As we eased a roughly 85 per cent complete prototype out of BMW’s Nürburgring support garage, the car’s resolute tautness was apparent within the first 50 feet, telegraphing to us that the seventh generation of the Roundel’s venerable sedan is a dynamic about-face from its watered-down predecessor. It just felt right.
But how did we get to this point, where BMW invites us to drive a prototype in order to convince us that its cars are once again sporty? Has the company known for stirring drivers’ souls misplaced its swizzle stick?
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A small comfort: The restructured chassis division is headed by a new tastemaker, Jos van As. He’s the real deal, logging thousands of Nürburgring laps during his time working on four generations of the 3 Series. From a short stint at Audi, he claims credit for that nose-heavy brand’s shift to rear-biased all-wheel drive.
Work started on this car, code-named G20, in 2014, and it’s clear from the deep-rooted tweaking that his team was well aware that the previous 3-series had lost too much of its road-taming allure. Van As says the overwhelming priority was to improve the 3’s dynamics, but to do so without sacrificing ride comfort.
They achieved that with a focus on the fundamentals, rather than with technological trickery. BMW claims it pared 55 kilograms from this latest 3 without any major material substitutions. The center of gravity is 10 millimetres lower and the track 30mm wider. Overall torsional stiffness is up 25 percent, although some local areas—such as the strut-to-body interface—are as much as 50 percent stiffer.
Also half again as rigid is the front subframe, which Van As says allowed his team to increase the bushing rates, improving steering feedback without negative NVH consequences. It’s the familiar strut-front and multilink-rear suspension arrangement, but no pieces carry over from the last generation. Also familiar is BMW’s continued black-arts use of meticulously shaped bump stops as a ride-tuning element.
We drove only a single configuration: a four-cylinder 330i with the eight-speed automatic and the M Sport suspension and brakes. BMW promises a few more horsepower (up from 248 (185kW) to 255 (190kW)) and a few dozen more pound-feet of torque (up from 258 (350Nm) to 295 (400Nm)) for its turbo 2.0-liter this time around.
Here, M Sport means staggered 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, larger brakes with four-piston front calipers, variable-ratio steering, and, for the first time on a non-M car, an electronically controlled limited-slip differential. The engineers say another non-M-car first is the use of Sport package–specific bushings, while the increase in spring rates between Sport and non-Sport is twice that of the F30, and BMW increased the damping rates for the 3 Series by 15 to 20 per cent at high piston speeds.
Shocks that have an additional hydraulic element to curtail large suspension motions are a technological first for the 3. The fronts work only on rebound, whereas the rears alter the compression, and they each start to engage between a fifth and a third of the way into the suspension’s travel. These shocks – BMW wouldn’t name the supplier – will be on every G20 3 Series, save for the ones with the electronically controlled dampers of the optional Adaptive M Suspension.
Over the Nürburgring’s most abrupt attitude changes, they feel almost as miraculous as magnetorheological dampers in their ability to quell body motion.
Within an hour’s drive of the ’Ring is a buffet of road surfaces almost as extensive as the variety of meat on the area’s dinner menus. “We call this section the rally stage,” says Van As, referring to an extremely tight and immaculately paved section, before goading us into attacking it at ten-tenths. A couple of towns over is a challenging ride section with undulations that vary significantly across the lane; the new 3 practically swallows it whole, impressively resisting side-to-side head toss while remaining exquisitely taut and solid. And many things didn’t need fixing: The brakes continue to be strong with a firm bite, and the seats, with effective adjustable lateral bolstering, retain their supportive embrace.
Which brings us to steering, one chassis area that, although certainly improved, is less than perfect.
Van As says one key lesson his team learned is that relying on the tuning latitude afforded by electric power steering – such as automatic self-centering – tends to mute feel. This time around, they worked more on the underlying kinematics, and to good effect. Road texture has infested the wheel. The steering ratio is slightly quicker than before but well off that of the current king of veer, the Alfa Romeo Giulia, due to a desire to make the 3 Series friendly to pilot at sustained elevated speeds. And it is friendlier, even as the autobahn performs its scenery-blurring routine at 155 mph (250km/h).
Fortunately, the variable-ratio steering is the simple type, achieved by narrower tooth spacing at the center of the rack, so there’s no monkey motion affecting it. But the area just off-center feels slightly too light and underdamped in both Comfort and Sport modes. With the steering calibrator in the passenger’s seat with a laptop, we went out and tried to dial in something we found preferable, although we’re not sure we convinced the team we were right.
At its limit, the 3 Series isn’t at all tail happy, and with the four-cylinder, it can’t be readily balanced with power. But handling doesn’t culminate in terminal understeer, either. This is not a track car, after all, and the engineers freely admit that they don’t tune based on the ’Ring; it’s merely a cross-check.
For some reason, the 2.0’s engine note sounded way more electronically enhanced than it does in the current model, becoming obnoxiously fake in Sport mode. No one on hand could tell us whether this is the intended direction, but we hope BMW comes to its senses. Also odd was the transmission’s reluctance to hold gears in response to vigorous driving.
From what we could glimpse behind the extensive camouflage, the interior layout mimics that of the new 8 Series, including a digital display with nontraditional speedo and tachometer gauges that each wrap in a U shape around its periphery, and a start button relocated to the center console.
The 2019 330i will launch early next year, a couple of months ahead of the six-cylinder 340i, which will be a 2020 model. Much more will become clear when the camo comes off at the Paris auto show this fall. Based on what we sampled at the Nürburgring, we’re looking forward to a full pour.