The car maker’s trademark model was once the dominant player in the volume area of the luxury car market, accounting for a third of its segment, but has been trailing the C-Class since 2008.
In 2006 BMW sold 6035 3-Series sedans compared to 3167 C-Classes, though only the C-Class has sold more than 6000 units annually since. Last year the gap widened by more than 2000 cars, with 6428 C-Classes sold versus 4203 3-Series sales.
BMW Australia, however, believes its sixth-generation 3-Series, which has launched this week, is equipped to turn the tables.
"We’d like to think so [that we can regain top spot]," says BMW Australia’s product and market planning manager, Toni Andreevski. "We’re confident the car is good enough to certainly attract a strong customer base. We don’t have a full year of supply, though, and one of volume models like 320i doesn’t arrive until almost the middle of the year.
"I’m anticipating it would obviously be a very close battle [with the C-Class]. Certainly the goal of BMW for the new 3-Series is to give the customers a car that is capable of reclaiming its rightful position at the top of the luxury car segment."
BMW has reacted to the market situation, which has also seen a notable rise in Audi A4 sales, by sharpening the pencil on 3-Series pricing and value.
While the new entry-level 318d is a few hundred dollars more (at $56,400) than the previous starter model, the 320i, and the 320d is $1200 pricier than its predecessor, both offer more standard equipment.
The 320i is the entry-level petrol, costing $57,600.
The four-cylinder turbo 328i is $5000 more affordable than the six-cylinder 325i it replaces, while the range-topping 335i – until the arrival in 2014 of the M3 – cuts $16,300 from its previous sticker to start from $91,900.
The 335i also now includes more standard features, such as satellite navigation, a Harman Kardon audio system, Bluetooth audio streaming, voice control and internet connectivity.
BMW is also using a new range of new trim ‘Lines’ to help ‘conquest’ buyers who might otherwise be considering a Volvo S60 or Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The Lines, split into Modern, Sport and Luxury, cost a premium over the standard trim for each 3-Series variant. The Sport Line, for example, costs an extra $3678, for which it adds a number of exterior and interior trim upgrades, as well as further customisation options within that line.
"[These Lines mean] there’s more choice than ever before [for 3-Series customers]," says Andreevski, "but the most important thing for BMW is that we want to conquest customers also from different brands.
"So the Modern line with its light-coloured steering wheel and lighter ambience gives customers an opportunity to go for something you might expect more from a Scandinavian type of brand.
"Luxury you can imagine is the type of line that would appeal to somebody who might be thinking of buying a Mercedes, and Sport is very much traditional BMW.
"It’s important that we don’t just look at our existing customer base.
"The adaptive suspension is also important as that’s also helping to cater for different customers."
BMW says there will typically be a three-month waiting list for 3-Series orders. It says most 3-Series customers won’t be bothered by the delay as they plan well in advance for when they’ll be changing from their current car.
The new BMW 3-Series goes on sale in late February with the 320d, 328i and 335i variants, with the 318d and 320i entry-level diesel and petrol models available for order from March for an expected delivery time of mid year.
Click to read CarAdvice’s 2012 BMW 3-Series Review.