suspension I would doubt sincerely, but equipped like this the car seems to be unflappable in corners and the bolsters on the seats hold you in without feeling in any way constraining. For the record, the car I drove had black leather seats, which while good just didn’t have that quality feel to it that you would expect from a sedan in this price range. Certainly the seats in the Audi were far better and more comfortable, though they weren’t shaped nearly as nicely as the BMW’s. Yes, they look cooler ,but they just don’t conform the way the BMW seats do.

Unfortunately, my test drive is rapidly coming to a close. I really don’t have time to go do an extended test drive… and besides, I would like to try one with a stick before I make any decisions. So after turning onto Clayton Road I then turn South on 141 to see how the car accelerates and runs at average highway speeds.

As expected, the car accelerates nicely and smoothly. The transmission shifts with aplomb… and though I get the car up to speed all too soon I’m turning off again on Manchester road to return to Suntrup. As a highway cruiser, my short experience tells me that the E90 is every bit the highway cruiser that any other car would be… and that’s perfect. I could drive this car every day on my commute to work and not be upset at my choice of car at all. It responds beautifully, drives like a dream and generally feels solid as a rock.

I return the car to Suntrup, and we talk briefly about European Delivery. When the salesman then reacts with a bit of a wince and a complaint about the amount of paperwork an ED requires (a statement I know to be false), I just tell him I’ll be making a decision soon, but I wouldn’t be buying that car from him today because (a) I want to do an ED, and (b) I have absolutely no intention of settling for a car on the lot if I can have the car I want… especially at this sort of price point. So I leave, and start to process all that I have learned while driving this car.

Is this a car I could drive every day? Hell yes. It wasn’t the car I am interested in, but the platform and engine were… and that’s the part you really buy into when you buy a car. If all you are buying is a car to get you from A to B, though you can get much more car for your money with a Honda or even a Hyundai. So is this a car I can drive on weekends? Again, an emphatic yes: The car handles corners beautifully, never losing and seeming to know what you want the car to do before you actually consciously know you want it. The feeling of bringing the car around a corner and powering out of it as the grunt just pushes you gently back in your seat is intoxicating.

Is this a car I would take on the track? Hmm… maybe. Not so much, though. Although I drove an auto, and autos aren’t for the track in my opinion… I do wonder about the very nature of a turbocharged car on the track. Although the power delivery is very linear for a turbocharged car, I can’t say I would be totally happy taking it on the track because of the “burst” nature of turbos. That lag, albeit slight is still there… and it could mean that standing starts and even powering out of corners would not be as linear as I would like. Still, it would be good… but almost certainly not with those run-flat tires.

Looking at the total value proposition, the 335i is a veritable bargain. Loaded up almost completely it’s still a good chunk cheaper than the S4, plus you can get some killer lease deals on 335i’s. It’s also a proven platform, while the S4 is a relatively newcomer and still has to prove its mettle in real world driving. The S4’s AWD is nice if it snows… but really… how much snow do I see on an annual basis? Besides, if it DOES snow chances are I’m working from home anyway because my son doesn’t have school! Snow days for grown ups!!! Woohooo?

So will BMW get my hard earned cash when I get to buy? Difficult to say given the comparison with the S4, but in some ways the S4 is still really compelling. The S4 has an electronic differential at the rear that gives it the feel of a limited slip differential. In sporting cars, this is desirable because it improves the general feel of the car and can make it more controllable at the edge of its performance envelope. However, the 335i is lumbered with an open differential which means that under most circumstances you won’t get an even delivery of power to the rear wheels once one of them loses traction. It means that once you lose that traction, you probably won’t get it back… at least not easily. For the average driver, this is really a moot point since the differential will make almost zero difference to daily driving duties. However, for the enthusiast who will occasionally track his car this is a real killer. Having said that, the E46 has an open differential as well, but believe me I’ve often felt it needed a limited slip differential.

The S4 feels composed. The 335i feels quick. That’s the very quick summary. The 335i is an excellent car that can come in at thousands less than a fully equipped S4, but lacks things like that performance differential and the dynamic suspension. The Audi also has a significantly better interior… though exterior styling really is subjective. Me, I like the aggressive look of the 335i, but I also like the subtle look of the Audi S4. Both are excellent cars and I’d be happy with either.

With a couple of months still to go before I make a decision on buying a car, I still have plenty of other cars I want to drive. Hopefully you’ll come back and join me.