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car review

BMW 328i

BMW's sixth-generation 328i sports sedan, an up-to-the-micro-second amalgam of design and engineering, and likely a very good read on the changing market it will serve, could never be described as disappointing. Could it?

Walking up to the bright-red test car in the parking lot I experienced a very real sense of anticipation, generated by similar first encounters with the previous five 3-Series generations. But, after spending some time behind the wheel, I couldn't help feeling a little of the magic was missing from one of my all-time favourite automobiles.

After due consideration I decided, maybe not missing exactly, perhaps muted would be a better way to describe the effect of the veneers of sophistication, and the new technologies that have nothing to do with actual driving, that have inserted themselves between the 328i and the occupant of the left front seat.

Earlier 3-Series generations always took the state of the sports sedan art to a distinct new level in driving terms. And as an auto journo you'd say, "Wow, this thing's better than anything else out there." But with this one, while the overall level of competence has obviously been enhanced, more emphasis was placed on advancing the more modern-world marketable arts of economy, comfort, convenience and connectivity.

BMW didn't stray far from the 3-Series recipe for success, giving this new generation a familiar but more interesting look that's stretched by 92 mm and offering a little more room inside a structure that's also lighter, stiffer, stronger and safer.

The test 328i was a manual six-speed Sport (the first level of a trio that includes Luxury and Modern editions) priced at $43,600. A $51,200, 300-hp turbo-six-powered 335i is also available and was recently joined by a $35,900 320i with 181-hp version of the turbo four.

Standard features have been increased and include sunroof, iDrive control, Bluetooth and USB/iPod adapters and other electronic stuff. The tester was also equipped with options that upped the luxury level and the price; among them nav, park distance control, rear camera, Harman Kardon audio and auto-opening trunk (just waggle your foot under the bumper), metallic paint. And, as a nod to performance – although you'd think the Sport edition wouldn't need it – a $400 sport-tuned suspension. Final tally, including destination charges: $52,645.

The cabin in the test car is modern Teutonic automotive taste at its best. Simple but stylish – with flare added by a band of body colour material stretching across the dash that contrasts with high-sheen piano-black trim – and fitted with red-stitched Dakota leather seats bolstered to firmly grip your torso and a thick-rimmed wheel. The only jarring note is the nav screen perched on the dash like an afterthought. There's comfortable room in the rear for two, and a 40/20/40 split seatback extends the 480 litres of trunk space under the deck lid.

One major new feature that might have threatened disappointment was the switch back to a four-cylinder engine, but as with BMW fours from back in the day this one too suits the car perfectly. And if it doesn't have quite the cachet of BMW's silky sixes it does at least come with a device that links it to a heroic era of the company's competition past, a turbocharger. BMW built and supplied F1 teams with a four-cylinder turbocharged 1.5-litre four in the 1980s that produced 1,300 hp.

This one only makes 241 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the latter available from not much above idle, but that's more than enough potency to propel this 1,545-kg sedan to 100 km/h in 6.1 seconds, just four-tenths slower than the 300-hp, 3.0-litre turbo-six in the more expensive 335i. And the broad torque spread makes abundant grunt, accompanied by a muted but aggressive growl, available in any of the six gears you select with the accurate, low-effort, short-throw gear lever (an eight-speed automatic is available).

The main reason BMW has found its way back to fours for the North American market is the need for improved fuel economy and this engine provides that too, thanks in part to a stop/start system that kills the engine at traffic light stops. And the Eco Pro system that manages the engine and other systems and prompts good driving, rewarding it with a readout that shows how much you've extended your range.

Fuel economy ratings of 8.4 litres/100 km city and 6.7 highway and better than the 2011 2.5-litre six powered 323i's 11.1 city/6.9 highway. The readout was showing an average of 9.4 litres/100 km after a week, with a highway cruise number of 7.4 litres/100 km.

The new 3-Series has a longer wheelbase and wider track but the suspension remains mechanically much the same, although tuned to deliver an improved level of comfort, and the electric assist power steering isn't as heavy-feeling in your hands – although it still feels nicely connected as 3-Series steering always has.

So, disappointing?

The new 3-Series is a superlative automobile, of course, but doesn't stand out quite as distinctively as it once did. Can it still lay claim to best-in-class status? Well, I'm not sure how much of an argument could be mustered to gainsay that notion. But other makes have definitely closed the gap.

As an overall package tuned for the times it will still undoubtedly delight those who own one. But from a purist's perspective – one with very little interest in most of the latest electronic gadgetry – and in the sense my anticipation wasn't quite as strongly rewarded, perhaps it is, just a little, disappointing.

Having said that, it still heads my list of compact sports sedans.

Tech Specs: 2012 BMW 328i Sport

Type: Sports sedan

Base Price: $43,600; as tested, $52,645

Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 241 hp/258 lb-ft

Drive: Rear-wheel

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.4 city/6.7 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Audi A4, Acura TL, Cadillac CTS, Lexus IS350, Hyundai Genesis, Mercedes-Benz C250, Infiniti G