km : First Drive

2011 335is Coupe - BMW Builds One For the Enthusiasts

The first e-mail read something like, “Please join us in Portugal to drive the all-new 2011 BMW 5 Series.” Never a bad offer, especially considering it meant I’d get to escape the biting Chicago winter for a few (albeit jet-lagged) days. Naturally, I accepted. A couple weeks later, an update arrived in my inbox. “Oh, by the way, while you’re in Portugal, you’ll be among the very first to drive the all-new 335is coupe at the Estoril Circuit. Details to follow later.” OK, now they really had my attention.

Since its introduction in late 2006, the 335i coupe has been a performance junkie’s blessing. Straight out of the box the car cranked out 300 horsepower from its twin-turbo six, and laid down a mighty 300 lb-ft of torque from as early as 1400 rpm. On paper. Many owners who had their own cars on a dyno suspect the ever-modest Germans may have actually underrated the engine by maybe fifteen horsepower or so. Not that they would admit to it, of course. Nevertheless, a stock 335i could run to 60 mph in right around five seconds, putting it head-to-head with a previous-generation M3; a mildly modded 335i with the right performance ECU upgrade, intake system and exhaust could easily dust a stock M3.

As great as a 335i can be, it still lacks the visual and emotional flair that comes with the much pricier, more muscular M3. That’s where the 335is comes in; it fills the narrow gap between the standard turbo coupe and its more exclusive V8 sibling. It is the latest in a series of special performance-oriented 3-series coupes from BMW that started with the 320is in the early 1980s and last included the 330i Performance Package five years ago. As the former owner of a 1991 318is, I know from experience how sought-after – and what a performance bargain – these cars can be to enthusiasts.
Right. So it was off to Portugal. Very few details were handed out before the drive. I’d heard the whispers that it would get the uprated N54 twin-turbo engine from the upcoming Z4 sDrive35is, and that a seven-speed sequential dual-clutch transmission would be offered. Special bodywork was assumed, and I had hopes that the interior would be sexed up as well. And it seemed only natural to assume a unique set of wheels would be fitted. A quick briefing before the ride to the track confirmed most of these assumptions.

Power comes from a 320-horsepower version of the N54. Though the power gain seems small, the torque figures are more impressive. Nominal peak torque is 332 lb-ft, but the engine software includes an overboost function that allows for up to seven seconds of extra manifold pressure for a temporary peak of up to 369 lb-ft. While the engine’s internals remain untouched, the cooling system gets a major upgrade (300% more radiant surface than a regular 335i and a large-capacity cooling fan) and a supplemental oil cooler mounted forward of the right front wheel for maximum cooling. Because of the added cooling demands, the 335is coupe does without foglights; it’s assumed that a fair percentage of owners will actually take their cars to the track occasionally, and they’ll need all the airflow they can get.

At the other end of the car, the 335is get a bespoke exhaust system with a pair of black tips peaking through the rear valence. BMW insists the setup is unique to the is, though it appears to be a piece from their performance catalog. Either way, it delivers a hearty burble at idle that may be reason enough for some buyers to make the leap, and under acceleration generates a sporty (but not obnoxious) rasp.
Purists will likely want the six-speed manual transmission that comes standard, but new seven-speed DCT gearbox will actually get you up to speed more quickly. There’s simply no beating a pre-selected gear and computer-controlled clutch for shifting speed and accuracy. I was able to pull an honest 0-to-60 time of 5.0 seconds on the cool, damp surface of Estoril’s front straight (measured with a vBox performance meter), and that was without the gearbox’s launch control program (which was deactivated in our pre-production cars). On top of being faster, the DCT engages quite smoothly; even lugging around at low speeds it never exhibited the jerkiness that other cars with dual-clutch transmissions often do.

Manually shifting the DCT is as simple as nudging the short gear lever, or pulling back on one of the new-style shift paddles on the steering wheel. There is now a dedicated upshift paddle on the right and downshift paddle on the left for a more authentic paddle-shifting experience. The DCT does have a mind of its own, however; it often ignored my immediate requests for high-speed downshifts, not so much to prevent overrevving as to wait for the most ideal shift point for performance. Unlike the M-DCT found in the M3, this version will also eventually upshift for you if you’re tickling redline for too long, as I discovered while trying to hold second gear between a couple of close corners.

The DCT provides a fair degree of aural entertainment, peeling off a rolling growl as it upshifts quickly; downshifts in manual or sport mode are also rewarded with the soundtrack of perfect rev matching. Try as you might, these noises just can’t be replicated manually. If you do still prefer the satisfaction of self-shifting however, the experience will be made even more satisfying thanks to a factory-installed short-shift kit.
The 335is is distinguished from the standard 335i by way of special bodywork. Specifically, it gets a special front bumper with larger airducts to feed the upgraded cooling system. Blacked-out grilles (the first time BMW has ever offered them from the factory) help to set the car apart, and they’re paired with blacked-out exterior mirror covers for a unified look. At the rear, a body-colored rear bumper features an integrated rear diffuser that’s actually functional, aiding in high-speed downforce. Curiously, there is no spoiler on the trunklid.

Wheels for the 335is are 18-inch M-Sports in a split-five-spoke design, finished in ferrous grey paint for a darker look. Behind those is the 335i’s stock brake package – 13.7-inch front discs squeezed by four-piston calipers with 13.2-inch rotors and single-pot calipers in back. Suspension for the coupe is the same M-Sport setup found on every 335i coupe.

Inside, the 335is sports a thick M-Sport steering wheel and stainless steel pedals. BMW’s glacier aluminum trim decorates the cockpit, but it too is finished in a darker shade. A “335is” dash plaque sits just above the dashboard, and dark grey instrument faces also wear the special designation. An anthracite colored headliner gives the cockpit a more somber atmosphere, but otherwise the interior resembles a standard 335i with sport seats. Leatherette is standard and Dakota leather is optional. Personally, I was hoping for cloth inserts with leather bolsters as the standard setup, given the car’s track-day aspirations.

And yes, BMW expects that 335is buyers will be the ones already doing track days and other performance driving events. In fact, the popularity of these events Stateside is one of the reasons North America is the only market getting the “is” variant. There’s even discussion that BMW North America will offer a sunroof-delete option by the time the car is available to order.

The 335is coupe will start at $50,525 when it arrives this spring. At that price, it sits neatly between the $46,775 335i with an optional M-Sport package and the $60,575 M3 (2010 prices). A convertible version will also be offered at $59,075. Colors will be limited to red, white, blue, black, silver and grey. And I’m just guessing here, but chances are the 335is will be “the” 3-series coupe to pick up on the second-hand market.

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