BMW (BMW) is working on the little engine that could.
Or more accurately, it’s working on a bunch of them, pushing to create an efficient fleet of cars that are still a blast to drive. I recently tested three BMW vehicles, each representing a different prong of the Munich-based company’s green efforts.
First, I got a chance to drive a test car with an odd and surprising three-cylinder engine. This efficient engine will eventually be put into the company’s future hybrid sports car, the i8.
Next came a diesel-powered version of the 3 Series, the company’s perennially-heralded sedan.
Lastly, I spent a week in the X1, the company’s smallest-ever SUV, offered with a four-cylinder engine.
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BMW, which has long touted itself as the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” a few years ago came out with the tag line “Efficient Dynamics. Less Emissions. More Driving Pleasure.” At the time I thought it was just green speak.
However unlike some competitors, the company has rolled out a steady stream of models with alternative powertrains. These days you can buy a 5 Series with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine; an X5 SUV powered by diesel and a hybrid 7 Series executive sedan. The company has also performed limited consumer testing with all-electric 1 Series coupes. (Testers were dubbed “electronauts.”)
Just before last week’s New York International Auto Show, I went to BMW’s U.S. headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey to meet several engineers from Germany who are developing a new, 1.5-liter, turbo-charged, three-cylinder engine.
Such a small engine would seem to be anathema for a company known for inline six-cylinders, which have a distinct sound and feel. Yet BMW’s engineers pointed out that mechanically and sonically, the three-cylinder is more similar to a six-cylinder than a four -- basically, it’s a six-cylinder lopped in half.
They said the smaller engine will produce between five and 15 percent less C02 emissions than the four-cylinder.
It will first appear in BMW’s i8 plug-in hybrid sports coupe, slated for production next year.
The i8 looks suitably mean and fast in a science fiction kind of way, and will be powered by both the three-cylinder engine and an electric motor.
With no i8 test mule available, I made do with a hand-built three-cylinder installed in a European-spec 1 Series hatchback. (BMW has no plans to release a three-banger 1 Series, they say. I wouldn’t be surprised to find the small engine in a Mini Cooper in the near future, though.)
From a hard start, the turbo on the engine took a moment to spool up, but it was punchy and confident as it reached peak power. The engine also sounded throatier and rawer than a four-cylinder, almost like a rally car from the 1980s.
The engineers said it was tuned to 174 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque as tested, but that it would be more powerful in the i8.
Also on hand was a 328d, a 3 Series model powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-charged four-cylinder diesel engine. This engine is familiar to Europeans, and the 328d will make its U.S. debut in the fall. (The six-cylinder 335d was sold here for a short time.)
The engine runs on ultra-low-sulfur diesel, and should get about 32 miles per gallon in the city and as much as 45 mpg on the highway. Horsepower is 180, with 280 pound-feet of torque. It will also be offered as an all-wheel-drive and as a wagon. Expect it to be priced above the base 328i.
Motoring around some New Jersey hills, I was pleased. The diesel 328 isn’t fast (60 mph arrives in some seven seconds), but it is awash in low-end grunt. Freeway commutes will surely see fewer fuel stops.
To see how efficient dynamics translate to the real world, I turned to a production vehicle, the 2013 model-year X1 xDrive28i. (Base of $32,500; $45,595 as tested.) The X1 is built on the chassis of the small 1 Series coupe, and it’s a bit of a griffin: Taller than a sedan, fatter than a wagon, not quite a SUV.
I like the idea of a smaller, lighter SUV. The all-wheel-drive X1 weighs around 3,700 pounds and gets 22 mpg city, 33 highway. Compare that to the X3’s 4,100 pounds and 21, 28 mpg, and you’ve got a good case for smaller vehicles.
The available four-cylinder, with 240 hp, is rarely found wanting.
Unfortunately, the X1 excels at nothing. It has a similar ground clearance to a sedan; doesn’t handle nearly as well as the regular 128i coupe (too much body roll); and is homely. An awkward rear storage cover impedes you from stacking up stuff in the back.
The X1 is a good reminder for both BMW and potential buyers that efficiency alone doesn’t make a great car. It may be greener, but it isn’t a blast to drive.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Lance Esplund on art and Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets.
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
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