In a market evolving and growing as rapidly as the premium mid-sized segment, no brand can kick back and wait for customers to simply walk into dealerships and hand over their hard-earned. This is true for even the world’s best-selling luxury car, the BMW 3 Series.
The value leader in the class, the Lexus IS, got a boost just weeks ago with a new turbo engine and even more standard equipment.
In August, the all-new Jaguar XE was unleashed on local roads with the bold aim of eclipsing the 3 Series’ long-held dynamic benchmark. Around this time next year, the Alfa Romeo Giulia will look raise the bar even higher, with an added dash of Italian flare.
Before then, February will see the arrival of the new-generation Audi A4, which promises to be a technical tour de force.
And then there’s the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, a style icon and undeniable all-rounder, which in just over a year on sale in its current guise has re-written the record books for just how popular a premium model in Australia can be.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance and timeliness of today’s introduction of the 2016 BMW 3 Series sedan and Touring wagon range then, which represents the model’s first major update since the local launch of the F30/F31 generation in early 2012 (though regular pricing and specification revisions have helped to keep it competitive since then).
The key focuses of the refreshed line-up have been heightened performance and efficiency, and enhanced specification leading to improved value. Let’s start with the latter…
Pricing changes have been marginal overall, the most significant being at the bookends, with the entry-level 318i (replaces 316i) up $1100 to $54,900 plus on-road costs, and the flagship 340i (replaces 335i) down $3140 to $89,900. These two also gain entirely new engines: a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo and a new-generation 3.0-litre inline-six turbo respectively.
LED headlights are now standard across the range along with additional features from BMW’s ConnectedDrive suite that include a three-year subscription to the real-time traffic information service and BMW Online (integrated access to news, weather, Google search, office functions and other apps), and lifetime use of remote services via your smartphone (door lock/unlock, ventilation control, headlight flash, vehicle finder, and Google local search with send-to-car function). BMW Australia is yet to confirm how much it will charge owners to renew their ConnectedDrive subscriptions once they expire.
These features lengthen the 3 Series’ already impressive equipment list that’s headlined by a head-up display, 360-degree surround view camera system with front and rear parking sensors, auto headlights and wipers, dual-zone climate control, man-made leather upholstery, 6.5-inch display with satellite navigation, and the driving experience control selector.
The volume model in the range, the 330i, is now $500 cheaper than before, lowering the sedan to $69,900 and the Touring to $73,300. As before it gets 19-inch alloy wheels, adaptive M suspension, keyless entry and power-operated boot, real leather, 8.8-inch display with the Professional navigation system, and the Sport and Luxury lines as no-cost options.
Even with its $3K price cut, the 340i gains almost $8K of additional features over the 335i including adaptive headlights with auto high beam and LED foglights, active cruise control, semi-automatic parking, variable sports steering, seat heating, leather instrument panel cover, three-year subscription to concierge services and in-car internet, and the choice of the M Sport package and Luxury line as no-cost options.
You can read more about the 2016 BMW 3 Series pricing and specifications here, but the net result is a good one for buyers at all points in the range.
Stylistic updates are limited to bumper tweaks and some fresh interior trims, but otherwise the 3 Series looks and feels much like it did three and a half years ago. We think the exterior looks best with the M Sport package, and most Australians agree, with 59 per cent opting for the pack in the pre-facelift range (the highest rate in the world).
The cabin is conservative at best, however, humbled by the elegance of the C-Class and the technical flair of the new A4. The BMW’s fit is hard to fault, but it’s the finish where rivals are being more creative, which leads to an enhanced ambience for occupants.
BMW’s iDrive infotainment system remains the best of its kind, however, excelling in terms of its presentation atop the dashboard, the quality and speed of its operation, and its overall user-friendliness.
The leather seats of the 330i and 340i variants tested at the 3 Series’ launch in northern NSW impressed for comfort and support both front and back. Rear headroom is tighter than some in the class but still adequate in both sedan and Touring for 180cm adults, while it’s a similar case in terms of legroom.
Useful 40:20:40 split folding rear seats provide options for expanding the boot, which measures 480 litres in the sedan and 495L in the wagon (competitive for the class).
As the 318i and 320i variants are still a couple of weeks away from local showrooms and limited availability at the launch meant we couldn’t test out a 320d, we spent our time in a 330i Touring and a 340i sedan and will focus on those here. We’ll post reviews of the other three in the coming weeks once we get them into the garage. Detailed specs of those drivetrains are available in the story linked above.
Almost two in five BMW 3 Series customers are expected to choose the 330i, so that’s where we start our circa-450km scenic route drive from Byron Bay to Armidale.
Subtle tweaks have eked an extra 5kW out of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine that carries over from the 328i, taking its peak outputs to 185kW at 5200-6500rpm and 350Nm between 1450-4800rpm, and chopping a tenth out of its 0-100km/h time, now 5.8 seconds.
More significant is a nine per cent combined cycle fuel consumption improvement down to a brilliant 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres. Our 8.3L/100km trip computer readout felt reasonable given the enthusiastic styles of those behind the wheel.
The 330i’s engine and eight-speed automatic transmission combination impresses at low and high speeds for its useability and refinement. Quick to respond, strong up to highway speeds, and with sweetly timed gear changes that are just as quick with the steering wheel paddles, there’s little wonder the updated drivetrain is expected to remain the line-up’s strongest seller.
Why bother with the 340i, then? With 240kW from 5500-6500rpm and 450Nm between 1380-5000rpm, the new sports flagship is up 15kW and 50Nm on the old 335i and 55kW/100Nm on the new 330i. Its 5.1sec 0-100km/h sprint makes it a fraction quicker than before and faster than even the E46 M3 from a decade ago, yet fuel consumption falls six per cent to 6.8L/100km.
The new engine meets the sports luxury brief perfectly, offering levels of refinement that make even the quiet 330i seem comparatively grainy, accelerating mightily without breaking a sweat. While muted like the 330i’s four (more than some enthusiasts may appreciate), the six’s note is deeper, more substantial, and more commanding.
Both flex their muscles with the driving experience control dialled up to Sport, with heightened throttle response and a sportier gearshift pattern. An even more extreme Sport Plus mode is available, though unfortunately it can’t be engaged without disabling traction control, making it one best reserved for the track.
Sport mode can also be configured to change the steering and suspension characteristics, either with the drivetrain enhancements or on their own – though we can’t fathom a situation where you’d want a sportier chassis set-up but the ‘comfort’ drivetrain setting, particularly with the 330i and 340i’s standard 19-inch wheels and skinny tyres.
Unlike the C-Class and A4, the driving experience control doesn’t offer an individual setting meaning you can’t, for example, turn up the drivetrain and steering but keep the suspension in its softest setting.
The updated variable sports steering (standard in 340i, optional in 330i) is improved, providing more immediate response from the straight-ahead position (something that was lacking in the pre-facelift model), while continuing to be precise and engaging with lock applied. Both cars’ tillers tended to get knocked around by bumpy and undulating roads at high speeds, however, moving in the driver’s hands, mildly upsetting its otherwise composed feel.
Sport mode makes the ride too firm to endure for anything beyond short enthusiastic stints up and down a windy mountain, though we’re keen to test it again on slightly taller tyres (the 330i and 340i get 40-aspect front and 35-apsect rear rubber versus 45-aspect 18s for the cheaper variants). Fortunately, the standard comfort suspension setting is far more compliant and liveable without detracting from the 3 Series’ inherent flat-sitting agility and balance.
Whether the upgrades are enough for the BMW 3 Series to reassert itself as the dynamic benchmark, and more importantly claim the title of the best all-rounder in the premium medium class, can only be answered once we test the rest of the range, and complete a comparison test with the C-Class, XE and the new A4. For those, stay tuned.
For now, however, it’s clear this mid-life refresh has produced the best-driving and best-value version of the world’s best-selling luxury car to date.