BMW's smaller, greener engines produce mixed results

The BMW 328d, a new diesel-engine car from The BMW 328d, a new diesel-engine car from the German automaker, made its U.S. debut at the 2013 New York International Auto Show. BMW said it could get up to 45 mpg on the highway. (March 27, 2013) Photo Credit: Adam Fusfeld

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BMW is working on the little engine that could.

Or more accurately, its working on a bunch of them, pushing to create an efficient fleet of cars that are still a blast to drive. I recently testedthree BMW vehicles, each representing a different prong of the Munich-based companys 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 thecompanys future hybrid sports car, the i8.

Next came a diesel-powered version of the 3 Series, the companys perennially-heralded sedan.

Lastly, I spent a week in the X1, the companys smallest- ever SUV, offered with a four-cylinder engine.

BMW, which has long touted itself as the Ultimate Driving Machine, a few years ago came out with the tag line Efficient Dynamics. LessEmissions. More Driving Pleasure. At the time I thought it was just green speak.

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However unlike somecompetitors, the company has rolled out a steady stream of models with alternative powertrains. These days you canbuy a 5 Series with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine; an X5 SUV powered by diesel and a hybrid 7 Series executivesedan. The company has also performed limited consumer testing with all-electric 1 Series coupes (Testers were dubbed electronauts.)

Three Cylinders

Just before last weeks New York International Auto Show, I went to BMWs U.S. headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey to meetseveral engineers from Germany who are developing a new, 1.5-liter, turbo-charged, three-cylinder engine.

Such a small engine wouldseem tobe anathema for a company known for inline six-cylinders,which have a distinctsound and feel.YetBMWs engineers pointed out that mechanically and sonically, the three-cylinder is more similar to a six-cylinderthan a four basically, its 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 BMWs i8 plug-in hybrid sports coupe, slated for production next year.

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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 electricmotor.

Mini Cooper

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 noplans to release a three-banger 1 Series, they say. I wouldnt be surprised to find the small engine in a MiniCooper in the near future, though.)

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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 enginealso 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 toEuropeans, and the 328d will make its U.S. debut in the fall. (The six-cylinder 335d was sold here for a shorttime.)

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.

Fuel Savings

Motoring around some New Jersey hills, I was pleased. The diesel 328 isnt fast (60 mph arrives in some seven seconds), but it is awash inlow-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 its a bit of agriffin: 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. Comparethat to the X3s 4,100 pounds and 21, 28 mpg, and youve got a good case for smaller vehicles.

The available four-cylinder, with 240 hp, is rarely found wanting.

Body Roll

Unfortunately, the X1 excels at nothing. It has a similar ground clearance to a sedan; doesnt 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 inthe back.

The X1 is a good reminder for both BMW and potential buyers that efficiency alone doesnt make a great car. It may be greener, but it isnta blast to drive.

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