Last week I wrote my impressions of the Acura TSX after an impulsive test drive of a high mileage example, and concluded that it had the wrong transmission and wrong ownership history to be an effective emissary. I also claimed to prefer the way German cars go down the road, so I’d likely prefer something quieter and more powerful regardless. It seems like a good time to examine that claim via a German in far better condition. This is a 3-year old ex-lease F30 BMW 328i X-Drive with only 37K miles, and it will scoot to 60 in 5.6 seconds using a torque-rich engine and a quick-witted transmission with plenty of gears. Conceptually, this fixes every problem I had with that battered Acura, so I must have loved it, right? Well…
Despite the smoking-deal $24K asking price that makes an ex-lease F30 a performance bargain compared to a new 4-cylinder Camry-or-whatever, it is difficult not to judge it as the $42K car it was 36 months ago. This sedan was expensive when new but doesn’t feel like it in some striking ways. Also problematic is Volkswagen’s willingness to sell the similarly refined and quick GTI with a full factory warranty and 0 miles on the odometer for the same $24K. That’s a conundrum for someone looking for a fun and practical German 4-door, but if you prioritize fundamentals before superficial features it is not a comparison that ends in the BMW’s favor.
The 328 is attractive on approach, with conservative styling, dignified RWD proportions, quality paint finish, and doors that plunk open with a rich sturdy feel. The problems begin inside. The first sensation when interacting with the interior of this car is a flat, hard driver seat. This is the standard-issue non-sport seat and it is execrable. The seat bottom is like plywood and lacks any hint of bolstering, so the firmness doesn’t pay off in lateral support.
It’s not a sporty seat, it’s not a comfortable seat. I don’t know what it is other than punishment for not buying a higher trim. Perhaps it is some expression of German functional stoicism: “Ven vee drive zee car, vee are here to pilot zee machine, not to coddle zee keister!” It doesn’t work for my body type. I find the seats in the GTI and Lexus IS250 are worlds more comfortable and supportive, and I prefer the soft tactile quality of Lexus’s fake leather to the rough granular material BMW uses here. Or a rich velour. Why don’t American car buyers like expensive fabrics?
The next problem is interior finish, which surprised me because the interior looks solid in photographs. The interior door grip creaks loudly when I grab it to close the door. I pause, grab the handle again and give it a little twist. Creak-pop. Hmm. It is also adorned in some unimpressive faux-metal plastic. There were multiple trim options for the 3 Series, and this one had the base matte silver accents for the door grips, console, and dashboard face. This was the wrong choice if you were looking for a premium feel. I don’t know what BMW was shooting for here, but as the primary aesthetic flourish on the interior it fails to create any impression of quality.
Disappointments continue. The glovebox handle is thin plastic whereas the cheaper Audi A3 employs real metal here. There are no padded knee-contact surfaces astride the center console, which also creaks and pops when leaned against. The console armrest is too low to be useful and does not tilt or telescope. The armrest opens by prying the leading edge up until the latch tab yields, and this is not a nice sensation. The sun visors do not telescope. The buttons and switchgear do feel expensive, as does the dash pad, woven fabric headliner, and nicely padded door panels. The iDrive display is crisp and attractive. The carpet is richer than average and the interior panel gaps are consistent despite the poor tactile quality of some components. Still, it’s not enough. The basic materials and construction are no nicer than that TSX, a VW Golf or a Mazda 6, and some of the details are worse. For a $24K used car I’ve no right to complain, but it feels cynical in the $40K+ range in which this retailed.
The replacement of the straight six with this is 2.0-liter turbo four created some commotion five years ago and from an NVH standpoint I suppose I can see why. The four cylinder fires up with a direct-injection clatter that is not entirely muted upon raising the windows. The engine note is a bit coarse and there is some buzz and minor vibration when revving. The aural quality of this motor would be fine in a less expensive vehicle such as a hot hatchback, but compared to the ultra-smooth sixes in the IS250 and Acura TL it is downmarket. It has neither exemplary refinement nor real character. The air conditioning fan is also rudely roaring at me because the car had been sitting in the sun all day and was radiating heat from every surface like a star. I mention this only because a Nissan Altima has a far quieter fan at full whack. This is nit-picking, but little things matter when the car carries such an expensive emblem on the hood.
Anything else wrong, Mr. Agreeable? Yes. The OEM tires on this car are run-flats, which are expensive to replace and used by BMW to eliminate the spare tire. The tire well is occupied instead by a styrofoam caddy with a hoaky fix-a-flat kit. Sure, you can install normal tires, and purchase an aftermarket space-saver spare and jack for $500, but why should you have to? Speaking of the trunk and $500 expenditures, the battery resides there. This is some nice attention to weight distribution, but the battery is expensive, the car’s computer needs to be programmed after each replacement, and guess what the dealer wants to charge in order to do so? Perhaps an independent shop could do this for a bit less (and you ought to be finding one for this car anyway) but really–isn’t a GTI or Infiniti sounding better at this point? Is it just me?
My opinion begins to re-balance after I put the car in motion. There’s a lot to like in the drivetrain and chassis. I don’t like the sounds coming from under the hood, but I do like the way the speedometer needle climbs. The engine is very strong and the transmission very intelligent and responsive. There is some typical turbo lag from a stop, but once that is done the car surges forward and has a strong midrange. The transmission is busy busy busy shifting up through its 8 gears during normal acceleration, but smooth and quick while doing so, and it does not become clumsy or confused when asked for a downshift.
The handling and steering are also agile and responsive, as expected. I am not going to pretend that I’m qualified to assess the dynamics of this car during aggressive driving, so feel free to use that to shoot holes through this review. It would be fair of you to do so since I’m unable to put full weight on the critical strength of a RWD-based BMW. My amateur impressions, though, are of a nimble car with far more eagerness in its responses than the mainstream offerings but nonetheless coated with a thin film of isolation. The Infiniti G37 felt a bit more riotous and tactile but also seemed a bit crude. I understand there is lamentation from those accustomed to the hydraulic steering of prior BMWs, but I don’t have that baggage and find this car better to drive than anything I’ve owned. The 328 shines on the freeway, with composure and steadiness. Quick lane changes did nothing to upset the car, the body control seemed excellent to this amateur. Seats aside, I could waltz through many high-speed miles in this car.
The verdict is murky to me. The 3-series has been the segment benchmark for years, but I don’t know why anyone would have bought this one new. I think it was wildly overpriced given the seating, interior, and engine NVH characteristics. A Lexus IS350 would have provided similar power through a smooth six, superb seats, a nicer interior, and it would be worth five to seven thousand dollars more at this age. That seems like a no-brainer. Of course, most of these were probably leased. Lightly used, the BMW makes a far stronger case for itself. The brutal depreciation brings it to a price where the interior is fine and the performance and feature set is fantastic. I would set some money aside for repairs, but otherwise I wouldn’t blame anyone for picking one of these up at this price. Despite my complaints, two years later I still think about the solidity, general driving dynamics, and accessibility of this car. I’m out of this market now, and never did purchase a car like this. Priorities shifted. Yet if I do ever find myself shopping for a new $24K Accord or Camry or Mazda I am almost certain I would pick up a 328i instead and just suffer the maintenance consequences in a few years.
Actually, no I wouldn’t. I would go grab a brand-new GTI free of prior abuse, back sweat, and flatus, and sell it in seven years when the warranty expires. Neither vehicle is distinctive or iconic enough in their current iterations to become a future classic, but the VW carries most of the 328’s virtues, fewer of its faults, and does so even when the BMW can be had at a 44% discount. Sometimes the fundamentals win out.