2011 BMW 335is and Z4 sDrive35is

The BMW 335is is an admission of guilt. It is a reparation payment to America for building one of the best sports cars on the planet, the M3.

Yep, this is how BMW thinks.

Like many high-performance cars, the 414-horsepower M3 is simply too much car for most roads. To even come close to making it – or your hands – sweat, you have to push it to the kind of super-legal speeds that incite Congressional hearings. Its buff, boy racer looks conspiring to make it difficult to convince the highway patrolman that you were just trying to merge into traffic.

The M3’s natural habitat is a racetrack, where many owners take it. But others don’t, at least not that often. Instead, they buy it for the muscular appearance, or the extra kick it provides over the 300-hp 335i, even if they don’t need all of either. The 335is was designed with these people in mind.

Exclusively offered in North America, the $50,525 335is bridges the gap in both price and power between the M3 and 335i. Its engine is a 320-hp version of BMW’s 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine and represents a swan song of sorts for the motor, which is being phased out in favor of the new single-turbo unit found in the 335i.

An extra radiator added behind the left air intake, and an oil cooler on the right, presented the opportunity to redesign the front façade, both for aerodynamics and appearance. The black rimmed grille – a first for BMW – simply makes the car look a little meaner, as do the black side view mirror housings and black chrome exhaust tips on either side of the functional rear diffuser, which helps prevent lift at high speeds.

Available as a coupe or convertible, power is sent to the rear wheels of the 335is through either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that can be shifted manually with the nice big paddles mounted behind the M Sport steering wheel. As is the case with two-door versions of the 335i, the suspension is also from the M Sport parts bin, featuring a lower ride height with firmer shocks and dampers that connect the car to its unique 18-inch light alloy wheels.

It’s no surprise that on the road, driven like a good citizen, the two cars feel nearly identical. Only the standard sport seats with adjustable bolsters, gauges with grey backgrounds and other M Sport trim details scattered about the cabin of the 335is are there to tip you and your passengers off. Even on the track there’s little difference in the departments of braking and turning. It’s only when you put the spurs to the 335is that it reveals its true essence.

While the engine in the 335is produces a healthy 332 pound-feet of torque – 37 lb-ft more than the high-revving V8 in the M3 – floor it, and an overboost function cranks up the turbo pressure from 11.6 psi to 14.5 psi for a seven-second burst, increasing output to 369 lb-ft. That’s muscle car prodigiousness and makes a huge impact when you’re accelerating out of corners, or just trying to get by that RV in the middle lane.

On the front straight of the Lightning circuit at New Jersey Motorsports Park the 335is reached speeds close to those of the M3, while giving drivers of the 335i a nice view of those exhaust pipes popping away as delayed ignition during shifts sent a little unburned fuel in their direction. The suspension isn’t adjustable, but there is a Sport button in front of the shifter that quickens gear changes, increases throttle response and firms up the variable rate steering. Even without any major changes to its architecture, the chassis of the 335is is more than able to handle the power at its disposal. A 50/50 weight distribution gives it spot-on handling with just a touch of understeer as you reach the ultimate limits of grip. That is, unless you engage the Dynamic Traction Control setting that allows for just enough wheel slip to hold the car in an almost perfectly neutral set through curves.

Push it as hard as you can, and the 335is never gets out of whack or feels skittish. As with many precision-tuned sports cars, it’s almost boring when driven correctly…but not quite. Still, if you love the engine in the 335is, but are interested in a little more hairiness – and mussed up hair - BMW is more than happy to oblige.

The Z4 sDrive35is may have a clumsy name (the sDrive part means it’s rear-wheel-drive in BMW speak), but it has graceful moves, is drop dead sexy and not unlike countrywoman Heidi Klum in any of those regards. The new-for-2010 Z4 is currently the only two-seater in BMW’s lineup, and unquestionably its most attractive vehicle. With the seats set way, way back almost between the rear wheels, and a hood as long as a Mrs. Seal’s legs, the little devil is as close as you’ll get to a classic British roadster this side of the Mazda Miata. (Maybe one day the Brits will start sending us these kinds of cars again so we don’t have to use a Japanese car as a point of reference for such things.)

Previously available only with a choice of 255hp and 300hp engines, for 2011 the Z4 has been given the “is” treatment courtesy of an even more potent 335hp version of the twin-turbocharged six in the 335is. Overboost carries over, and the torque peak remains the same, but what’s under the hood is about all that the two cars have in common.

The $61,925 Z4is - as I’ll call it - is only available with a seven-speed dual clutch automatic, and comes loaded with M Sport pieces inside and out. Here, that includes a suspension with electronically adjustable dampers and three settings from Comfort to Sport. A press of a button transforms the hip-high scoot-about from an old-school softy with a pleasing amount of body movement that lets that big hood peek into your line of site under acceleration into a stiff little speedster that’s not too far out of place in pit lane.

On the track the Z4is is a joyful handful with the dynamics of a tightrope walker. At its edge you almost feel that you could turn it by simply leaning, though steering with the throttle is slightly more effective. It’s so much livelier than the 335is that even passengers pick up on the fully-controllable dartiness of it. Ultimately, I may not be the fastest car out there, but this thing is simply a blast, especially in the real world. When’s the last time you actually felt like you were ‘driving’ a sports car and not the other way around? Fantastic.

That said, if you’re wondering why BMW didn’t just go whole-hog and offer a true M version of the Z4, as it did with the previous generation, the answer is that they didn’t sell very well. So, like with the 335is, it split the difference with the Z4is. Both of these cars carry base prices that are about $10G than the models below them, which seems like a lot of dollars per horsepower – or, in this case, pound-foot – but when you take into account all of the performance and trim pieces that are standard on the “is” the price gap is closer to four grand.

Not a bad premium to pay for the chance to say “nyah nyah nyah” to the rest of the world while cruising around in “our” 335is, or experience the pure bliss of the Z4is. Consider any debt BMW may have owed us paid back with double interest.


2011 BMW 335is

Base Price: $50,525

Type: five-passenger, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-door coupe

Engine: 3.0-liter twin turbo inline-six

Power: 320 hp, 332 (369 w/overboost) lb-ft torque

Transmission: six-speed manual/seven-speed automatic

MPG: 18 city/26 hwy

2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is

Base Price: $61,925

Type: two-passenger, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-door roadster

Engine: 3.0-liter twin turbo inline-six

Power: 335 hp, 332 (369 w/overboost) lb-ft torque

Transmission: seven-speed automatic

MPG: 17 city/24 hwy