MONTEREY, CA – It’s been nearly 20 years since BMW chefs mastered the recipe for a high-volume luxury sport sedan that would set the template for the rest of the world to follow.

The ingredients have remained relatively straightforward over the years: one world-class high-tech engine, preferably an inline-6; four premium tires wrapped around stylish aluminum wheels; a lightweight suspension that holds the road in even the most dynamic driving situations; a telepathic steering system that seems to know exactly where to go even before the driver has turned the wheel; a dash of no-nonsense Germanic style; and a shaving of European flair.

The proof is in the pudding: Since 1990, no competitor in WardsAuto’s Lower Luxury segment has come within a country mile of dethroning the 3-Series.

If BMW’s sedan had any weakness, it was the interior. The laser focus on driving dynamics and powertrains had left even the fifth-generation 3-Series, now being replaced, with a passenger compartment that felt like an afterthought. Its cabin had become a predictable array of black or beige soft-touch materials, horizontally oriented controls on the center stack and a splash of obligatory metallic or wood trim.

Thankfully, Bavaria’s best interior designers were given more freedom to cook up tasty new styling themes in the all-new sixth-generation ’12 BMW 3-Series, which is arriving now at U.S. showrooms.

With the fifth-generation model (internal code E90), buyers chose between sport and premium interior packages, and the differentiating trim that set the two apart was subtle, at best.

The new 3-Series (internal code F30) offers base, Modern, Luxury, Sport and, later this fall, M Sport variants, and each line comes with a wide array of trim options.

For instance, seat leather and leatherette is sewn with completely different seams for the various lines, to provide a bespoke look and feel, and the steering wheel is more sculpted than before. 

In addition, the horizontal trim edge that separates the lower instrument panel from the upper can be had in matte red, brushed aluminum, high-gloss black or, in the fall, blue, with the M Sport package.

This piece of trim, which sparked heated debate within the design studio, is distinctive and attractive and succeeds in spicing up what had become an extremely drab interior. 

The biggest twist in the new 3-Series lineup is the Modern trim line, which has never been offered before and emphasizes the harmonious lightness of Scandinavian design and natural materials.

Contrast in the Modern interior consists of a light beige lower instrument panel and seats and dark oyster upper dashboard and steering wheel.

The most distinctive aspect, which serves to pull the whole cabin together, is the deep brown open-pored poplar wood trim on the dashboard, center console and grab handles. The matte-finish wood appears as if it soaked in water for centuries, with a pronounced, heavy grain swollen above the surface to form deep ridges. This feature, alone, could seal the deal with customers looking for something truly special.

The smartest part of BMW’s new strategy is that it can accommodate the buyer wanting the tried-and-true black-on-black interior that has become a 3-Series staple, while satisfying a customer that has grown bored with the look.

Harsh critics may point to the new center stack, with its horizontally arrayed air vents above a row of radio controls and a separate row of climate controls, as completely carried over.

But a closer look reveals a new configuration with buttons that are more evenly spaced out, and surrounded by sleek brushed aluminum bezels. Plus, the radio preset buttons now are concave, which makes them more ergonomic and attractive.

Of course, rivals in Ingolstadt may be quick to note Audi has been delivering consistently excellent and unique luxury interiors for years, and that BMW is playing catch-up.

That certainly is true, but even with its superior cabin the Audi A4 was outsold 3-to-1 in January and February by the 3-Series, and that was before the new model had arrived. Will the new 3 widen its lead? Bank on it.

Like an Oreo cookie, the new 3-Series is filled with creamy goodness, and not just in the interior. 

Both engines available in the U.S., the 240-hp (N20) 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. in the 328i and the 300-hp (N55) 3.0L turbocharged inline-6 in the 335i, are powerful, fuel-efficient, sophisticated and new within the past two years.

This potent 1-2 punch also collected two Ward’s 10 Best Engines trophies for 2012 at a banquet in Detroit this past January.

We’ve already raved about these engines in previous articles, so feel free to explore the links below. Both are mated to a standard 6-speed manual or optional 8-speed automatic transmission.

Although the 4-cyl. 328i can sprint from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 5.7 seconds and the 6-cyl. 335i can do it in a slightly faster 5.4 seconds, both engines are engineered for maximum efficiency.

BMW executives aren’t sure about the projected 4-cyl./6-cyl. mix, but the outgoing 328i dominated with 75% of U.S. sales.

Both vehicles and transmissions are well suited for hot laps at the famous Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Riding shotgun with racing pro Joey Hand, the American Le Mans Series GT champion says he might actually prefer the 328i because it feels lighter, handles better and is less prone to understeer.

Auto stop/start is standard on both vehicles (but can be shut off) and works well in conserving fuel at idle, then restarting without hesitation when the light turns green.

Another new technology, Eco Pro Mode, coaches the driver on ways to drive more conservatively to reduce fuel consumption some 20%. The system also changes accelerator mapping so the same pedal travel delivers less power, and upshifts with the 8-speed automatic come at lower engine speeds.

Even with the system being used sporadically during a rollicking ride along the coastal Highway 1 through Big Sur, the 328i with 8-speed automatic delivers an impressive 31.5 mpg (7.4 L/100 km) over the course of a 57-mile (92-km) route.

For those wanting the ultimate 3-Series fuel sipper, theBMW ActiveHybrid 3 arrives this fall.

Fans of oil-burners may be disappointed to hear no diesel engine will be offered this year in the new 3-Series, but a 4-cyl. diesel in the future has not been ruled out.

If efficiency is a low priority, BMW can accommodate lead foots as well. The same switch that chooses “Eco Pro” and “Comfort” also has settings for “Sport” and “Sport+” to tighten up the suspension, sharpen throttle response and make steering feedback even more direct.

Also in Sport+ mode, the Dynamic Stability Control thresholds are raised, and Dynamic Traction Control is activated. Or, DSC can be shut off altogether, allowing old-school fun with the electronic limited-slip function of the rear differential.

The tale of the tape shows the new 3-Series on a red-meat diet to bulk up: Wheelbase grows by 1.9 ins. (5 cm), while overall length stretches 3.7 ins. (9.4 cm). The backseat is noticeably more spacious.

Curb weight rises nominally – some 44 lbs. (20 kg) on the 328i with 6-speed manual. But BMW says, when adjusted for options, the “equipment equalized curb weight” is actually 88 lbs. (40 kg) less than its predecessor.

Minimizing weight gain and ensuring a 50/50 front/rear distribution sets up the 3-Series to carry on the excellent chassis dynamics and handling that have made the car so desirable.

The 4-wheel independent suspension, rigid body and wider front and rear track help the car hug the road even better than before, aided by lightweight chassis components and tailored axle kinematics. For instance, the rear axle was modified to improve aerodynamic drag under the vehicle, helping improve fuel efficiency.

Electric power steering appears for the first time on the 3-Series, replacing the less-efficient hydraulic system. The same migration has occurred in several other BMW vehicles already.

Electrically actuated steering can be tuned so precisely that even purists who have insisted hydraulic is better are starting to change their tune.

Optional is anew variable-ratio steering system that provides different steering gear ratios depending on the turning situation. The car responds either more directly or more softly to steering inputs.

BMW has skillfully kept intact the elements that have made the 3-Series great while improving what needed the most attention: the interior.

The initial availability of four trim lines, with more models to come, will increase build complexity, which opens the door to problems in the assembly process.

Take, for instance, the front bumper. There were a few dozen possible configurations of the old 3-Series, based on color, trim levels and options. The new car has more than 200 variants for the front bumper, a top executive tells WardsAuto.

But this same executive says four of BMW’s seven board members came through the manufacturing end of the business and know something about build complexity. They aren’t worried.

Pricing starts at $35,795 for the 328i and $43,295 for the 335i, including an $895 destination charge. Options quickly ratchet up the price, including $2,550 for the technology package (navigation and head-up display), $1,900 for the premium package (such as auto-dimming mirrors and Comfort Access keyless entry), $1,700 for the sport line and $1,350 for the cold-weather package.

iPhone fans will like the optional $250 BMW Apps port that syncs the phone with the vehicle and allows cutting-edge connectivity with Pandora, MOG and just about any radio station around the world.

BMW management may feel giddy with setting a global sales record in 2011 with 1.3 million vehicles and for raking in record earnings before taxes of €7.3 billion ($9.8 billion), an increase of 52% over 2010.

And the 3-Series is positioned to continue that momentum by asserting its dominance.

But the competition will crank up the heat before long with Cadillac’s new ATS, whose primary mission is to take a big bite out of BMW’s market share. The Mercedes C-Class is selling well, as is the Infiniti G, which is due for re-engineering before long.

Despite challenges from all corners, it appears BMW can take the heat and has no intention of getting out of the kitchen.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

 

’12 BMW 328i
Vehicle type Front-engine, RWD 4-door 5-passenger sedan
Engine 2.0L turbocharged DOHC direct-injection 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 240 hp @ 5,000-6,000 rpm
Torque 255 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) @ 1,250-4,800 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 84 x 90.1
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 110.6 ins. (281 cm)
Overall length 182.5 ins. (464 cm)
Overall width 71.3 ins. (181 cm)
Overall height 56.3 ins. (143 cm)
Curb weight 3,406 lbs. (1,545 kg)
Base price $35,795
Fuel economy 23/34 mpg (10-6.9 L/100 km)
Competition Mercedes C-Class, Nissan Maxima, Infiniti G, Cadillac CTS, Acura TL, Lexus ES, Audi A4
Pros Cons
Finally, some interior variety Display screen never folds away
Two spectacular engines No diesel on tap, yet
Still delivers world-class handling As big as the old 5-Series