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2014 BMW 335i xDrive M Sport Review

Post-refresh 2015 F30 3-series pictured. 

Which is better, an F30 3-series or an E46? The F30 has certainly taken its fair share of heat. But if you thought I was going to say the E46, you'd be dead wrong. The F30 3-series is better. Far better. It is quicker, faster, safer, more practical, more efficient, more refined, quieter.. the list goes on. A lot of reviews and people I talk to consider the F30 to be an abomination. Frankly, I don't see it. You'd have to be mad to think the E46 is better. Completely out to lunch. I don't know who in their right mind would prefer the E46..  Trouble is, since when were people buying sports cars in their right minds? Here, lies the real problem.

"Raw rather than refined in its noises, pounding ride, heavy clutch, 50 grand and cloth seats?"
".. and not at all shy about its performance compromises. It always acts like the automotive jock it is, every mile of every day."
"Raw and quite loud.. And sometimes rude."
"Cramped back seat, fussy climate controls, perennial overdog.

Do you know what car the above comments are in reference too? The E46 3-series. The comments are from a couple of Car and Driver reviews (an M3 and a 330i). They paint a pretty ugly picture on their own. Despite that, the 3-series was the benchmark of the segment. It was hailed by reviewers. I, personally, love it. It is easily my favourite generation and the E46 M3 is probably my favourite M3 (it would easily be the favourite, if not for my inflicted love for all things V8 powered like the E9X M3)

The E46 3-series, in its day, sold nearly twice as many cars as the C-class and nearly three times as many as the A4. Others tried to duplicate its formula. It was a huge success. But while everyone was trying to figure out that formula, the folks at BMW (since, you know, they already knew the formula) were busy figuring out how to sell even more of them. And they did. The market wants luxury, practicality, but no sacrifice in performance. The results? The E9X 3-series being larger and slightly softer than the E46, yet more capable. The F30 became larger still and even more luxurious. That came at a price, though; more and more isolation from driving to maintain performance without taking a hit in comfort or luxury.

Take this 335i xDrive I drove, for instance, with M Sport package no less. Power is plentiful. It doesn't even sound half bad despite being turbo. I actually like it better than the M3/M4 noise. There's slightly more straight six signature in it than the M cars based on it. Power is not only plentiful, it's plentiful everywhere. Coupled with the ZF 8-speed auto, this drivetrain makes you wonder why every automaker doesn't just go to BMW and ask to license it for every RWD car needing an automatic, six cylinder drivetrain with roughly 300 hp. The AWD gives you more traction than you can safely exploit in everyday driving on dry roads. It's pretty good in the snow too, although power transfer to the front front a stop isn't as seamless as it could be. But it's a blast (pun intended) to put your foot down and pull away every chance you get. Do you see an on or off ramp? Chug the car in there and power out. I doubt you'll be able to upset it.

It will understeer at the limit, but it's an AWD all-weather car so hardly a surprise. And it isn't a pig, this is a 3-series after all. Turn-in is sharp and front grip is plentiful, even on the all-season tires. You won't find understeer unless you are pushing. I would be surprised if you found understeer frustrating on a nice back country road, unless you are trying to impress a stopwatch (don't). Body and wheel motions are very well controlled. Despite that, the ride is not punishing, especially when you consider you are driving a 3-series with an M package. And we still haven't got to the best part yet; the seats. My gosh, those front seats are good. I was stuck in them for about four hours and I have no complaints, which is rare as you'll find the more cars I review. Yet, they have great support, which is a tough balance to hit. Did I mention I love those seats?

It all adds up to a very good car. An excellent one, in fact. But is it a good 3-series? That's where the narrative starts falling apart. This takes us back to that pesky E46. There is just something missing that you used to get from an old 3-series. An E46 3-series feels alive. Maybe it's the relative lack of NVH and improvement isolation. Maybe it's the softer suspension. It just doesn't feel as exciting. Digging into some specs, you find some numbers to support the symptom.

The wheelbase goes up by more than 3 inches. That's less than the difference in wheelbase between this 335i and a current Mercedes E-class. It's only 1 inch away from being a 5-series of the same vintage - the E39. Front and rear tracks are both widened relative to the E46, but they are less square. The E46 had 57.9 and 58.4 inches front and rear tracks - nearly square. In the F30, they go up to 60.5 and 62.1. The change in wheelbase and relative front/rear tracks contribute to a more stable, more refined car, but one that isn't as agile. And it weighs over 200 lb. more, with slightly more front weight bias (the E46 330i had a very slight rear weight bias in C&D testing, with "only" 49.2% of weight over the front axle vs 50.6% in the F30). The result is a lazier chassis, which is motivated by a turbo engine that, while being an absolute gem, isn't quite as excited to be wrung out as the old N/A 3.0 litre. Then you take it all and wrap it with more insulation and the car as a whole just feels entirely different. And you haven't even got to the steering yet..

Yes, I'm sorry, you're going to have to hear about another guy complain about BMW steering feel. It really is that bad. I think my old '08 Ford Escape had more steering feel than this 335i. Forget hot hatches like Golf GTIs and Focus ST's. My Boss 302 would probably be insulted if I compared it to this 335i, and that statement should be an insult to any 3-series. The steering is very direct and very accurate, don't get me wrong. It's very easy to place the car exactly where you want it once you get familiar with its response. But it just tells you nothing about what's happening. The sharp handling and response is actually very disconcerting, because I'm used with this kind of muted, isolated steering in a 10 year old Chevy Impala and you can imagine how that handles. This combination of excellent steering performance but abysmal steering feel really threw me off. And that's on the street. Taking it to a back road or, even worse, a track where you could take the car to the limit would be an exercise in telepathy between you and the tires. You'll have to learn to look for other clues about how close you are to overwhelming the front tires. Tire noise, steering response, or something.

It's a very conflicted personality for a sports car, in my opinion. You see, a well-behaved car such as the 335i would be a great car to learn high performance driving in (sans AWD and automatic transmission if you're a little bit of a purist like me). You never have to worry about it biting you or doing something unpredictable. It's stable, but not in an understeer-till-you-sap-all-the-fun kind of way. But you have no idea what the front wheels are doing. And I would be surprised if the rear tires started yapping at the limit either.

I read, on C&D I believe, that when someone at BMW was asked about the feel and feedback, he said that their customers said they didn't want it. A lot of people say BMW can't do steering anymore, but I don't believe that for a second. I think BMW is just listening to their customers. But you know what? Mercedes can do that JUST as good. And so can Audi, Cadillac, Jaguar, etc. Everyone can listen to their customers. What makes a car special is what the brand ends up delivering and BMW used to deliver the best in small, luxury sport sedans and defining what that should look like. Not anymore. This reminds me of Jeremy Clarkson's review of E60 M5 (between 2004 and 2010). He complained about having so much adjustability (gearbox settings, suspension, etc.) and how BMW people are the experts. They're the ones who should set up the car properly instead of giving the choice. This couldn't be more true here, except BMW took the choice away all together, set the car up wrong for the wrong people, and then put it on sale.

The car is very capable, there is no doubt about that. The speeds you can carry because of the grip and the rate of acceleration made possible by the power and traction also guarantee you'll enjoy driving the car. It's certainly fun to drive. But is it a sports car? Well, it depends on how you define one. I don't think it's a car meant to do double duty as a track car and daily driver. It's meant to allow someone looking for a sporty luxury car to take it to as many High Performance Driving Schools (HPDS's) as he or she can dream of doing. It's a small, very sporty grand tourer; a quieter, more comfortable, more practical, and more luxurious car than an E46. It's a much better car, but it's a worse 3-series for it. And that.. that is a darn shame.


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