Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 BMW 428i xDrive Sport Line

Let me start by saying that snow sucks.

The only thing worse than snow is ice. Of course, here in the Boston area, we have gotten an ungodly amount of snow this winter. The car-sized piles of white stuff, now frozen into little ice mountains, lined both sides of the road when I set out to get a test of the new BMW 428i. Since the sun was bright in the sky, but the air temperatures were low, the ground had plenty of black ice and so a RWD version was out of the question. However, an xDrive version was readily available and so I happily took the keys while the car was dug out and defrosted.

The 4-series is a brand new model to the US this year and replaces the coupe that used to populate the 3-series line-up. If you set one next to the current 3-series, it basically looks exactly what you would expect a 3-series coupe to look like. The engine and automatic transmission choice are exactly the same as the 3-series and even the interior looks identical, except with with less rear seat head and leg room. It is a reasonably attractive

Foot on the brake, tap the start button, and the 2.0L turbocharged inline-4 stirs to life. The engine quickly settles into a smooth idle while the interior electronics warm up. Over my left shoulder, a small mechanical arm extends and moves the seat belt into easy reach - a nice, if tad unnecessary touch. The seats are comfortable enough and immensely adjustable, but the leather is stiff at first and I honestly would be hard-pressed to distinguish between the real leather and BMW's leatherette. I am not sure if that means that the real leather is that bad or if the fake stuff has just gotten that good. Otherwise, the materials are of reasonably good quality and every action is very well damped, which is to be expected given the rather sizable price tag for this particular test car.

Before setting off, I take the chance to fiddle around a bit with the iDrive controller in the center console between the seats and check out the various features and options. As I have stated in other recent BMW tests, this latest generation of the iDrive controller is leaps and bounds better than the original version that came out several generations ago, although the menu structure goes far deeper than I would like and some features are still more difficult to access than they should be. The high-resolution ultra-wide screen is crisp and easy to read in even the brightest sunlight.

Out on the road this newest addition to the BMW line-up exhibits the characteristics I have come to expect of the latest generation of BMWs - not that great. There are definitely things to like about it, such as the gem of an engine. The turbocharged 4-cylinder is smooth and torquey, even when mated to the automatic transmission that could still use a little sorting. The motor's excellent characteristics are reinforced by great throttle response and a lack of turbo lag is very endearing, but the transmission seems at times unable to keep up with the needs of the driver, even in Sport mode. Plus, as is common with many automatics, it tries to shift up too early in order to eke out every last bit of fuel economy, sapping some of the fun out of the drive.

Also sapping the fun is the steering, which is leaden when on center. It does weight up nicely once you start turning it, but the lack of feel is still disconcerting, especially considering just how good BMW's steering used to be. Luckily, it is still quite accurate and allows one to easily dodge the many potholes that have formed as a result of the snow and ice on New England's roads. Unfortunately, the cold weather has taken its toll on more than just the roads, as the non-electronically adjustable suspension in this particular car suffers from the same malady that nearly every other car gets in the Arctic chill that has been representative of our weather this winter. That is to say that the shocks need some time to get warmed up to operating temperature, so the early part of the drive resulted in an extraordinarily stiff ride. Things smoothed out a bit as I put more miles on the car, but if my teeth rattled any more during the first 10 or so minutes, they might have jumped right out of my mouth.

Handling is typical BMW, with a touch of understeer on corner entry followed by a neutral balance as the car settles onto its suspension. The surprisingly skinny feeling tires and low road surface temperatures meant that the car had the tendency to want to step out if pushed, but the AWD system and stability control kept everything reigned in and under control. Pushing too hard given the current conditions would probably lead to a very expensive incident, so I dialed it back down to a safe cruise and just enjoyed the ride.

After spending some time enjoying some back roads, it was time to return the car. Before handing the keys back, I took the opportunity to clamber into the back seat, which is surprisingly comfortable for a two-door, although definitely on the cozy side and a challenge to get into and out of. Shutting the door, I noticed something that has begun to bother me about recent BMWs. In the past, the satisfying thump that came from shutting the door on a German luxury sedan was one of the points of pride of owning a BMW or Mercedes. However, the rather hollow whump! that greeted me left me feeling that the era of vault-like construction at BMW might be a thing of the past.

Worst of all, this is no longer the same kind of BMW that I grew up lusting after. BMWs from the late 90's and early 00's were some of the best driver's cars around, with ultra precise and communicative steering, excellent chassis balance, and real manual transmission with a clutch pedal. This latest effort, despite its great chassis dynamics, suffers from a loss of steering feel and will not offer any manual transmission options whatsoever. Some of that might be acceptable if the trade-off was unparalleled luxury, but such is not the case either. The interior design is best described as austere and the material quality varies greatly. Equipment level goes from downright bare-bones to ludicrously expensive. Our test car carried a nearly $50k price tag, after all. I guess if you are willing to spend the money, you could option out a fantastic car.

For me, there are simply better choices out there for the same kind of money.

Tags: 4-series, automotive, BMW, review, test drive