Welcome back. My search for a new vehicle bought me back to the BMW dealership yesterday, though this time I found myself looking at a 2010 BMW 335i M-Sport Coupe.

Why the coupe, you may ask? Well, as I analyzed my needs recently, I realized that a sedan was overkill for me. The occurrences when I have 3 or more people in the car make up less than 10% of my driving on average. So why have those back doors, again? To me the lines of the coupe are far nicer than the sedan, though I will not say the sedan is in any way ugly. Add to that the new facelift that the coupe is going to get for 2011 that I find really appealing (this link ought to show you plenty of pictures of the new facelift coupe), not to mention the addition of the 335iS to the lineup which I will explore in another article… yeah, the coupe might be a good fit for me at this point in my life.

White M-Sport Coupe, from http://vwong.net

So for my test drive yesterday, we have the 2010 M-Sport Coupe. The one shown to the left is very similar… the only difference was the interior which was saddle brown. Picture from http://vwong.net and all copyrights remain therein.

So a day out at Autohaus BMW in St. Louis was in order… it was a nice day with temperatures in the 50′s Fahrenheit, the sky blue and the ground dry. You really couldn’t ask for better weather to test drive a car, or really see what it’s capable of. I took two people with me; my son who is 9 and my girlfriend. She is as much of a car geek as I am, and has been a passenger on both of the previous test drives I have posted to this site. For my son, it was his first test drive with me at the wheel.

So we arrive at Autohaus… and I guess a lot of people had very similar ideas about what to do with their sunny Saturday afternoons. Yes, it’s busy… and more than that the sales people all seem to be tied up with other things. No worries… I know I won’t be leaving with a car today so I don’t mind if the sales people don’t jump on me immediately. Besides, that allows me a zero-pressure way to browse around the lot and see if I can find a car I like.

Now, since my history has proven that I’m a sucker for a BMW, I have to admit there was a lot to like. I was a little overwhelmed with the gorgeous 3-series sedans, coupes and convertibles… but I knew what I really wanted was an M-Sport coupe. Not so much because of the subtle styling differences between the regular and M-Sport coupe, but because I wanted to see what the much-vaunted M steering wheel felt like. Yes, I am a car geek of extraordinary proportions… the steering wheel becomes a selling point for me!

So anyway, my girlfriend happened to spot a 2010 335i with the M-Sport package, premium package, cold weather package and the navigation system. In fact, the only places that this car would differ from one I’d buy for myself are that I would delete the automatic transmission and add the Logic 7 (which has now been re-named the Harmon Kardon… so same manufacturer and probably same system with a different name). So basically, it was 95% of the car I would buy if I were driving it off the lot today. Oh, and it was the wrong colour…

But despite all this, I decided this one would be a good one to drive. It would allow me to get my son in the back seat to see how well he fit, take it for a short drive to see how comfortable we all were in it and would allow us all to get a feel for the car despite the missing pedal.

After hanging around for a while, a salesperson came up and introduced herself as Karen. Her and I chatted for a minute or two about what I was looking for, and then she asked me if I wanted a test drive. Oh yes indeed… I think so. So as we stand around and admire the car she goes off to get the key.

So a few moments later she returns having taken a photocopy of my drivers license and carrying the key. She starts to tell me that the car has Comfort Access, which is a system that allows you to just keep the key fob in your pocket and drive. You never need to put the fob in the dash because the car has a start button, and while you have the fob you can even just touch the door handles and the car will unlock. Sweet. I like that already.

Saddle Brown Interior from http://www.bmwusa.com

So I fall into the seat and find it’s WAY back from where I would usually have it. Not a big deal… the adjustments are nice and easy and I bring the seat up to my ideal driving position pretty quickly. I’ve got this down to an art I think! Anyway, as I settle in she’s telling me a few things about the car… the nav system and so on… but I’m pretty much not listening. The interior of this car is the saddle brown dakota leather, and as with all the M-Sports has a nice anthracite headliner that looks really sharp with this colour combination. The saddle brown looks a lot richer and nicer in real life than it does in pictures. Really, the pictures do not do it justice. It’s extremely warm and inviting, and coupled with the wood trim make it a really luxurious and pleasant place to spend time.

The Dash

From the drivers seat, with the iDrive “hump” in the center of the dash, it feels a lot more cozy in my opinion than the sedan I drove earlier. Go ahead, click the link and compare… I’ll wait…

So, with the dash laid out like this, it looks in my opinion far more like a car should. The instruments are nicely clustered, and don’t look like a 1980′s era sports car with the instrument binnacle looking like an afterthought in the dash. I like this more organic, curved surface… and in fact in many way I find the BMW laid out like this is easily as inviting as the Audi S4.

A quick scan across the dash shows that everything’s logically laid out. The climate controls now have the heated seat controls integrated into a single control panel… which makes a lot of sense. The two vents above that maintain a trademark of BMW’s for years; the dial that allows you to select either warm or cold air out of the upper vents almost regardless of what the other vents are doing. This allows the driver to have cool air on their faces, while warm air around their feet. You can’t really get a feel for this until you try it when you’re driving at night, feeling a little groggy but it’s too cold to turn off the heating. Trust me, you get to appreciate the little touches like this really fast.

Although with the Comfort Access you still have a slot in the dash for the fob, I figure why not try it the way CA is supposed to work? With the large tags and stuff the dealership hangs off it, I can’t put it in my pocket… but instead I throw it in the cubby right in front of the shifter. Then I press my foot down on the brake as Karen instructs me and hit the start button. Immediately the car purrs into life. It’s not a roar… it’s definitely a lot quieter than my 330i. But it’s nice, throaty and contented-sounding. The BMW logo comes up on the expansive screen in the center of the dash and a chime reminds me to fasten my seat belt.

Now here’s something I didn’t know about the E9x 3-series: Karen then starts telling me about the seat controls… which I think I have a pretty good handle on. At that point she says “There’s a switch down here on the front to adjust the bolsters if you like.” I immediately reach for that, feeling the rocker switch under my fingers… and press. Oh I like that! I think I even said that. As I press the button, the nice sturdy bolsters that are a mainstay of BMW sport seats start to move inward, grasping me tighter in the seat. Nope, my E46 doesn’t do anything vaguely like this. I don’t remember the S4 doing that, either… and the salesman with the last 335i I drove never mentioned it. I know this seems like another small thing, but I’m of average-ish weight (about 170lbs and 5’10″) but I tend to find that cars built for the American market are a little… loose around the middle.

That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but our diet in this country of red meat, carbohydrates, and a little more red meat is not conducive to narrow seats. Unfortunately, for those of us who have… shall we say… narrow seats… it means that sporty driving is a chore because when you are holding your car at the limits the last thing you want is for your Levis to suddenly lose traction and send you into the passenger seat. Good bolsters are key to good seating, and good seating is key to good driving. BMW have always built cars with thick, heavy bolsters because of their target market… which has meant that for some people the standard sport seats don’t cut it; the bolsters are just too narrow. Having an adjustment like this is nice because it gives you the freedom to select exactly that which is comfortable for you. Me… I had it holding me tight, but not so tight that it became uncomfortable.

So now my girlfriend adjusts her seat, and it’s time for a moment of truth; how good are the rear quarters? Honestly? Not half bad! There’s no allowance for three people in the back as there’s a pair of storage cubbies in the center. That’s OK… I’ve never had five people in my car, at least not in my recent memory. I once fit 12 people into a 1972 Dodge, but that was more because we were poor college students and the local drive-in movie theater charged per car instead of per head and we were all pretty strapped for cash. But if you have two people back there the environment is really quite nice. The seats themselves are nicely sculpted, and there’s a nice, wide console that folds down from the rear of the seat that allows trunk access while also adding a pair of cup holders for the rear seat passengers. The roof is probably a bit low for anyone approaching 6 feet tall, but for those of slightly shorter stature this doesn’t seem to be an issue. Leg room is where I was most impressed; where I put my seat when driving, the leg room is absolutely phenomenal for a coupe. Honestly, it actually puts my E46 sedan to shame.

So all three of us get comfortable, even my son checking out his “new digs” in the back while my girlfriend and I settle into the rather nice Dakota leather. Now, there have been those who negatively comment on the Dakota leather, but myself I find it nice. It’s not the best quality leather in the world, but from feel alone I think it feels like it would last really well so long as it’s taken care of.

A quick check to see if the dealership has any particular preferred route for me to drive (they don’t), and I close the door. Now with the three of us in, I fiddle with the iDrive a bit. It takes me almost no time at all to figure out most of the basic controls… it’s pretty easy. I think the Audi’s system was a little bit simpler to just pick up and run with it, but the iDrive seems really simple. I know the older one was pretty bad… but the new one with a cluster of buttons around the rotary control just seems relatively simple. The following video really does a far better job of an overview of the system than I ever could… remember to give kudos to the author if you like it!

iDrive Video, from YouTube

So anyway, at first I have a little trouble because the radio is on and I have no idea how to turn it off since it was on (quietly) after I started the car. After a quick search through the iDrive, I notice the rotary switch on the CD changer below the climate controls… and press it. Voila… silence. This could be marked a bit better; I didn’t see any markings at all indicating what that was there for, but that’s just a very small niggle and something that you’d easily get used to. You’d only make this mistake once.

Another thing I’ve noticed at this point; there’s a sort of robot arm in the car that’s supposed to hand you your seat-belt. The one in this car either isn’t working, or isn’t working well because it doesn’t do anything of the kind. As a result, I have to reach a ways back to get the belt… but that’s not that big a deal to me; this isn’t my car. Still, I wonder about the longevity of this mechanism, but don’t worry about it unduly.

I put the car in D mode, and we drive out of the dealership. First thing I notice is the steering wheel feel which is really good. The steering wheel is the M steering wheel, which means it’s thick and fits nicely in the hand. It is also quite heavy and there’s quite a bit of effort to steer the car. It’s not horrible at all… in fact I like a little more effort with my steering, but it’s even heavier than my E46. I can see where some people would dislike this amount of steering effort, but for me it’s OK.

The next thing I notice is that the ride is quite different, even than the 335i sedan I drove. Now, I don’t know for sure all the differences between the suspension in the coupe and sedan, but this does feel a little more solid and planted and I’m getting a lot more communication from the wheels than I remember in the sedan. It’s an interesting sensation, and I can already tell that one thing I can feel is the run-flat tires equipped on this coupe. Those hard sidewalls make the run-flats work, but they also telegraph a distinctly different feel to the driver. I am ambivalent about it though, but I still think to myself that the first time the tires come up for replacement I will probably put non-run-flats on. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a flat with any real clarity, so I doubt it would become an issue.

So I head down Hanley road toward I-44. It’s a relatively short drive to the highway, and I figure once there I can get a better feel for the acceleration, as well as a feel for the highway ride. That’s important to me since about 90% of my driving is highway, these days. Sad but true.

The car responds dutifully to all the inputs I give it. The steering is still tight but definitely acceptable for my standards, and the engine seems ready to play at a moment’s notice. There’s plenty of torque on-tap here, but I still detect a moment of hesitation before the engine responds. Is that turbo lag, or is it just the automatic transmission? Not really sure… feels like a moment of lag, but I certainly wouldn’t class it as bad.

Accelerating onto I-44 is pretty much drama-free. The car accelerates at least as quickly as the car in front of us will allow… and as I merge with traffic I see a good gap and open it up a bit more. It darts into the middle lane and around the car that had been in front of me. The car wants to continue far above legal speeds, but I reign it in to just staying… well… roughly legal. And I have to say the highway ride is really quite good. It doesn’t seem to drift or wander… it goes exactly where I point it, and the ride is no more hard or harsh than my E46. I ask my son how he’s doing and he’s already telling me that he prefers the E92 to my E46. Wonder where he gets his car love from?

I do notice the noise at highway speed. Well, actually I notice the lack of it. The car is really very quiet at highway speeds, definitely not the same engine noise I get from my 330i when I’m going at these speeds. I’m sure that as the tires wear, the noise of them complaining will pierce this quiet environment, but at least with brand new tires this car is very quiet. It’s also comfortable. At this point I have to turn down the heated seats a bit because they’re starting to roast me out of the car.

So I continue down I-44 and start playing with the voice recognition in the iDrive. Now, since I haven’t read the manual it takes me a moment or two to get a handle on what commands it will accept and how well it works. For me at least, it works fantastically well. All you have to do is push the button on the steering wheel, and at the chime give it a command. Lovely… and I like that function. I use speech recognition on my phone pretty frequently, so having it in my car for working the electronic stuff is nice. It also means I don’t need to take my eyes off the road, and after a few minutes I’ve gotten to the point that I can feed it navigation information like a destination address with just my voice. Slick.

Of course, as a I swing the car around at Bowles Avenue, I’m trying to figure out how to cancel the navigation through voice and can’t seem to come up with that magic phrase so the car doesn’t try to lead me to some address other than where I’m actually going! So as I sit at the lights, I go through the screens in the iDrive and pretty quickly figure out how to cancel the navigation.

Back onto the highway, and since there’s noone in front of me I get to open it up a bit. Oh yes, this is a bit better… the car doesn’t so much lurch forward as glide with aplomb! It “whooshes” up to highway speed very quickly and with nary a hint of the turbo lag I thought I felt earlier. Maybe it’s because I put the transmission in DS (or sport) mode by pushing the shifter over to the left. I guess then yes, it’s the auto tranny when in normal drive mode. The only problem with the sport mode, then is that the transmission holds a lower gear when at highway speed, having a detrimental effect on your fuel efficiency. No big deal; once you’re up to speed you can just push the stick back to the center and the car then shifts into its high gear for highway travel.

So as we cruise back, I fiddle with the OBC on the dash, cycling through gas mileage, odometer and so on. About the same as my 330i. In order to get a bit more of a feel for the car, and to allow a quick look at the trunk and look around the car before I return to the dealer, I turn off and head North on Lindbergh. I park in a car park next to a medical office and give the trunk a quick look.

Although not truly expansive, it’s at least good enough for my needs. Because of the run-flat tires there’s no spare, and in fact no allowance for even a temporary spare. A spare tire would take up a lot of the available cargo room. Again, I’m not convinced this is a big deal, but it might be for some. There are cargo tie-down hooks back here that might be handy, and a pass-through to allow you to put down the rear seat to carry bigger items. Other than that, the trunk is unremarkable and utilitarian… good enough.

The Tail End of the E92 M-Sport, from http://www.bmwusa.com

The back end of the car is handsomely styled. Although I am looking at the 2011 coupe (and thus a slightly different rear end), I still appreciate that the tail of this coupe is clean and well laid out. In fact, I think it’s better looking than the sedan, but that’s purely subjective. The M-Sport package adds the black area just above the tailpipes, which I think makes the back end look less “bloated”.

Once I’ve done that, it’s back out onto Lindbergh, and then I take Big Bend Blvd on the way back to Hanley, and the dealership.

On Big Bend, I try the shift “paddles” again, and though my opinion of them isn’t really changed much since last time I tried them in the sedan, I at least don’t keep making mistakes in how they’re supposed to work. Click the button behind the wheel to shift up, the thumb button to shift down. Give me real paddles or a third pedal… this is still shifting by committee!

There are a couple of nice sharp bends in Big Bend that allow me to throw the car over a bit into the turn, and it handles like, well, a BMW.

So when I return to the dealership, I get out of the car and decide to check out the back seat behind the drivers seat. As I pull the drivers seat back behind me, I sit down in the seat and immediately I feel quite comfy. The seats are definitely nicely sculpted, and while not as good as the front seats are actually not a bad place to spend time. The arm rest console is also nice; it sits at a nice height to rest your arms on as you drive and would be nice for those sitting in the back. The view out the side windows is pretty good for a coupe, and even as I sit back I notice that my head does not brush the roof at all. Still, for those who are tall or have a longer body, this might be an issue.

So in summary I’m left with a different impression of the coupe than the sedan. The 4-door, while a fantastic car was just not completely perfect for me. It felt fun, but also felt like it lacked a little something in the suspension. Somehow, the coupe seems a tad more rigid, and a tad more fun. It also seems to mesh nicely with my lifestyle where I am usually alone in the car.

Even with the technology of the iDrive, the BMW 3-series never overwhelms the driver or the driving experience with buttons and lights. The screen is far larger than the one in the Audi, but partly because of how it’s positioned it becomes unobtrusive and does not impact your driving experience. The controller is nice, and falls nicely to the hand when your arm is on the arm-rest. Generally the car seems to enshroud you as you settle into the seat, and before you know it the ride is over and you’ve reached your destination with the incredible feeling that the ride just wasn’t long enough.

So the verdict here? I’ve still got time, and I’m still reviewing other cars, but this is pretty damned close to what I want out of a car. It’s fun to drive, handles great and has a nicely laid out interior that focuses itself nicely on the driver. However it doesn’t skimp on the creature comforts for the passengers either, and in fact my son was quite vocal in telling me how much he enjoyed sitting in the back of the 335i. Of course, he was also telling me that he was pretty sure I should buy that car and take it home because now my 330i was “… junky, because I’ve ridden in something better.”

Opinions of a 9 year old notwithstanding, I think that I am looking forward even more now to the time when I can test drive a 335iS. If I were forced to find a single significant flaw with the 335i, it would be the ever so slight dearth of power. Although there’s loads of torque available very early on, the power feels somewhat reined in on acceleration to highway speeds. It’s still a very powerful and fast car, but it just feels like there’s more that could be done. Now some of that could be the fact that the engine still hasn’t broken in… so I’m willing to chalk that one up to “it’ll get better”.

There’s more to come, though; please come back again soon and check out my next review. I’ll keep you posted as I continue through my process of choosing a car in this incredibly competitive segment of the market.