What we have in the 2011 BMW 335is coupe and convertible models is a classic special-edition ploy. You know the routine: A model that's been on the market for awhile, yet still has a couple years before its scheduled full-tilt overhaul, gets some choice pieces to spark a little demand in the face of newer competitors.
Typically we're down on these exercises, which more often than not involve special badges and a pack of existing options rolled into one fairly lame special edition. But wait, just because it's a ploy doesn't necessarily mean it's lame. Witness the 2011 BMW 335is Coupe and Convertible. The 335is, which will go on sale this spring, is rated at 20 more horsepower than the newly introduced 300-hp 335i and comes with a unique and very tasty exhaust system, some additional cooling capacity, plus a body kit and trim package that should be identifiable to at least BMW enthusiasts, if not your average buyer. All this beats the hell out of special chrome wheels and a "Limited" badge.
We've been here before with BMW and we like it. Last time the company went through this exercise, the E46 3 Series was getting a bit long in the tooth. The special edition was called the Performance package, although it's better known to aficionados as the ZHP package, and that version of the 2003 BMW 330i is still sought after on the used car market.
Whose S Is It Anyway?
Although BMW would be loath to admit it, we suspect the emergence of the 2011 BMW 335is in concert with the all-new 2011 BMW 335i has a little something to do with crosstown rival Audi and its recently introduced S4 sedan.
While the 2010 Audi S4 is a four-door sedan and BMW's "is" configuration will be offered only for the 3 Series coupe and convertible, it has not gone unnoticed in Munich that the Audi has brought some real heat to the general category.
For example the new Audi S4 bested last year's BMW 3 Series sedan in our own comparison test. And Audi switched course with its high-performance S5 coupe, keeping the 4.2-liter V8 it once shared with the S4 instead of getting the supercharged V6 that the S4 sedan and S5 convertible now feature.
What's So Special Anyway?
All right, forget Audi for a moment and consider, if you can, that you have a 2011 BMW 335i Coupe that you would like to make your own with a few modifications.
Where would you start? The engine? Sure, us, too. So the 2011 BMW 335is gets the so-called N54 twin-turbo inline-6. This basic engine configuration comes from the previous-generation 3 Series, while the rest of the line of new-generation 3 Series models moves to the new N55 single-turbo inline-6, which improves emissions and packaging without sacrificing horsepower and torque.
And that's where things get sticky. BMW will continue to use the old twin-turbo N54 (each turbo is fed by three cylinders, so we're not talking about a sequential setup) in what it describes as "high-performance" applications. So the 335is gets it, as does the recently unveiled "is" version of the Z4 coupe/roadster and the version of the 7 Series with an inline-6 engine.
Those mean, black tips are connected to an exhaust that's been reworked for a vicious little bark.
It's long been the conviction of car testers and BMW-forum dwellers that the N54 has always made significantly more power than the 300-hp rating it carries from BMW North America, Inc. We do not disagree. So now that the "is" model of the N54 inline-6 has arrived with a rating of 320 hp at 5,900 rpm thanks to an increase in turbo boost from 8.7 psi to 11.6 psi, there will be plenty of conspiracy theorists certain that the N54 has made this much power all along. In fact, BMW's estimates for acceleration performance for the 335is are so close to those for the former N54-powered 335i coupe that we think the suspicion of manipulation of the output numbers in the dyno cell will grow stronger.
As it turns out, BMW seems to have notably underestimated more than the horsepower stats. BMW claims the 2011 BMW 335is Coupe with its standard six-speed manual transmission will get to 60 mph from a standstill in 5.1 seconds. That's quick. But when we compared a 2007 BMW 335i Coupe to an Infiniti G37 coupe, the BMW posted a 0-60-mph run of 4.8 seconds. That's quicker. Until we get a 335is on our test track in California, all we can say for absolutely certain is that the 335is will be the quickest 2011 3 Series that doesn't wear an M badge.
The car's intercooled and turbocharged engine also has an overboost function that allows the two turbos to develop boost up to 14.5 psi for as long as 7 seconds, raising the torque from 332 pound-feet at 1,500 rpm to 370 lb-ft. (You'll have to pound the throttle pedal right to the floor to get that extra juice, by the way.) To withstand the extra heat developed in overboost mode, the 335is has a standard oil cooler and an additional water cooler, items that the previous-generation 3 Series with this engine conspicuously lacked. The N54 engine is also fitted into the 335is with stiffer motor mounts, too.
Far less confusing and controversial are the other upgrades that come with the "is" package. In both coupe and convertible configurations, the 335is a body kit that is very much like the M Sport kit already available on standard examples of the 2011 3 Series Coupe. Lest this car be mistaken for a regular M Sport package car, BMW adds "is" badges to the trunk lid, flanks and even the interior. The interior gets special steel cover plates for the pedals, an M Sport steering wheel, gauges with the "is" logo, a black headliner and standard sport seats. Basically we're looking at a collection of pieces similar or identical to 3 Series bits already available.
The suspension brings no surprises either, unless you are surprised by the fact that it is unchanged from the sport suspension setup for the standard 3 Series. It is not lowered, stiffened or in any other way different. And while this might make the "is" package's $7,000 price premium over the standard coupe seem a little dear, we note that the ride-and-handling compromise of the standard suspension has always been very much to our liking. The 335is also gets its own unique set of 18-inch rims, handsome split-spoke units. Nineteen-inch wheels are optional.
Do you like black? We do. We think black is cool. And so apparently does BMW, since it has specified black front grilles for the 335is. These units, similar to available aftermarket pieces, match the black exhaust tips. For an added measure of blackness, the side mirrors are covered in a shiny black finish (but not the actual mirror part).
Forget the front grilles and mirror caps, it's the exhaust that we're most interested in. Those mean black tips are connected to an exhaust system that's been reworked for a vicious little bark. It's something that we always missed from the standard 335i. But we didn't realize how much we missed exhaust noise until we heard the one made by the 2011 BMW 335is. It's the one piece of the 335is puzzle that we would gladly pay for as a separate option on a standard 335i coupe (were it available, which it is not).
Oh, Yeah, Driving...
And how does it feel to drive the 2011 BMW 335is? Well, all of our driving experience in the 335is came on a partially wet racetrack — the former F1 track at Estoril in Portugal, to be exact. This might not be exactly the best place to feel that extra 20 hp, since stomping the right pedal was greeted with either the incessant blinking of the traction- and stability-control warning light or, once those systems were disengaged, spinning/slipping/sliding rear tires.
Still, the car felt great. It's an exceptionally well-balanced vehicle. But so have been all the standard 335i coupes we've tested before. Its brakes are well up to the task of racetrack use, at least the five consecutive laps that we got. But the brakes of the standard 335i coupe feel equally good, since they are, in fact, identical to those of the 335is.
We took runs in both a 335is coupe with the standard six-speed manual transmission and the optional seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission (this is the only application of BMW's Getrag-built dual-clutch item to a 3 Series car that doesn't have the "M" prefix). That the gear ratios of the six-speed manual happened to suit the needs of this particular circuit is no dig against the seven-speed dual-clutch unit. But with an accurate short-throw shifter and easy heel-and-toe operation, the manual is the more engaging of the two boxes. Anyway, a proper three-pedal manual seems better suited to this performance-oriented package.
Of course, BMW does claim that the dual-clutch unit's launch control feature helps get the 335is to 60 mph from a standstill a tenth of a second quicker.
At $50,525, the 2011 BMW 335is Coupe is a nice round $7,000 more than the 2011 BMW 335i Coupe. Likewise, the 2011 BMW 335is Convertible's $59,075 base price represents a $7,000 premium over the 2011 BMW 335i Convertible. That's before adding the dual-clutch seven-speed, should you choose to have that, and the Premium package and the 19-inch wheels and all that. So no matter how you cut it, the 335is is an expensive proposition.
Of course, a 2011 BMW 335is Coupe is $9,450 less expensive than a 2010 BMW M3 Coupe. But the 2010 BMW M3 Sedan with its stellar 414-hp V8 and world-stomping handling is only $6,450 more expensive than the 335is coupe. And if you can manage to find a stripped-down M3 sedan, it would cost a bit less than a loaded-up 335is. But, of course, you wouldn't get all the doodads that a well-equipped $56,000 2011 BMW 335is would have.
Oh, decisions, decisions. How special do you want to be?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.