Pinned to the bolstered seat, I see a Melbourne Red blur streak, belting out a mechanical howl, by the left side of my car and, in a single motion, sweep down across the nose of the Titanium Silver 2012 BMW 335i Sport Line i I’m riding in. This seems to only encourage my driver further. A second later, I’m having to re-grip the “Oh-Sh*t” bar as the 335i Sport wiggles a bit under hard, ABS-inducing braking – I manage a quick glance over and catch a speedometer reading somewhere just north of 100 MPH. My driver has already made up his mind – the Melbourne Red streak – an E92 M3 Competition Package – will not get away from him.
We pour into the Andretti Hairpin, into Turn 1 and nearly max out 3rd gear going into Turn 2 and onto 3. By the time we reach the latter half of the track the M3 has only about 3 or 4 car lengths on us and my driver seems thoroughly impressed that the 300 horsepower Twin-Scroll powered N55 is able to hang with the soon-to-be-defunct E92 M3 with its naturally aspirated S85 V8 pumping out 414 horsepower. That says a lot about the new F30 335i Sport Line – considering that the approval and awe came from two-time ALMS champion and Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand.
His intended target in the M3? Fellow BMW Team RLL teammate and best pal Bill Auberlen.
This was my introduction to the 2012 335i Sport Line as it was pounded around Laguna Seca Raceway in scenic Monterey, California.
Where We’ve Been…
So this begs the question – can the F30 up the ante enough to keep BMW ahead of the pack?
I think so.
The F30 pulled off an impressive feat in the execution of its weight – for a new car, it managed to actually more or less maintain its heft over the previous 3 Series (3,594 lbs for the F30 335i versus 3,616 lbs for the E90 335i) which continues to pay dividends when taking the 335i Sport Line to the track. I tried out a 335i Sport Line in both manual and automatic spec to throw around Laguna Seca and see how well it could cling to the corners – though we’ll focus on the six-speed manual.
Thumbing the adaptive suspension into Sport+ mode (only available in Sport Line packaging), DCT turned off (DSC is still left on in this mode – a separate console-mounted button with disable remaining nannies) and the throttle sharpened up noticeably to the joy of my prodding right foot. Off the pit lane and out onto the course – the 335i handles like a typical BMW – tackling corners with aplomb when driven to its limits but pushed beyond those and you’ll encounter the typical safety net of understeer and pushing.
The clutch felt a bit ponderous for it’s release point, though the throws were good and short. In any mode other than Sport or Sport+, the throttle response feels a bit dull.
However, the car feels balanced and predictable and surprisingly well-suited for Laguna Seca as it was easy to load up the weight in the car and fling the wheel over to clip an apex. Both the track and the car rewarded taking clean lines thru the turns – helping keep the understeer to a minimum and the 335i would easily stream from Turn 2 all the way up the hill to Turn 6. The 300 horsepower pumping out of the N55 plant comes in very handy, as it’s just enough to yank you back out of a corner and get back on the power towards the next corner – an advantage definitely not felt in the 328i Sport Line.
Surprisingly, the 19-inch run flats felt very grippy and even with DCT off and a happy right foot. The BMW Style 401 wheels with 19 inch 225/40 R19, 19×8.5, 255/35 R19 optional tire setup for an additional $900 are worth the extra cost on the Sport Line. They will help to visually set the 335i Sport Line apart from the base 328i Sport Line and seem to hold the tarmac with a death grip compared to the non-staggered 18 inch standard wheel setup which had a tendency to relinquish it’s hold of the road well before the 19’s.
Since Turn 11 is a great place to see what a drifting F30 looks like, many found that the combination of aggressive throttle and sharp turn-in could usually break traction – leading to a sort of ad hoc drift-off by many fellow journalists! In the left hand sweeper that is Turn 10 after the famous Corkscrew – a bit of extra power gave the feeling that the limits of adhesion had been reached and perhaps an off-camber corner wasn’t the best place to induce oversteer – as fun as it maybe. Despite a strong grip on the tarmac the run flats protested the abuse and did so quite loudly when you begin to ask too much of them.
Overall, the body rolls isn’t terrible, it’s definitely there but it is manageable and the lowered sport suspension helps keep it to a minimum.
Also – the 335i’s fuel tank was nearly empty by the end of the track sessions – the 328i’s had half a tank left.
However, to cure the shout of the tire roar – I found the ventilated disks of the 335i Sport were more than up for the job of scrubbing unwanted speed in hard braking zones like the turn-ins for the Corkscrew and Turn 11. I have to admit, the disks managed to hold up very well against continued abuse via aggressive journalists. The arrangement was to run two hot laps and a cool down lap for each car, pit, and let the next person rotate into the car. It must be kept in mind the cars had already run twice at Laguna Seca for the first group of journalists earlier in the week and would still hold up to our nearly 4 hour lapping session – plus the one after! Throughout my entire session – none of the cars I drove, 328i models included, never gave a hint of brake fad or a wimpy brake pedal.
Going into the morning track session I was very curious to try out the steering as I found the electric steering in the F10 5 Series to be both boring and very vague juxtaposed to the Z4 which fell somewhere near the other end of the spectrum giving tactile, immediate feedback – very taut and communicative when pushed in Sport mode and retaining some feedback in Comfort or Eco Pro modes.
Thankfully, the F30 falls much closer to the Z4 than the 5 Series. The F30’s steering never felt vague but when the Sport and Sport+ modes were engaged, along with the throttle response, the steering tightened up and felt well-weighted for track work – making it easy to set up the car for the racing line and hold it all the way thru the corner onto to the track out. The F30 still felt like a car that could be driven by finger tips – and that’s a great thing as the wheel must inform the driver of surface changes and what the front tires are doing at all times. I’m sure many enthusiasts are disappointed by the steering in modern BMWs as they lack a physical link between tires and steering wheel but rest assured that this is certainly one of the better systems available from BMW at the moment.
Driving the F30 you can always sense that the steering is a Servotronic system, an omnipresent sense of electronics lingers in the background, but it manages to never really interfere with the driver’s inputs or need for constant communication with the nose of the sedan.
Aside from the feel of the steering, I rather enjoyed how the F30’s suspension is set up – especially in either of the Sport settings. The predecessor, E90 model, always felt a bit harsh when paired with factory run flat tires – many actually would say that it felt like the suspension was “crashing” over surface changes and bumps giving the sense that the car was constantly unsettled on less than glass-smooth roads. The F30’s suspension seems to have cured the harshness, to a degree, over its predecessor – perhaps attributable to the progress made on run flat tire technology. Turning in early around Laguna Seca and flying over the blue and white curbing the double wishbone front, 5-link rear suspension and 19 inch wheel set up definitely lets you know that you’re on the curbing but never feels punishing or belaying a sense of temporary loss of grip – something that might cheer up a few enthusiasts out there who’ve come to loathe the stock setup of last generation of 3 Series.
While the suspension and wheel combination might be well and good in the new 335i – hey, a BMW has to handle well out of the box, right? – the exhaust note of the 335i Sport Line’s twin, chrome exhaust pipes is raw and raucous with the traditionally raspy big six-cylinder note pouring out of the rear. Unfortunately, the best place to enjoy the exhaust note is outside of the F30. It seems that a bit of the new 5 Series’ DNA has crept into the F30’s interior sound deadening leaving the exhaust a bit quieter than I’d prefer and more so than the previous E90-based 335i.
I also noticed at higher speeds, the exhaust note, while always present in the background,was muzzled by wind noise over the mirrors and windscreen quickly drowning out the glorious exhaust note. In fact, around 80 mph it’s surprising how much the wind noise intrudes into the cabin ambiance and washes out the high-pitched exhaust and sweet, burbly overrun.
Where We’re Heading…
At the end of the morning, as our lapping sessions concluded and we yanked off helmets and scurried into the paddock for lunch, I was able to reflect on the F30 335i Sport Line and what it means as the top of the line 3 Series. Ironically, the 335i feels very much like a mature evolution of the E90 335i – though the F30 328i feels like a bigger jump forward over its predecessor.
This isn’t a bad thing, though.
The E90 was an excellent chassis – especially when mated with the potent 3.0 liter Twin-Scroll N55. The combination of the F30 chassis with the single turbo big six is a compelling case and will never leave the majority of owners with a need for more power to overtake or maximize enjoyment on mountain roads. The F30 model manages to cure the few problems that existed in the E90 – cheapish interior parts (for the most part), refinement in the suspension and improved run flat tires. At the same time, the new 3 Series manages to move forward with technology and performance without sidelining the driver.
Cars like the F10 5 Series seem to make use of the latest suspension, traction and steering systems resulting in turn the overall feel as more dull and isolating to the driver. Where the F10 5 Series disappoints by its implementation of onboard systems, the new 3 Series manages the inverse – making the most of the car and its ability versus masking it.
Dare I say it, but the F30 335i Sport feels predictable in the sense that it is a great car – it had to be. This car has been building on a winning formula for decades and with the sales figures BMW attributes to the 3 Series – the F30 is too big for BMW to fail. Thankfully, the crafty Bavarians pulled it off – the F30 successfully evolves the E90 chassis and technologies into the sixth generation of 3 Series but still manages to retain the requisite fun factor everyone’s come to expect from the 3 Series. I went into the test for this car wanting to look at the new 3 Series with disdain as it marked the start of an era in which the perhaps the 3 Series had finally grown too wide, too long and too technically advanced to be fun – mercifully – I was proven wrong.
And if you have any issues with how this car can perform – I’ll gladly refer you to a Mr. Joey Hand on what a 335i Sport can pull out of its bag of tricks.