- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Trying to convince a certain practical somebody that a small sports sedan (aka BMW 3 series) would be the perfect choice for your small family?

Then, you’ve probably already pointed out that it has a conservatively handsome design, four doors, a reasonably roomy back seat for the kids, lots of safety features, adequate trunk space and better-than-average fuel economy.

But you say the Little Man (or Little Lady) remains skeptical.

Well, here’s a little more fuel for your arguments.

Tell him/her that you would be willing to “settle” for the nearly identical, but less powerful BMW 328i sedan, even though you’ve studied all those rave reviews about the 335i and its slick, twin-turbo, 300-horsepower, in-line six-cylinder engine.

Tell him/her that the 328i might really be the better bet because it offers the option of all-wheel drive (328xi) and the 335i is rear-wheel-drive only. Not only can the 328xi keep you going when the snow is flying, it also offers better traction on rain-slicked and warm, dry roads.

If you are still on shaky ground, tell the Significant Other that you could settle for the extra roominess and practicality of a 328i or 328xi wagon. And, if you must, mention the availability of a six-speed automatic transmission.

Finally, for a clincher, remind him/her that you might save up to $6,000 with these “sacrifices” that you are willing to make.

What you probably don’t need to mention to the non-enthusiast is that you actually will be sacrificing very little.

With an all-new 3.0-liter, in-line six-cylinder engine that generates 230 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque, the 328i sedan would seem to be a mild-mannered relative to that rompin’, stompin’ turbo mill.

But the 328i is no dog. It is a quick, thoroughly competent car in its own right. Figures supplied by BMW show that a sedan with a six-speed manual transmission can scoot from a stop to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, a mere nine-tenths of a second behind the 335i. Even with an automatic shifter, it will get to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds.

The standard 328i has an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph, but the 328i with the optional sport package will top out at 150 mph, the same as the 335i.

Those numbers are benchmarks, of course, but raw acceleration doesn’t tell the real-world story. More important is the ability to pass and to enter freeways filled with fast-moving traffic, or to have an enjoyable fling on an empty back road. Here again, the 328i engine is up to the job, with plenty of reserve left when those occasional bursts of power are needed.

Fuel efficiency is EPA-rated at 20 miles per gallon of premium gasoline around town and 27 on the highway. My calculations put the numbers at 17/25. However, the 328i will run happily on regular fuel, too. It just won’t have quite as much pep.

Once you get past the drivetrain, the differences between the two vehicles are not very great. And that means that the 328i, like the 335i, is more akin to a sports car than a pillowy highway cruiser.

Both vehicles have rigid, steel bodies and frames. They share four-wheel-independent suspension — a new double-pivot strut-type suspension in front and a new five-link setup at the rear wheels.

In addition, both have nicely weighted, power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering and powerful four-wheel, antilock, ventilated disc brakes. However, the brakes on the 328i are a bit smaller than the ones on the 335i. Another difference: standard and optional alloy wheels are an inch smaller in diameter on the 328i, as are the corresponding tires.

The sedans also have what BMW calls Dynamic Stability Control. It incorporates several functions to assist braking. It can automatically add brake pressure to insure maximum power under all conditions. It automatically moves the brakes closer to the discs after sudden lift-off of the accelerator to reduce stopping power in an emergency. It also will automatically apply the brakes lightly in the rain to keep the discs dry.

Additionally, the stability control works with the all-wheel-drive system to help stabilize the vehicle if it starts to veer out of control.

The car offered for my inspection was a 328xi sedan with automatic transmission and the optional premium and sport packages.

I have to confess that when I think of a BMW, I immediately crave a manual transmission. But, I spent some time using the manual-shift feature on the automatic and found that it is a pretty good assistant when an involved driver is putting the car through its paces.

Still, I’ll take the manual shifter and put the $1,275 charge for the automatic transmission back in my pocket.

The ride quality in the test car was a bit firm, but any minor complaints about that disappeared at the first sharp curve. The 328i tracks as if it were glued to the road and there is little body roll.

Out on the highway, the concern was never about a lack of power, which came on smoothly and authoritatively with even a moderate tap on the accelerator.

It was more a question of keeping the speed down to avoid the flashing lights of a patrol car.

Inside, the BMW provides the optimum seating position for the enthusiast driver. The comfortable bucket seats have just the right amount of bolster to keep a body in check.

The meaty steering wheel can be tilted and telescoped to exactly the right position for a motorist of almost any size. Gauges and switches are within easy reach.

After I made the necessary adjustments, it was almost as if the cockpit had been custom tailored to my body.

The right front seat is equally comfortable for a passenger riding shotgun, but the rear bench is barely adequate for 6-footers who find themselves seated behind another 6-footer.

The BMW 328xi may be less expensive than its more powerful garage mate, but that is not to say that it is cheap. The base price is $34,995, including delivery charge, and that is a $1,900 premium over the rear-wheel-drive sedan.

Looked at another way, however, the tab may seem reasonable. Base price of the 335i sedan is $39,395. The 328i wagon, for those who can’t avoid the extra practicality, is $34,895. Again, all-wheel drive for the wagon costs an extra $1,900.

Standard safety equipment, in addition to the stability control, includes front and side air bags for front-seat passengers, side curtain protection for front and rear occupants, traction control and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

One feature I wish the car didn’t have was standard run-flat tires, which eliminate the need for a spare. Call me a Nervous Nelly, but I’d rather have a spare, even if it does add weight and steal a little cargo space.

Standard convenience accessories on the 328xi include automatic climate control with left and right temperature settings, 10-speaker audio system with CD player and MP3 capability, power sunroof, trip computer, heated outside mirrors, cruise control, which will apply the brakes to maintain a set speed, keyless remote locking and trunk release, and a choice of burl walnut, aluminum or light poplar trim.

Another important standard feature is free full maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles.

One oddity that didn’t make a lot of sense to me was the procedure required to start the car. The driver must insert the keylike fob in a dashboard slot, then press a “start” button. What’s wrong with the old twist-a-key system?

Major options on the car I drove were the Premium Package and the Sport Package. The Premium Package, which costs $3,150, includes power front seats with lumbar support, leather upholstery, power folding outside mirrors that dim automatically, Bluetooth connectivity and BMW assist, an in-car emergency and communications system.

The Sport Package, which costs $1,200, includes 17-inch wheels with all-season tires, front sport seats and a leather, multifunction steering wheel.

Xenon headlights ($800), park-distance control that issues an audible warning when objects are near the rear of the car ($350), the automatic transmission and a couple of other items bring the total to $43,395.

The BMW 328i may play second fiddle to the 335i, but it is a standout sports sedan in its own right.

You can decide if you want to explain that to the Little Man (or Little Lady).

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