2009 BMW 335d: First Drive
By Chris Haak
There are few practical “driver’s cars” that those of us with Full Metal Autos prefer more than BMW’s 3-series. After all, they’re just the right size, are among the most attractive BMWs, have a magical soundtrack from their inline-six powerplant (or naturally aspirated V8, in the case of the M3), and manage to steer, handle, and brake like no almost two-ton sedan should be capable of doing. But BMW is not the first brand that comes to mind when talking about fuel economy the same way Honda or Toyota might be.
Well, BMW has to improve its fleet’s fuel economy in the US and in much of the rest of the world where it sells its vehicles, and although the company offers a couple of mild hybrid models, its preferred method of improving economy in Europe has been to install diesel engines. And now, the company is fitting a modern, powerful diesel engine in the 3-series sedan and in the X5 crossover in an attempt to solve the fuel economy puzzle while still retaining as much of the BMW experience for drivers as possible.
Having driven an attractive 2009 Montego Blue 335d at a media event partially sponsored by BMW, I can report that although some of the sensations are different in a 335d vs. a 335i, many of them are also the same. For the most part, the buttoned-down ride, handling, steering, and braking are all still there. The power delivery is still sporty, but rather than giving high-RPM heroics, the “d” in the name gives a turbine-like rush shortly off idle. Still sporty, but a different kind of sporty than what one generally observes in a vehicle with the white and blue roundel on the hood.
As you settle into the 335d’s comfortable driver’s seat, the first thing you notice is the thick, meaty steering wheel. In fact, BMWs have some of the fattest steering wheel rims I’ve ever used, and I love everything about the 335d’s steering wheel. The second thing you’ll notice is the 5,000 RPM redline on the tach. A free revver, this one is not. The speedometer registers to 160 miles per hour, and based on videos I’ve seen on YouTube, it is possible to get to those speeds in this car if it’s not constrained by a speed limiter.
That comfortable driver’s seat has aggressive bolstering that can hold my torso in a death grip that adds to my sense of security in the car, but I’m tall and fairly lean. If I were much fatter than I am, I’m not sure that they’d work for me, at least without extensive adjustments. While the 3-series is a small car, its interior packaging appears to be done better and more efficiently than many of its competitors such as the Cadillac CTS and Infiniti G37. The CTS and G37 are larger cars, but the 3’s back seat accommodations appeared to be nearly on par with the other two, and in particular with the Cadillac. Quantitatively, the CTS only tops the 3-series sedan in rear seat legroom by 1.3 inches, while shoulder room is better in the 3’er and headroom is all but equal. (Front seat room is slightly better in the Cadillac vs. the BMW, but the Cadillac’s seats aren’t nearly as supportive or cosseting). The Cadillac does top the BMW in terms of interior materials and design. There wasn’t anything particularly flawed about the 335d’s interior materials, but GM really raised the bar with the 2008 and newer CTS, with things like stitched dashboard surfaces and optional indirect LED lighting.
As noted earlier, acceleration off the line is the 335d’s strong suit. The car doesn’t feel heavy in spite of the extra 220 pounds it’s lugging around compared to the 335i, and that’s likely due to the 425 lb-ft of torque from the diesel six cylinder (plus a not-shabby 265 horsepower). The engine develops its peak torque from just 1,750 RPMs and its horsepower peak occurs at 4,400 RPMs. The trick is to keep the engine’s operation between those two speeds, which involves shifting earlier than you think you should, and not bothering to wind out the engine to its redline. Paddle shifters (which are optional, but were included in my test vehicle) might seem silly in a high-torque application like this one, but rather than using them to hold a gear, they can be used to shift more quickly than the transmission might otherwise be inclined to do on its own.
In reality, though, once putting the car into Drive, there’s little need to ever touch the gearshift. The six-speed automatic has plenty of ratios on tap, and even if it’s not in the perfect ratio, you can just ride a wave of torque to the speed you want to get to. The 335d pulls up hills like an electric car. Talk about flattening hills; as I experienced also in the Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD that I tested in mid-2008, hills are barely noticeable. One difference between the 335d’s engine and the Daimler-sourced unit in the now-discontinued Grand Cherokee CRD is that the BMW’s engine seems to barely lose its steam as revs increase. The Jeep barely had highway passing power, but the BMW continued to pull. No doubt, though, that a gasoline BMW’s high-RPM heroics are not to be found in a diesel.
Off idle, there is a very faint diesel clatter that’s almost imperceptible unless you’re listening for it. When stepping on the throttle with the car in park, the engine growls like a mini Peterbilt, which is somewhat entertaining. This jewel of an engine is literally the quietest diesel I’ve ever heard in my life. It has a bit of an additional growl relative to the higher-pitched mechanical soundtrack in the 335i’s twin turbo I6, but manages to have an aggressive yet completely non-agricultural sound. I’ve known for years that one thing BMW really knows how to do is good engines – and that apparently applies to both gas and diesel ones. The EPA rates the 335d at 23 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway; by comparison, an automatic-equipped 335i is rated at 17 city/26 highway. In fact, the 335d’s mileage numbers kill the larger Lexus GS 450h’s 22/25 rating by a 17 percent combined and 44 percent on the highway cycle.
Unfortunately, I had a slight case of sticker shock when looking at the car’s Monroney label. In a car that lacked navigation (and therefore iDrive) but included leather seats, metallic paint, premium package, sport package, and cold weather package. These are the kinds of things that you’d expect to see in a $50,000 car like heated leather seats, digital compass, 18 inch wheels, sport suspension, shift paddles, and headlight washers. For $51,000, I’d expect a car to include navigation, but with the way iDrive is such a controversial human/machine interface, that may not be a bad thing. Without iDrive, however (and the new iDrive is far easier to use than earlier versions), the radio display is completely unreadable when wearing polarized sunglasses.
The diesel model carries a $3,600 base price premium over the 335i, but part of that premium is offset by the standard automatic (optional in the 335i). According to TrueDelta, when accounting for equipment differences, the diesel’s premium is only $1,375. If you’re able to spend $51,000 on a new car, you probably aren’t worried enough about fuel economy to go with the 335d over the 335i. With such a small price premium, I suppose that the real decision is not necessarily an economic one (though with 35% better combined fuel economy, it’s definitely more economical to drive), but perhaps more of a matter of the driver’s preference. A driver who prefers off-the-line punch and mountains of torque might want to go with the 335d, while a driver who prefers a sublime soundtrack and continually increasing power output as the engine revs might choose the 335i.
Overall, the 335d is a nice package. It’s almost too much engine for such a small car (the fact that the same engine is also installed in the much heavier X5 xDrive35d kind of proves that), yet it’s a really fun application for a torquey diesel. It’s unusual that I’d complain about an engine being too powerful – and it’s not – but this engine’s capabilities make me wonder whether BMW would be well-served by offering a smaller, less powerful, more efficient diesel option in the 3-series in the US alongside the 335d. Perhaps the 335d’s take rate will determine whether BMW finds it worth its while to certify an additional powertrain for the 3’er. If that is the case, we may not see other small car diesels from BMW in the short term. Long-term, BMW’s diesels are doing a better job than their hybrids at improving mileage, so they probably fit into the company’s CAFE compliance plans going forward. (The X6 ActiveHybrid is rated at 17 city/19 highway, while the X5 xDrive35d is rated at 19 city/26 highway).
My advice is to take a 335d for a spin if you’re in this market and can find one in dealer stock. Its torque output – more than a Dodge Challenger SRT8’s – is something you won’t find elsewhere in this class, and may be just your cup of tea. And if not, the car’s twin turbo gasoline-fueled counterpart is no torque slouch itself.
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