Sometimes I feel sorry for the manufacturers of luxury cars. Their job used to be much easier, because the autos available to us ordinary folk once were such rattle traps that differentiating high class, high quality models that stood above the rabble was easy.
Today the quality, content, and plain old desirability of ordinary cars is much higher. In fact, the luxury levels available in middle-class cars today seems astounding. So it’s harder to make legitimate luxury autos stand out enough to justify the higher prices that premium rands command.
Instead, the high-flying makes lather on slick technology. It’s not frivolous stuff. A lot of the gear – like all-around obstacle detection and distance sensors, radar-guided cruise control, head-up information display, blind-spot monitor, and traffic and weather updates – really makes motor travel easier, safer, more comfortable, effective and efficient.
But every high-tech gizmo costs money. Some cost a lot of money. That’s exactly why luxury car companies love electronic driving aids so much. People buy luxury models to buff their image and self-esteem as they trundle around town in vehicles most other people can’t afford. While they sell their drivers that privilege, luxury manufacturers still have to give their customers more physical stuff to justify their cars’ higher prices. Highly capable electronic gear fills that need very well.
I love the stuff for how well it works – most of the time.
My most recent exposure to luxury-car gadgetry was in the BMW 3 Series sedan I test-drove last week. The 3 Series consists of three primary models, each distinguished by its engine. New this year is the 320i, with a 180-horsepower, twin-turbocharged four-cylinder engine, starting at $33,445. It joins the 328i and the 335i. Starting at $37,745, the 328i uses a more energetic, 240-horsepower version of the four-cylinder engine. The 335i features an inline six-cylinder that delivers 300 horsepower, for an opening list price of $44,045. All models are rear-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available for an additional $2,000.
Based in Germany, BMW also sells diesel-powered and hybrid-drive versions of its 3 Series sedan in the United States. On top of those, a 3 Series two-door coupe starts at $39,595, and a two-door convertible opens at $48,495.
The sedan version of the 3 Series is by far the most popular body style. The 3 Series itself is the most popular BMW sold in the U.S. by a large margin. Its pricing in the $30,000s makes it accessible to more people – easier to pay for than, say, the BMW 5 Series sedan that starts near $49,000, or the ultra-deluxe 7 Series at more than $74,000.
But even at a reachable price, the 3 Series sedan is a luxury car to the core. The model I drove last week included an optional $1,900 driver assistance package that added rear-, side- and top-view cameras, parking distance control and blind-spot monitoring. A $3,100 technology package added navigation that incorporated road and travel updates, and a head-up display, which is jet fighter technology that projects important vehicle information like speed onto the windshield so you don’t have to take your eyes from the road to find it. With a few other options thrown in, the final price of the model I evaluated was $51,095.
A lot of the stuff was wonderful. BMW’s iDrive system of cabin controls through a color screen and a hand-operated knob enabled me to dial an address into the navigation system with ease uncharacteristic of many nav setups. While guiding me, the system shot turn directions and other route data through the head-up display onto the windshield. That helped a lot. I’ve used navigation systems of every variety in every type of car. BMW’s version struck me as the most accommodating.
The 6 1/2-inch display screen stands tall on top of the 3 Series dashboard in a position that breaks the graceful surface of the dash. Usually screens are integrated into the center stack of cabin controls well below the top of the dash, and at first I thought BMW’s position was aesthetically awkward. But while driving I found the screen perfectly placed for me to find information or operate controls while maintaining a safe, up-and-ahead view of the road.
But there were instances when the added technology overreached. The 3 Series incorporates BMW’s “Automatic Stop/Start” feature, which shuts down the engine when you stop, like at a traffic light, then restarts it automatically the instant you release brake pressure. It’s a technique borrowed from hybrid-drive cars, which use it to save gas. But hybrid cars usually have lower-powered engines that shut down and start up smoothly. The well-powered motor in my 328i caused the car to shudder whenever it stopped and restarted. The effect was very noticeable and eventually quite annoying.
There’s a good chance that BMW will refine the approach and eventually get it right. The company is very good that way. In fact, the iDrive cabin-control system I just praised was once roundly mocked as too tough to operate. BMW stuck with the idea, simplifying and refining it until iDrive became a model all-in-one control system.
Of course, BMW has a strong incentive to stick with unique and clever add-on systems that make its vehicles stand out. Commonplace, ordinary consumer cars continue to advance as well. Luxury manufacturers, BMW included, need to stay ahead of them.
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
2013 BMW 3 Series Sedan :Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, rear- and all-wheel-drive, compact sedan sedan Price range: $33,445 to $46,045 (plus options) Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles basic warranty; 12 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 4 years/unlimited miles roadside assistance; 4 years/50,000 miles free maintenance program Base engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 Power: 180 horsepower at 5,000 rpm; 200 lb.-ft. torque at 1,200 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic Fuel economy: 23 mpg city; 36 mpg highway Wheelbase: 111 inches Length: 183 inches Width: 71 inches Height: 56 inches Weight: 3,295 pounds Fuel capacity: 15.8 gallons Turning circle: 37.1 feet