Executive wheels: The wow! factor meets tech overload


Of all the cars I review, BMW ranks among the leaders in the “Wow!” factor. The reasons: First, BMW has a great reputation, especially for performance, and many people (extra for guys) would love to have one; and, second, say what you will about car styling, BMW overall remains the leader in distinctiveness.

Especially with the 3 Series BMW, which has always had an edge over the competition in get-up-and-go and handling. The 2013 335i model is no exception. With its 3.0-liter, twin-turbo, 300-hp powerplant, and 8-speed Steptronic automatic  transmission, this car can flat-out fly, and the handling is so superb that it can corner tightly at higher speeds with complete driver control. For economical operation, the car is equipped with an EcoPro setting that changes the gear shifting and somewhat dampens the accelerator so you can eke out higher mileage (the car is rated at 20 mpg city/30 mpg highway with a combined rating of 24 mpg.) But then, you didn’t get a BMW to drive like a Prius or a Subaru.

On the mileage-saving front, this car has a strange feature called the Start/Stop system, and if no one warns you that it’s in there – and no one said anything to me – the first impression is that something is wrong with the car.

Here’s how it works: You start the car (push-button) and begin your journey, and then you come to a stop sign or a traffic signal where you must stop for a period of time. If that stop is longer than a few seconds, the car just shuts off. When you take your foot off the brake and begin to go, the engine comes back on and you’re good to go (It also does this in start-stop, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway).

The BMW Start/Stop feature is very noticeable: the car literally shudders when it goes off and starts up again. It can be disabled, but it has to be done for every trip. I don’t know how much gasoline this saves, but it can’t be enough to justify all the extra technology.

Speaking of German technology, this 335i is, of course, stuffed with it, some of it cool, some of it not. Personally, I hate the heads-up display some cars have that show the speed digitally straight ahead in the windshield, so I generally turn it off or tilt it so I can’t see it. With this car, I read the manual, and so did my family members, and in spite of the directions to turn it off, we couldn’t do it. As I have said before, quite often in BMW you have to stop at the University of Denver and enroll in the engineering department to figure out some of the technology, and for some of it you have to go on to get a Master’s degree.

A good example of that is the iDrive feature, a sort of mouse-controlled clicker system that controls many of the technological features. It used to be a nightmare, but with a few improvements, it’s become just a troubling dream. For instance, it can take several moves – several distracting moves, I might add – to change the radio station or the band or to reach the built-in apps, or play music from your iPhone or whatever. BMW may be The Ultimate Driving Machine, but it is also the Ultimate Distracted Driving Machine. The 6.5” full-color flat screen display – which annoyingly cannot be hidden by folding into the dash – is bright and matches our HD world, but it, too, is distracting.  

This latest version of the 3 Series is a little bit longer and has a slightly larger wheelbase than the last generation, which means a slightly roomier vehicle, especially in the rear seating. The trunk is adequate. It is a beautiful car, both inside and out, especially the interior fit and finish.

The base price on this top-of-the-line 3 series sedan is $45,150 and it comes with a ton of standards, including the xDrive all-wheel-drive system that, with the right tires, is a great safety feature (without it, BMWs are rear-wheel drive and not great in the snow).

On my test-drive model, they added $11,000 for five packages that included, among other things, navigation, heads-up display, smartphone integration, heated leather steering wheel, 18″ alloy wheels, anthracite wood trim, heated seats, retractable headlight washers, rear-view camera, keyless entry, satellite radio and special paint. With the $895 destination charge, the bottom line is $56,145. The free scheduled maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles – including such services as engine oil, drive belts, wiper blade inserts, brakes pads and discs – is a nice touch.

Nothing – absolutely nothing – in the competitive class drives as well as a BMW 3, but I think there are better luxury-car values out there, with more intuitive technology. Over time, this car would frustrate me: It’s a love/hate relationship waiting to happen.