Usually, once a month or so, I hear about a new super or hyper-car, which gives me an opportunity to jaw and drool for a while about how cool it is, all the while knowing I’ll only ever get to drive it in my dreams, and even then only after some very specific medication (a mix of 1.5 packets of Ramen noodles, A&W Root Beer, 17 episodes of Top Gear UK, and a sustained drift over wet pavement).
Last week, however, I had the rare opportunity to drive something well out of my price range. And while the BMW 328i is no Koenigsegg, it is can take a corner at speeds high enough to get me in trouble if published. And it’s suspiciously comfortable, making that corner feel like a 20 mph coast through a roundabout. There’s a problem, though, a certain aspect of the 328’s personality that disqualifies it from ever being a car for me.
Out of the first intersection, I discovered that it’s very fast. And it should be, since it comes with a 3 liter straight six capable of 230 hp. Since the car is just under 3,500 pounds, that was enough to get it to 60 quickly, though when we timed a launch, it only managed 7.1 seconds. I chalk that up to the six speed “Steptronic” transmission, but automatics are unfortunately standard equipment on brand new BMWs a guy like me actually gets to drive. It also comes stocked with BMW’s “Double Vanos” system, which sounds like the term for a pair of Daewoos, but is actually a variable valve timing system, a more expensive V-TEC.
But despite all this RWD power and trick nanotech, the little 3-series rather felt like a movie theater between the trailers and the feature, comfortable and comforting but simultaneously exhilarating, lending expectancy. A smile kept subconsciously invading the corners of my mouth. There was much to explain this comfort. It has adaptive cruise control, micro-filtered automatic climate control, and rain-sensing windshield wipers.
The magic wasn’t all in the gadgetry, either. With BMW’s adaptive steering, it handled like a thought. The suspension, too, seemed to be perfectly fitted for everything, tuned for both performance firmness and comfort, a paradox of sorts. On the same ride I slammed over potholes with little more than an indication that they were there, I sliced around the aforementioned corners with nary a squeak from the rear tires. At those speeds most cars would give the impression that they’re about to toss you out the window. The 328 merely nudged me in the bum with its leather bucket seat.
Yet, as an overall driving experience, it wasn’t my cup of 5w-30. It was too digital…too assisted. I knew from the moment I slid the key fob into its nifty little socket on the dash and pressed the start button that the 328i would be taking care of the driving today, and I needed only sit back and relax. It wasn’t unlike being a toddler in the back seat with a toy steering wheel. Mother actually drove the car. I was only along for the ride. This was especially apparent while trying to use the sequential sport shifter. After a while, the car would just take over.
I’ll put it this way: When I was in college, everyone wanted an Apple computer, and for good reason. They were beautiful, extremely fast, and loaded with very clever, very reliable software. A Mac gave you the power to customize everything, to create whatever you wanted, to be the artistic, inventive Gen Y representative you wanted to be. But somewhere over the last few years, the Lords of Apple decided to start taking over our computing experiences. iMovie and Garage Band got easier to use, dumbed down. Customization dwindled so programs could get simpler. We stopped owning the songs we bought on iTunes and could only transfer them to a certain number of Apple devices. Why? Why not? What else would we need? Apple had everything taken care of for us, but we could no longer be so creative.
That’s rather how I feel about the 2011 BMW 328i. BMW used to build the “Ultimate driving machine,” a reference to the driver’s experience. They can still use the slogan, but now it might just be in reference to the car itself, which handles all the driving for you.
Image courtesy of bmwusa.com