The automotive world is increasingly dominated by SUVs, but for BMW the heart-and-soul 3 Series perhaps surprisingly remains its biggest seller.
This new model, codenamed G20, is the seventh generation since 1975, a time period over which the company has sold more than 15 million, more than any competitor in the space. Sales commence in Australia during the middle of March next year.
While the company won’t admit as much on the record, you sense it might have been stung by criticism that its previous effort, the F30, didn’t quite deliver in one key area: dynamics.
We suspect this because BMW was at pains to make clear that best-in-class ride and handling remain as vital to the rear-drive 3 Series as infotainment and active safety innovations, even though its second biggest market, China, lacks a mature performance car scene, to say the least.
Design-wise it’s also a relatively big change. Like the Golf or 911, BMW chooses evolution not revolution, but the G20 does have bolder contours along its side, an enlarged one-piece kidney grille flanked by LED headlights, and a new Hofmeister kink housing free-standing window glass.
Like any good rear-wheel drive (RWD) sedan, it retains the long bulging bonnet, cab-backwards silhouette, and short overhangs. The wheelbase has grown to improve legroom in the rear, a key weakness before.
There’s an adage in car journalism that you can learn a lot about what a brand thinks of a new model by the roads it uses when hosting a launch. BMW chose some challenging, bumpy, brittle surfaces in regional Portugal, which says it’s confident in the 3 Series this time.
It’s bigger in every area, with notable 76mm increases in length and 40mm/20mm in the front/rear tracks, and the monocoque is up to 50 per cent stiffer than before. Yet greater use of aluminium means that it’s also counter-intuitively 55kg lighter.
It also has a lower centre of gravity, a remarkably low 0.23 coefficient of drag rating, and retains the signature 50:50 weight distribution that defines it. The fundamental suspension layout remains strut/multi-link, though the components use more lightweight materials.
But there’s one brand-first suspension innovation; ‘lift-related’ dampers that reduce low amplitude vibrations, and add extra damping under greater loads (the damper force changes in response to spring travel) to reduce body dive and ‘nervousness’.
In turn, the rear damper cylinders house a slimmer parallel cylinder, which tapers downward ever so slightly. As a secondary smaller plastic ring on the piston enters this section, the pressure of the oil pushing past it grows and adds damping force over bigger hits controlling compression.
It’s simple and elegant and removes the need to multi-mode adaptive dampers, which of course remain optionally available on the 330i, with the promise of greater variance between Comfort and Sport.
The only reason BMW hasn’t made these lift-related dampers before is it lacked a supplier than could manufacturer the taper tolerance at the right scale and price. All of these aspects make the G20 the best-driving 3 Series yet, especially with the 10mm lower, stiffer M suspension.
The wider track aids stability, the lighter weight improves turn-in, balance is great, the stiffer monocoque gives you more decisive directional changes, and those dampers simultaneously iron out sharp impacts better and ensure better road contact.
The un-fussed cornering speeds you can carry are tremendous, all the more marked if you have the electronic-motor-activated fully-variable locking M Sport rear diff to tame rogue torque flow across the rear axle.
That said, the electric-assisted variable ratio steering – better than before — that speeds up as you add lock is not as engaging as the E46 generation’s.
It would be fair to say the area with the fewest changes are the engines, though they’ve all been updated to use less fuel, and generally produce more power and torque. All are Euro 6 compliant.
The 320i gets a 2.0-litre TwinPower turbocharged (there’s a bypass valve that opens at greater engine speeds, and the unit recirculates more exhaust gases) petrol with 135kW/300Nm, while the top-selling 330i’s 2.0-litre makes 190kW and a significant 400Nm, up 50Nm on the old version.
Because of our under-regulated fuel standards in Australia, BMW has had to remove the petrol particle filter on these petrol engines for us, a similar conundrum faced by Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.
Topping the launch range is the Mercedes-AMG C43-rivalling M Performance 340i xDrive, using a force-fed 3.0-litre inline-six with 275kW/500Nm. The 0-100km/h time is just 4.4 seconds. It’s also got a (gasp!) AWD system with fully variable torque split between the axles.
We reviewed that separately, and if you fancy a read you can find it here.
On the diesel side of the ledger are the two-stage-turbocharged 2.0-litre 318d and 320d variants with 110kW/320Nm and 140kW/400Nm outputs respectively, using just 4.2-4.5L/100km of fuel and fitted with a DPF, NOx storage catalyst and an SCR catalyst with AdBlue.
There’s also the performance-oriented 330d using a 3.0-litre inline-six making 195kW and 580Nm from just 1600rpm, though the odds of that coming to Australia are slim.
NEW, JANUARY 14 2019: 3 SERIES PRICING REVEALED
All engines are matched to a an eight-speed ZF automatic of the torque-converter variety with shorter ratios down low giving it a wider spread. A Steptronic Sport ‘box adds launch control and wheel paddles. A six-speed manual gearbox remains an order option, perhaps surprisingly.
Another cool new feature is a coasting function that decouples the drivetrain if you lift off to save fuel. Cleverly, if you lift off rapidly the engine stays coupled, so that engine braking can support the deceleration you may need.
The stop/start system can also use data supplied by the navigation and front camera, meaning it apparently won’t kill the engine if you’re only going to be stationary for a brief moment, like at a roundabout in traffic. How clever is that? It’s not as smooth as Mercedes’ 48V system though.
Around the middle of 2019, the new 215kW 330e plug-in hybrid will appear (Northern hemisphere first, Australia within a year from now). This petrol-electric offer has an improved pure EV range of up to 60km thanks to a denser Li-Ion battery pack, and a fuel use claim of 1.7L/100km combined.
We drove the 320d and 330i, which will be the two models that go on sale first. The company is not saying when the 320i is coming, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle and we’d like it to be ASAP. Conspiratorially, there are greater margins in the 330i…
The focus on the diesel side was reducing vibration and noise, achieved in part by greater amounts of foam insulation. It’s ably suited to highway commuting, because though there’s a decent slab of torque down low, you couldn’t call its responses rapid.
It does, however, stubbornly refuse to drink much diesel, managing hybrid numbers. We thrashed the daylights out of one across mountainous terrain and barely broke past 7L/100km. BMW is bullish on the future of diesel. Contained NOx outputs and good CO2 ratings give that credence.
The 330i feels livelier than before, while the gearbox remains smooth and decisive as ever. It even sounds a little better, thanks to a sound enhancer system that’s less tacky than earlier iterations. It’ll account for that vast majority of sales from launch, until the M340i xDrive arrives.
The more spacious interior has a cleaner layout. The fascia is still driver-oriented, and there are higher-grade materials used. BMW reckons the new seats are more supportive and comfortable.
The new centre console/transmission tunnel section now houses the starter button, situated near the familiar iDrive rotary dial, and a wireless phone charging pad. There’s also – shock horror – a parking brake switch and proper centre console. It’s the end of an era…
The centre 10.25-inch screen can be operated by iDrive dial, direct touch, wheel buttons, gesture control and voice control. It’s running the latest 7.0 operating system and premieres BMW’s new Alexa/Google Home/Daimler MBUX-style personal assistant, activated by saying ‘Hey BMW’.
Unlike other stick-in-the-mud brands, BMW lets you activate the system by saying any name you want, too. So, change ‘Hey BMW’ to ‘Hey Klaus’, or ‘Hey Johnny’, or whatever you want. Incidentally, our car’s system was swiftly named ‘Alborz Fallah’, and it was very obedient.
Cool tech available on some variants includes a fully digital 12.3-inch driver instrument cluster, a 70 per cent bigger head-up display, and a smartphone app that doubles as a key fob. Foam-filled A-pillars and acoustic glass cut cabin noise.
The boot remains 480L, and the 40:20:40 folding back seats carry over too. There’s more headroom and shoulder room, and bigger entry/exit apertures. I’m 194cm and could sit behind my own driving position, and had my own air vents and USB plugs back there.
Available active safety features include full AEB for cars and pedestrians, lane-departure warning and assistance, stop/go active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with evasion aid, cross-traffic alerts, auto parking, and a 360-degree camera. All that’s missing is lane-change assist, weirdly.
It can also reverse itself out of any sticky situation by storing the path you took when you parked forwards, and following it backwards, exactly. That takes significant processing power. We tried it in a pseudo tyre slalom in a pit garage, and it worked perfectly.
It’s as future-proof as is feasible, and the addition of cloud-based upgrades and BMW app integration means it’ll hopefully remain so. Though in a few years, invariably the next-generation MBUX-fitted C-Class and updated Audi A4 will get the jump. It’s all cyclical.
Price-wise, the G20 has parity in Europe with the outgoing car, due in large part to the money saved thanks to CLAR. But given the discounting BMW Australia has been doing to drive sales of the outgoing model in a flat market, expect modest hikes. We just don’t know yet.
What we do know is the G20 delivers in a big way. If there’s one car BMW cannot afford to stuff up, it’s the 3 Series, and like its equally impressive new-generation 5 Series and X5, this one stakes a bold claim to class leadership that we’re looking forward to putting to the test.
To say the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia have their work cut out is an understatement. Given this was an international first drive, take it with a grain of salt and wait for March, but for now you can believe the hype.