Fusing performance, practicality, and prestige, the BMW 3-Series is one of the most envied cars in the automotive industry. If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, nearly every auto manufacturer on the planet has been sending BMW love letters for the past 37 years in the form of cars that slavishly copy the design cues of the 3.

But it s not about the look - it s about the experience.

For 2012 there s an all-new one. In case the competition is wondering, nope, they did not mess it up. That s not to say that Audi, Mercedes, Cadillac, and Infiniti don t have contenders. But let s face it, no other car in its class has the bullet proof pedigree, history or reputation.

It s BMWs most important car. Proof? Consider this: They make nine distinct different models and even though 3 Series is not the most affordable, it s by far the most popular. The sedan model alone snags 25 percent of the brand s entire US sales.

The World Hasn t Stood Still

Neither has the 328i (or it s more powerful sibling the 335i). Generation 6 is different from the outgoing car. It s bigger (3.6 inches longer, 1.6 inches wider), more fuel efficient, and lighter by nearly 90 pounds (thank you high strength steel).

Overall, it feels more mature now and in tune with what people are looking for in a premium sport sedan- conservative good looks, decent fuel economy, and badge cache. Wrap those attributes up with a fun-to-drive ribbon and you have a winning package.

Some will accuse the 3 Series of becoming too big and there s a point to be made there. It s now creeping toward what used to be 5-Series territory. Is the 1 Series is too small for mainstream American tastes? If so, it leaves a slight void in the lineup. Most buyers will find the 3 s extra room welcome though.

The 3 gets a 4

Generation six gets more power. 328s are powered a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with twin scroll turbocharging. It pumps out 240 horsepower @5,000 RPM and 255 lb-ft of torque from 1,250 to 4,800 RPM. It drinks premium fuel and with direct injection it has a bit of a diesel grumble to it. The throaty sound and silky smooth operation of the outgoing inline-six will be missed but the performance dynamics are intact.

Gear changes are made with an eight-speed automatic. Move the unique joystick forward for reverse, back for drive. Manual mode? Of course, though my Modern Line test car has no steering wheel paddle shifters. The new powertrain improves fuel economy to an impressive EPA rated 23 city, 33 highway (the outgoing model managed only 28). The manual transmission is a six-speed.

Less mass and more power is a good thing. 0-60 happens in 5.9 seconds according to BMW. There s no turbo lag and with max torque available early in the power band, deep power is available right off the line.

Handle This

The 3 Series has always been about handling and the 328i is terrific. It is different from the outgoing model though. Steering effort is lighter and it seems like there s less road feel than before, probably due to electric power steering. The well-balanced chassis dynamics and the firm-but-never-harsh ride quality are exceptional. It s a BMW. It s a 3 Series. What do you expect?

Like most modern cars, the transmission is programmed to aggressively up-shift for better fuel economy. That s fixable with the push of a button. Drive modes such as SPORT and SPORT + change the throttle response, transmission mapping and degree of stability control. There s even a fuel-efficient ECO PRO mode to eek out better gas mileage. One of its features is a speed limiter. The upcoming M-Sport will add adaptive suspension.

Even though it s necessary to keep in step with fuel efficiency requirements these days, the 328i remains great fun on a curvy country road. Road noise is just right for this kind of vehicle and excellent disc brakes at all corners mean you ll never miss a scenic view, or hit a deer, if one or the other pops out unexpectedly.

Hey, The Engine Just Died

That was my response when jumping into the 328 to run some errands the moment it was delivered to my office. I didn t realize that BMW has added Auto Start-Stop technology and having the engine shut down at a major intersection in downtown Seattle is an exhilarating way to find out. Fortunately, the surprise caused me to take my foot off the brake and it instantly restarted.

Auto Start-Stop essentially acts sort of like a hybrid, though the car must come to a complete stop for a second or two before the engine shuts down. In addition to lifting off the brake, a tug of the steering wheel does the trick too, which is great when you want the engine running for whatever reason. The system can easily be turned off.

The restart in particular has more of a jolt than expected in a well-engineered German sport sedan. So it s not completely annoying in stop and go traffic, it won t shut off again until the car reaches 10 miles per hour.

Choose Your Look Fred

The 3 Series is available in different lines such as Sport Line and Luxury Line, which changes the ambience of the cabin. My tester is the Modern Line and it gets unique trim in the way of oyster colored gauges and key fob. The irony of the modern designation is that the deeply grooved timber trim looks like something Fred Flintstone would have in his car. Think very well done chainsaw art. It is always the first thing noticed by passengers and is universally questioned. May I suggest the Luxury Line? Perhaps the Sport?

Other than that, the cabin materials are of the premium grade. The instrument panel is soft touch and aluminum trim is elegantly applied. Leather seats, which are not overly bolstered, are very comfortable, supportive and heated. Lightly brush the radio buttons and there s a preview of the station on the large LCD display before you commit. The steering wheel is heated. The Bavarians have nailed this stuff.

The same, much to my surprise, can be said about iDrive. Either they ve improved the user interface or I m just getting used to the knob and surrounding dedicated button operation. Overall it s pretty intuitive and consistent. Yes, it has been maligned in the past. Don t be afraid. Give it a chance.

Optional cameras on the exterior can create different angles to help drivers navigate tight situation. A bird s eye view that looks like a helicopter is looking down on the car fascinates passengers. It s much like the effect Infiniti has used for the past few years. A dock in the shallow center console holds an iPhone allowing the use of apps. The large screen can also display a set of sport gauges, that are very cool (my video of it didn t turn out so hot, sorry).

Evil Twin is Comfy

The 3 Series has never really known for a roomy back seat but the fifth generation had decent space and number six offers up a smidge more. I m 5 9 and sitting behind me, Evil Twin is comfortable in the nicely contoured seats. There s certainly enough knee and foot room for an average adult and there are bun warmers, air vents and a power port to charge his phone. A folding armrest adds comfort and a place to put a Coke.

The driveshaft is a bit intrusive, but that s the price to pay for rear-wheel drive driving dynamics. But those in back didn t pay for the car, did they? There are belts for three, keep it two and those passengers shouldn t grouse.

Speaking of Price...

The starting price of $35,800 (including destination) isn t bad, but it quickly rises past 40-something equipped the way people expect a car these days. Nearly fully loaded, my tester is 50K. Ouch. At that price there s no ventilation or thigh extension feature in the seats, steering wheel paddle shifters, or panoramic roof glass.

Other gripes? 328i needs two pushes of the ignition button to turn it completely off. It s easy to leave the car with the engine shut down but left in accessory mode. Ask me how I know... I m not too crazy about cocking the door release twice to get out either but that s common on European cars.

One of the things you re paying for with any BMW is service and maintenance. All of it is included for four years or 50,000 miles which helps to keep the budget in check. Kinda. Sorta. This is not an inexpensive car.

Baggage is Not Always a Bad Thing

Sport sedans are much more useful than pure sports cars because of their ability to carry passengers and cargo. The 3 s boot is not bad. There are some nice touches, I love the elastic strap on the side that keeps things in place, and there s a power port and bag hooks. No spare tire though. BMW likes run-flats which can be very expensive to replace and hard to find of your in the middle of nowhere.

At five packs of TP, the new 3 doesn t hold any more bundles than the previous generation, though there is some extra space. I ll rate the 2012 at five and a half. The 40/20/40 split back seat is very flexible, great for carrying skis or two-by-fours. Admittedly, very few 328i owners will use their cars to build a deck.

No More Bangle

The new set of clothes is more grown up, purposeful and conservative. That s fine, my opinion is that the 3 Series has always looked best when drawn with an understated pen. The 2012 has been completely de-Bangled. I like the furrowed brow and the way the headlamp trim leads into the twin-kidney grille. Of course it wouldn t be a BMW without the Hoffmeister Kink on the C pillar.

As you probably know there is also a more powerful 335i. It gets a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder with TwinPower turbo technology that makes 300 horsepower. It starts at around 43 grand. In case you re wondering, BMWs own specs say the 335i is a half second quicker in the 0-60 department. I haven t driven it yet but the armchair engineer in me wonders how handling is changed by putting more weight in the nose. The 328i has a 50-50 balance, the 335 only slightly off at about 51-49.

Ultimately, 328 s larger size and fuel efficiency mission give it a different dynamic than the previous generation. It s still fun in the corners but feels more mature now. The competition has turned up the heat on the 3-Series for years now, that s good for us consumers. In the end, the BMW 328i remains an impressive car, one that stays current with the times. Let the envy continue.

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