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Motoramic Drives: 2012 BMW 3-Series

December 20, 2011

From the second story window of a lounge at the Barcelona Airport, I could see the red BMW 3 Series sedans parked in a line, like delicious fresh cherries waiting to be picked from the tree. Soon, I'd be behind the wheel of one of them, exploring the roads of Catalonia, an automotive playground where I speak at least one of the languages. The sky was clear, the temperature 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This, I thought, is the most glorious day of my life.

"It's exciting," I said.

A couple of veteran car reporters stood nearby. They shrugged. A luxury junket to Spain was part of their job description. They'd become inured to and skeptical of the white glove.

"Well," I said, "I'm excited."

My freshman naivete softened them.

"It's always exciting to drive a new car," one of them said.

The 3 Series is BMW's most popular model, with prices starting in the mid-30s. It represents the core of the company's business. One BMW representative described it to me this way: "When you get your first corporate job, you buy a 3 Series. When you go into upper management, you graduate to a 5 Series. The boss drives a 7 Series."

The 328i's four-cylinder, two-liter, bi-turbo engine packs the same horsepower, more or less, as the much tonier M5 from the mid-90s. There's much less difference among the various-priced models now.

After 15 minutes that felt like 15 hours, we got our keys. My co-driver for the day was Satch Carlson, editor of Roundel magazine for the past decade. He also runs courses for a BMW owners' club. I couldn't ask for a better sensei. All day, while I drove, Satch gave me the basics of car handling. Brake on the straightaway heading into the curves. Accelerate in the turns. Speed is your enemy, except when it's not. I did OK, and he was very encouraging. "You won't find a more pedantic driving instructor than me," he said.

We got a 328i "Sport" model. It looked solid and professional, but also low-cut, attractive, and inviting, with clean lines, a flat nose, and a wide kidney grill. The only other trims available were "Modern," which look great but run on diesel; the Greek journalists drove those. We settled into our black leather seats, which were accented with red stitching. I admired the car's snug, nifty interior, its sleek dashboard, its brushed-aluminum door handles. It was like sitting in a little rocketship. As it turns out, it was like driving one, too.

Satch drove first. Our 328i zipped along like it wanted to go somewhere. The acceleration, Satch said, was "very surprising for the size of the engine." It duplicates the power of the previous inline six-cylinder but has enough torque to make up for the smaller size. "They've really done their homework on this car," he said. "We can't play with the limits of what it can do without getting arrested."

He and I drove leisurely for a while, and then got stuck behind some construction equipment getting dragged up a mountain. Satch, frustrated, knocked the car into standard automatic. Suddenly we weren't in a sports car anymore. We were driving a nice little family sedan that takes corners softly. The car served both functions well. It was time for me to get behind the wheel.

I put the car into sport mode. When the traffic got heavy, I slid it into automatic. The transmission shifted like butter sliding across a plate. It accelerated smoothly and braked even more smoothly. The car felt more competent the faster it went, a sleek little machine made to respond to my every need, like a robot butler. Onto the windshield was projected a "heads-up" display of my speed, the speed limit, and whether or not it was currently acceptable for me to pass, further augmenting the feeling that I was piloting my own spacecraft. Buzzers vibrated the steering wheel if I accidentally veered out of my lane, even an inch. I felt a tingle in my belly, like a preteen falling in love at summer camp.

After a short coffee stop at a luxury hotel, we got back into the car. One of the vast army of young BMW minders, who seemed to be everywhere, came up to us. We had two options, he said: Drive a straight shot on the highway back to our hotel, or take a winding road around Montserrat Mountain.

"Oh, we'll do the mountain," I said.

Satch looked surprised. I'd had to pause during my morning driving leg to suck wind because I'd almost gotten sick, which seems to happen to me on these driving trips. The combination of jet lag, rich food, a weak stomach, and driving luxury cars very fast on winding roads doesn't always agree. But it was a beautiful day. We had access to someone else's car. The mountain looked so inviting in the distance. Who knew when I'd pass this way again? Life couldn't be better. I asked Satch to drive.

Montserrat means "serrated mountain." It's a geological phenomenon unique to Catalonia, with rocks rivaled only by those in Sedona. At the top, I felt a little queasy. Then Satch stealthily headed down. I leaned back in my seat and moaned. After 20 agonizing minutes, during which we passed a monastery and a national border, we neared the bottom. I made Satch stop. I got out of the car, bent over, and vomited Tomatoes Provencal all over the base of Montserrat.

Satch looked at me, kindly withholding his scorn. He was an ace driver, and I'd held him back. "It was such a beautiful road," he said later, "and I was driving it like I was carrying a load of nitroglycerine." I apologized while I drank water and tried to figure out how to remove the funny smell from my beard. Satch advised me to get some ginger chews for next time and then told me a story about how once he foolishly ate a bowl of clam chowder before acting as a wingman during a perilous race.

Meanwhile, the 328i moved across Catalonia, without much effort.

"It's quite agile," Satch said.

If I had $35 thousand to spend, I wondered, would I want to buy this? BMWs, when I was growing up, had been the cars the rich kids got for their 16th birthdays. My whole life, if I'd considered Bimmers at all, I thought about them as the vehicle for entitled yuppie jerks. But now that I'd engaged the 3 Series in a sincere driving conversation, I looked at the brand in a completely different way. This was a damn fine car. I found myself feeling surprisingly covetous. In my notebook, I wrote,

"Me wantee."

Tomorrow, I had to drive it around a racetrack.

Later that night, BMW held a press conference at a castle 30 minutes outside of Barcelona city center. I stepped into a foyer where beautiful young Spaniards passed champagne and trays of squid-ink croquettes and Iberico ham. A raft of international journalists stood around in their sports coats, not being ethically compromised in the slightest. As one of them said to me earlier, "They could fly me to Dallas, put me up in a Motel 6, feed me at a Denny's, and I'd still write the same review." I wondered if that were actually true.

At the press conference, they gave us numbers. BMW has sold 12.5 million copies of the 3 Series since 1975. It represents 32.6 percent of the brand. This version is 93 millimeters longer than the last, with 8 mm more headroom and 15 mm more legroom, 15 percent more range and 9 percent more torque. It has an eight-speed automatic gearbox that can be operated in four different modes.

The car's designer appeared on stage and gave an interesting talk about the sport package that I'd been driving. He'd created the car to make it seem "powerful, energetic, and athletic," basing it on the look of golf clubs, fishing rods, and designer basketball shoes. "It's not a package," he said. "It's a design world."

At the end of the press conference, BMW introduced His Royal Highness Prince Leopold of Bavaria, the company's royal ambassador and a former champion racecar driver. Prince Leopold would be on hand at the track the next day, BMW said, and "you may join him in his car."

Afterward, Satch went up to Prince Leopold.

"Your Highness," he said.

"Hello!" said Prince Leopold. "I remember you."

"The last time Prince Leopold and I saw each other was in Alaska in 1972," Satch told me. "He was there for the ice racing."

"You must tell him that I was the champion," said the prince.

"Yes, but it was in a Porsche, so it didn't count," said Satch.

In the morning, Satch and I enjoyed a delightful commute to the Circuit de Catalonia, a now-retired Formula One track that hosted races at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. "You shared asphalt with the great," Satch told me later. We were scheduled for five laps each around the track in our 328i Sport, plus two test laps behind a pace car. "Do not break the track record," the guy told us in our safety briefing. "Experience the BMW 3 Series feeling!"

On the pace laps, it handled everything. I found myself stunned at the smoothness of steering, the ease of braking, and the suddenness of acceleration. It was hard to imagine a more versatile car. When the pace car left me, though, it didn't go quite as well.

A tough turn toward the end of the course trumped my limited skills. I couldn't figure out how to get inside it. I tried braking early and late, accelerating lightly and heavily, but every time, the turn pulled me into the green spinout area. Satch had given me detailed notes about understeering and oversteering and contact patches and turning at the apex and grip circles, and many other instructional details of high-end driving for which many people pay thousands of dollars. He'd illustrated them with two-color pen on our hotel stationery. Unfortunately, I didn't look at them until after I was done driving.

Maybe, I thought, Prince Leopold could show me how it was done.

I'd been eating lightly all day in anticipation of my turn in his Royal Highness' passenger seat. It's not polite to vomit in the presence of royalty. Naturally, Leopold was driving the "luxury" model. He'd been doing laps in it all morning. I got in.

"Ah," he said. "An American!"

"I'm from Texas," I said.

"Yes!" he said. "I love Texas! I was there once hunting the white-tailed deer. They said I had to buy the cowboy boots. So I did. They fit perfectly but gave me blisters."

"They'll do that," I said.

By then, we were accelerating onto the track, very fast. The 328i's potential was finally being realized. Prince Leopold didn't skimp through the turns.

"You feel the seatbelt gripping?" he said.

"Oh, yes," I said.

We came to the turn that had vexed me so. Leopold braked hard, hugged the outside, and whipped the Bimmer toward the inside of the track. Perfectly executed.

"Ah, so that's how you do it," I said.

"Go too fast," he said, "and you'll end up in the sand."

Prince Leopold then darted his car forward, skirted it along the ridged edge of the track, and plowed it into a safety cone.

"Whoops," he said.

"No big deal, Your Highness," I said.

"I knew I would do that," he said. "It's the brakes. They're shot after today."

As we pulled into the pit area, Leopold laughed and made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

"But now," said the Prince Of Bavaria, "it is out of my way."

Editorial Disclosure: For this review, BMW provided transportation, hotel accommodations, and meals, one of which was strewn across the Spanish countryside.