What was tested? 2008 BMW 335xi Coupe ($43,000).
Options: Paint upgrade ($550), premium package ($2,650), sport package ($500), steering wheel paddle shifters ($100), automatic transmission ($1,325), comfort access system ($500), heated front seats ($500), navigation system ($2,100).
Price as tested (including $825 destination charge): $52,050.
If you're on a quest to buy the best sports sedan in the world, chances are you're going to end up with the BMW M3.
While it has some serious competition for the crown from Audi and Mercedes, the mighty M3 is still the ruler by which all other sports sedans are measured. But it's not the only amazing car BMW sells. If the M3 is a full 12 inches, then the 335i is 11 and three-quarters.
This not-quite-M3 isn't at the top of the 3-Series heap, but it's such a stunning performer that it doesn't matter.
Let me put it this way: The M3 is Stravinsky -- raw, primal and thoroughly modern. The 335i is Mozart -- still powerful, but in a smoother, perhaps more sophisticated way. Does that mean Stravinsky is better than Mozart? Of course not. They're both geniuses, and which one you prefer depends on whether you like smooth and sophisticated or raw and primal.
Personally, I'm glad they both exist.
The 335i's driving dynamics are nothing short of spectacular, as you'd expect from BMW. It has a twin-turbo, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine that makes 300 horsepower. While it's relatively quiet in normal driving, when you mash the fun pedal it crescendos to a smooth, buttery, operatic scream.
You can hear a faint whoosh as the turbos kick in, which is your signal to hang on for dear life because accelerating in this car is more of a thrill than anything at Six Flags.
Surprisingly, this car gets 25 mpg on the highway. That's excellent for an engine that makes this much horsepower.
Other than the engine, the 3-Series drives like any other BMW, which is another way of saying it's the best in the world. The steering is impeccable, the suspension perfectly taut.
But this isn't a perfect car. There are three things I don't like about it.
One, it comes with BMW's iDrive system, which controls most of the car's functions from a single knob on the center console. It's not that hard to use once you've spent some time with it, but it's also not nearly as well designed as other control systems, like Audi's very intuitive Multi Media Interface.
Two, it looks like a Honda Civic. I think BMWs should look more Teutonic -- upright and austere -- rather than like a nondescript Japanese sedan. This car doesn't look nearly as exciting as it drives.
And three, it's very expensive. The 335i sedan starts around $40,000, while the all-wheel-drive 335xi coupe I drove starts at $43,000. After adding $9,000 in options, my test car rang up at more than $52,000.
Considering an M3 sedan starts at $53,800, I'd rather have the M.
Another way to look at it: Last week I drove the Pontiac G8 muscle car, which offers similar performance and a lot more space than the 335i. The Pontiac cost about $20,000 less than the BMW, and -- other than the cheap General Motors interior -- I just don't see a $20,000 difference between the two cars.
Still, if you demand the very best, this is it. This is the car world's Mozart.
Pros: It's one of the world's best sports coupes, only slightly less thrilling than the M3. Everything about the way it drives -- acceleration, braking, handling and steering -- is spectacular.
Cons: It's expensive and doesn't look distinctive.