DRIVEN: BMW 335I
Is BMW's range-topping 3 Series a good choice? We find out via a cross-Europe road trip
The much-loved BMW straight-six is under threat. With the unending hunt for greater efficiency cylinder counts in 'prestige' cars are getting lower and lower. Traditionally cylinder count equalled status. But the days of V12s for the CEO, V8s for the directors, sixes for the managers and four-cylinders for the corporate grunts are over. Heck, the three-cylinder 3 Series looms.
To answer that question, and to find out what the F30 3 Series is like in general, we took the first right-hook 335i to be released from the UK press launch in Malaga all the way back to PH HQ. After all, there's nothing like a road trip to really get to grips with a car.
I've been in the car for some 15 minutes now, adjusting, fiddling, and inputting a sufficiently interesting route into the sat-nav. Initial impressions are good: the cabin design feels like the conceptual lovechild of the current generation 5 Series and the E90 3 Series.
There's a centre console canted towards the driver (nice), and a slightly self-conscious design language that 'links' one area of the interior to another (a bit forced), but the overall feel is that this is a car you know well, even after the first 30 seconds of acquaintance. Things are where you want them to be, and work largely in the way you expect, provided you've been in a few recent BMWs, that is.
Friday 2pm: a twisty Spanish motorway on the way to Granada
That immediate sense of familiarity continues on the move. We've only been driving for a short while and yet I'm already entirely comfortable with the way it behaves.
It's not all peaches and cream, however. The new fully electric steering rack might have made gains in efficiency (it uses no power at the straight ahead or in steady-state cornering), but it does feel more than a little aloof. There's also a soupy feel to the wheel that the sweeping curves of Andalucian motorways only serve to highlight.
Friday, 4pm: a back-road detour
The quality of asphalt rapidly deteriorates when you take to the quieter backwaters of Spain's road network, and a 'shortcut' I'd picked out to get a chance to play with the adjustable chassis and powertrain settings and explore the 335i's country road handling characteristics turns out to be more of a challenge than I could possibly have imagined.
Overall, the 335i copes pretty well - even in 'comfort' the suspension keeps body roll largely in check in corners and holds back heave and float over lumps and humps, while the gearbox does a reasonable job of keeping you in the right gear.
Wind up to sport mode and things are even more tightly controlled. The Spanish road of chassis death does reveal the car to be a smidge under-damped, however, while that steering proves vaguely recalcitrant in quick direction change situations - which is quite a disappointment and dulls the edge of an inherently sharp chassis.
Saturday 7am: north of Barcelona
There is a lot of wind noise, but I can't decide whether it's because there's very little tyre, road or engine noise, whether it's the blustery side wind making it worse, or whether the car just generates a lot of wind noise. Jury's out on that one.
Saturday, midday: Perpignan to Foix
The D117 is one of those roads we fondly imagine criss-cross the continent; it mixes sweeping bends, straights and hairpin passes with a sweet, smooth surface. Best of all, it's pretty much empty.
The 3 Series is in its element here, feeling much more progressive and assured when not asked to change direction so swiftly or over such bumpy terrain as in Spain.
It's here that I also explore the manual elements of the eight-speed auto. BMW has been using this gearbox for a while now, and Munich's engineers seem to have finally got a proper handle on it. And in manual mode it's brilliant. It takes you a while to get used to the idea of so many ratios, but it shifts smoothly and, crucially, gives you a gear when you want it, a trick the Mercedes 7G-Tronic transmission could do well to learn. It's also a small thing, but it's nice to have a sequential lever with the 'proper' pull to shift up, push to shift down configuration.
Saturday, 6.30pm: north west of Limoges
The 335i is, of course, a master of this sort of thing, and it's a great chance to hear the growling straight six in its upper ranges one final time this evening. And to muse on whether there's still a place for the six-cylinder 3 Series.
My conclusion? It pains me to say this, but the Twinpower six is feeling a bit old these days. Its four-cylinder petrol and diesel brethren are so efficient, and sufficiently powerful, as to make the big six almost an irrelevance, especially on a long trip like this, where even a perfectly respectable 28-and-a-bit mpg just seems a bit too thirsty. Unless you really crave that six-cylinder yowl, it's hard to make a convincing logical case for the 335i.
All is not lost for the six-pot 3er, mind - the forthcoming hybrid version will use it, and add a suitable chunk of power and economy in the process. Should be interesting...
Transmission:6-speed manual/8-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 306@5,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@1,200-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.5 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
MPG: 39.2 (35.8 manual)
CO2:169g/km (186 g/km manual)
Price: £37,025 (£49,860 as tested)