It was the original "Ultimate driving machine" but is the BMW 3-Series any longer the ultimate choice in the mid-size luxury car segment?
The BMW 3 Series is certainly no longer the dominant player in the category locally – not just in terms of sales but also all-round ability.
Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class is now a constant thorn in the side of the blue-and-white propeller badge’s signature model, closing the gap in terms of dynamics – the 3-Series’ USP – and, in recent years, extending a sales gap to its rival in the Australian market.
The new BMW 3-Series – the sixth generation in 37 years – is clearly Munich’s response.
Not only has value been sharpened for the new Three – the flagship 335i is now more than $16,000 cheaper, for example - but BMW also talks about the new 3-Series having a greater “breadth of ability”.
As we head out first in the new BMW 328i – an appropriate choice of variant given this four-cylinder turbo model replaces the 325i powered by the normally aspirated six-cylinder engine the brand was famous for – there’s an early sign of a tweak to the car’s character.
The ride is noticeably suppler than the previous model, with a more relaxed nature that makes cruising along country roads and freeways less tiring than the 3-Series of old.
There’s still a hint of stiffness from the new-generation run-flat tyres – which have harder sidewalls than the average tyre – but they don’t niggle over bumps as before.
At times the suspension borders on floatiness, a very un-BMW-like characteristic, but any fear that the 3-Series has lost any of its famed agility are quickly dispelled in the first set of corners. In fact it’s better.
There’s an element of lean to cornering but the new BMW 3-Series – codenamed F30 – is always perfectly poised, with an immediacy to turn-in, high grip levels (from the standard 18-inch rubber) and incredibly resistant to understeer.
That’s on the standard suspension, but buyers have the option – for the first time – of paying $1692 for electronically controlled dampers.
The steering precision and feel lost in the transition from the E46 to E90 generations has been mostly rescued, too, despite the new, F30 3-Series persevering with an electric set-up.
However, to best enjoy the 3-Series on winding roads, you’ll need to make sure the new standard Driver Experience Control is in the right setting.
Driver Experience Control allows the driver to change the characteristics of the engine mapping, steering assistance, gearshift timing, throttle response and stability control threshold.
Eco Pro mode is the fuel-saving mode – and includes tips via a digital display on how to drive more economically – but the lethargic throttle response means this is best left for cruise control moments on freeways. Steering response and gearchanges are also slower.
Comfort mode is agreeable but you can feel the 3-Series immediately change – not least by the rise in revs as the eight-speed automatic drops a cog - to a more enthusiastic mood as soon as you press the DEC switch to Sport.
The 328i’s four-cylinder turbo doesn’t sound as good as the old six-cylinder but it’s still sufficiently rorty and refined, and the engine, which develops its peak power of 180kW between 5000 and 6500rpm, absolutely revels in revs.
There's minimal lag and it's not shy on torque, either, with 350Nm delivered on a flat torque curve from not far off idle to 4800rpm.
Shifts from the new standard eight-speed auto are smooth and timely, though the paddleshift levers (inclusive on all 3-Series models except the base 318d) are equally seamless and highly effective when frequent gearchanges are required. (And you can even opt for a six-speed manual, even if doesn’t save you any money.)
The 328i – which starts at $66,900 – also improves fuel economy by 24 per cent over the 325i, to an official 6.3L/100km. We recorded an average of 11.0L/100km, but on a long day of driving with plenty of dynamic testing involved.
We also tested a 320d, which loses little of the 328i’s involvement but essentially swaps an engine that’s keen on power for one that prefers torque – and consequently delivers a more immediate response lower in the rev range.
The 135kW/380Nm four-cylinder turbo diesel (from $60,900) is a notable 1.5 seconds slower than the 328i in the 0-100km/h sprint (7.6 v 6.1sec) but offers better fuel economy, at 4.5L/100km.
Both engines introduce less noise into the cabin than tyre rumble and wind noise.
Click to read our separate story on the complete new BMW 3-Series range, including the 320i, 318d and flagship 335i.
A stop-start system (BMW’s realised at last that calling it “start-stop” doesn’t make sense!) contributes to efficiency on all models, though mostly in towns or cities obviously. The engine coughs back into life as soon as you lift your foot off the brake; the 3-Series system is neither the quickest nor the tardiest of all the systems we’ve tried so far.
In addition to the aforementioned improved ride quality, BMW has also focused on improving interior comfort.
Starting in the rear, a wider door aperture provides for easier access to the back seat, where passengers will welcome the comfortable bench, decent headroom, and increased legroom that results from a wheelbase increase of 50mm. (The 3-Series is 93mm longer than before, now stretching to 4624mm in total.)
And whether you’re fussing over quality of materials or fit and finish, the 3-Series impresses.
There are lashings of leather regardless of model and soft-touch trim graces both the upper and mid sections of the dash as well as the inside of the doors. Press any button or rotate any dial and the switchgear is all nicely damped.
Storage options are aplenty, though we wish BMW would provide console bins with some useful depth rather than ones made too shallow by its insistence on including a phone connection set-up.
There’s an extra 20 litres of boot space (up to 480L) and the rear seats now fold almost flat in a 40-20-40 split configuration – with release levers again conveniently placed in the boot.
The absence of a spare tyre or mobility kit also allows BMW to provide extra storage compartments under the cargo floor.
Buyers also now have more choice on how the inside of their BMW 3-Series looks. The German car maker has introduced three new optional trim lines, called Modern, Sport and Luxury.
Modern offers lighter interior shades that are apparently targeted at those customers who might otherwise opt for a Volvo; Sport focuses on high-gloss trim parts inside and out and will be the most popular choice according to BMW; Luxury, which includes smatterings of polished chrome on the exterior, is part of BMW’s strategy to conquest more sales from the typical Mercedes-Benz C-Class buyer.
The most bizarre trim is a Modern Line interior that features brown rippled trim pieces that look like they've been broken off a giant walnut (see below).
Each trim line costs a few thousand dollars depending on variant, so you’ll need to consider that prices you see quoted for BMW 3-Series models are for ‘base spec’, though these are still equipped with leather seats as standard.
And generally there is more standard gear on the new 3-Series, though of course this is a German manufacturer we’re talking about so there are plenty of options (some pricey) – including new-to-3-Series features such as lane departure warning, lane change warning, head-up display, and ‘Surround view’ that incorporates both the bird’s-eye-style Top View that helps avoid parking or kerb collisions and Side View that allows drivers to edge out of junctions or between 90-degree-parked cars safely.
Finally, subjectively, the new BMW 3-Series simply looks better. The previous model was conservative by the standards of controversial former designer Chris Bangle, and it wasn’t helped by details such as the blocky, Korean-style tail-lights.
The company’s traditional L-shaped tail-lights – worked into a facelift of the old 3-Series – are this time there from the start for the new 3-Series, which we reckon looks great.
The BMW 3-Series accounts for a third of the company's sales, so it's a model it has to get right. First impressions of the new F30 model are that BMW has succeeded like never before - to produce the most ultimate 3-Series yet.