Is This German Legend Getting By On Reputation?

The model-year 2014 BMW 3 Series is the best car for you if you’re intrigued by an icon that’s gone from magisterial to a little mysterious.

For decades this line of compact German sports sedans and coupes was the undisputed benchmark of balanced performance—the envy of rival automakers, often imitated, never duplicated. Things changed with a model-year 2012 redesign that created a larger 3 Series. It was softer in nature, more mainstream.

Demand continued strong, and the sixth-generation 3 Series solidified its sales leadership in the premium-compact class. But in the driving-enthusiast world, the unthinkable was happening: The model began losing to the likes of the Audi S4 and Lexus IS in car-magazine comparison tests. Even the Cadillac ATS was credited with a superior chassis.

For model-year 2014, BMW seems to be drifting further from the values that once defined the series. Meet the 3 Series Gran Turismo, an all-wheel-drive hatchback that sneaks the brand into compact-crossover territory. Its the biggest, heaviest model ever for this series.

This on the heels of carmaker spinning off the 3 Series coupe and convertible to create the racier 4 Series line. Enthusiasts may be scratching their heads—if they weren’t already over introduction of a 3 Series hybrid.

The addition of the Gran Turismo expands a line that was already rich in powertrains and features. Every engine is turbocharged, and sedans start with the budget-minded four-cylinder 180 horsepower 320i. The 328i is its 240-horsepower upgrade, while the 328d uses a turbodiesel four with 280 pound-feet of torque.

The 335i defends the tradition of BMW’s celebrated inline-six-cylinder, here with 300 horsepower. The ActiveHybrid 3 combines that turbo six with an electric motor for a net 335 horsepower and the most torque in the lineup.

There’s also a conventional station wagon, the Sports Wagon. It comes with the diesel or the 240-horse four-cylinder. The Gran Turismo is available as a 328i or a 335i.

BMW earned much of its cred with the handling purity of rear-wheel drive. But it can’t ignore the market, so all the sedans except the hybrid are available with its xDrive AWD system. And every Sports Wagon and Gran Turismo is an xDrive.

If you love manual transmission, you can still get a six-speed in the rear-drive 320i and 328i sedans and in all 335i sedans. An eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters is optional in those models and standard on every other 3 Series.

Changes for model-year 2014 are modest. The available navigation system is updated with the carmaker’s iDrive version 4.2. It has a new rotary controller that lets you write commands with your finger. A leather-wrapped steering wheel becomes standard, and dark burled walnut wood trim is now included at no charge on most models.

The automaker also drops the Modern Line trim level with its satin aluminum accents and oyster-colored ignition key. Returning are the black-themed Sport Line, chromed-up Luxury Line, and M Sport package, with its aero kit and upgraded suspension.

Interestingly, only half of BMW buyers site exterior styling as an extremely important factor in their buying decision. The brand has generally recovered from its flame-surfaced experiment, and 3 Series sedans and Sports Wagons boast some attractive lines and athletic proportions.

Then there’s the Gran Turismo. It’s got a four-and-a-half-inch-longer wheelbase than the sedan and Sports Wagon, and it’s almost eight inches longer stem to stern. It’s about 300 pounds heavier, too.

To stabilize it at speed, it features the manufacturer’s first active spoiler, which automatically deploys at 68 mph and retracts below 43. It also has frameless door glass and vents BMW calls Air Breathers. They’re designed to reduce aerodynamic drag around the wheel arches. Look for them on future BMWs.

The GT’s seating position is almost two and a half inches higher than the sedans, but it shares their basic dashboard design. It’s a fully contemporary layout with no-nonsense gauges and a precision feel to the buttons and dials. The iDrive introduced the world to center-console controllers, and this version is the company’s best yet. Too bad the display screen comes across as tacked on rather than fully integrated, but there’s no arguing with its graphics or neat touches like a navigation street view of your destination.

That navigation system costs $2,150 and is among the good number of options you’ll need to take a 3 Series from surprisingly spare to what you’d expect of a premium car. Leather upholstery, heated front seats and even keyless entry all pad the base price. And the only colors you don’t pay extra for are basic black and white.

BMW acknowledges a goal of the 2012 redesign was improved comfort, and we can’t disagree with a rear seat that’s now among the most spacious in the class. The GT has even more rear leg room—an additional 2.8 inches—in total than the company’s midsize 5 Series. The sedan has a healthy 17-cubic-foot trunk, and Sports Wagons expand to 53 cubic feet. Of course, the Gran Turismo beats them both with almost 57 cubic feet, plus this extra underfloor storage.

On the road, 3 Series sedans and wagons feel about the same, which is to say always competent but not always entirely composed. We’ve experienced some rear-end skitter through bumpy turns, especially with the very-low-profile tires. And occasional bobbing and weaving is at odds with the buttoned-down poise of earlier 3 Series. To the company’s credit, even the Gran Turismo maintains a 50-50 weight balance, although its elevated center of gravity contributes to more body lean in fast turns.

Engines are a high point. Each is smooth and strong for its size, even if the 180-horsepower four comes across as a little beneath BMW’s station and the 240-horse four feels a bit overmatched in the Gran Turismo. The hybrid is a surprisingly good performer., and the torquey diesels don’t rattle or smoke.

Drivers can choose Sport, Comfort or Eco Pro modes. The last dulls powertrain response, not what you’d expect from BMW. But it does contribute to some best-in-class fuel economy, with special mention to the diesel’s 37 mpg city/highway combined rating.

The ActiveHybrid emphasizes performance, which explains its modest 28 mpg combined. It is, however, the only model that doesn’t shudder a little when the stop-start system—which is standard on every car in the series—restarts the engine.

Beginning just below $34,000 and stretching to just under $47,000 for gas models, 3 Series base prices look pretty competitive, until you realize many rivals include those luxury touches for which BMW charges extra. There’s no skimping on the stuff that makes the car perform. But $1,500 for leather here, $3,500 for an M Sport package there, and soon you have a $50,000 four-cylinder 3 Series.

Diesels start at $39,525, hybrids at $50,825. The automaker does throw in free maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles, including brake pads and the like.

With a pack of rivals on its tail, it’s as if BMW zigged instead of zagged, creating a brand for the widest possible audience. Enthusiasts are still well served. With the right equipment, this is a terrific driving machine, just maybe not the ultimate driving machine.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]