If you’ve been around cars for a long while, the arrival of any new-generation BMW 3 Series is a moment met with much anticipation. The nameplate minted the “ultimate driving machine” ethos, says BMW, and it’s considered the premium sport sedan originator in wider general opinion. And while petrolheads like to argue which of its now seven generations are best and most significant, its maker always inputs considerable effort getting any latest version right, or at least right for its time.
This new G20 3 Series arrives in Australia in the midst of a worrying downturn at the higher end of motoring town, something BMW Oz has weathered somewhat better in the last 12 months than key rivals Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
How and why? Put to BMW Group Australia CEO, Vikram Pawah, a slew of ‘X model’ releases in 2018 cushion the commercial blow for a brand where 60 percent – and growing – of sales are now SUVs. Plus, he adds, his company’s focus on good old-fashioned value for money has served well.
To date, we’ve covered off 3 Series newness and coolness at the international launch, dissected local pricing and spec, even driven future-release 330e and new-concept M340i xDrive models that further massage the so-called ‘3er’ for contemporary tastes.
You don’t have to squint hard, though, to see that value is the theme underpinning the two sole launch variants in the diesel 320d and petrol-powered 330i, higher-volume sellers that will sit in the lower end of what will inevitably be a much broader range.
The 320d enters the fray at $67,900 before on-road costs. Meanwhile, the 330i wants for three grand more. I’ll spare you the forensic breakdown but, according to BMW Oz, the new 330i is better equipped to the tune of around $11k in standard trim compared with the identically priced, last-gen F30 version.
In fact, the petrol looks so good on paper out of the box that it’s easy to conclude you’d almost have rocks in your head – or perhaps a very specific reason – to opt for the cheaper oiler version.
The nutshell is this: for its $70,900 ask (again before on-road costs), the 330i gets adaptive M suspension, 19-inch wheels, M Sport ‘four- and single-piston’ brakes, full Vernasca leather trim, comfort access and an expansive suite of driver assistance and safety features ranging from active cruise control and full impact avoidance AEB, through to the multi-camera view trickery of Parking Assistance Plus.
If you want the same gear in your three-grand thriftier diesel 320d, it’ll cost you a whopping $10,620 in cost options to get there.
And that’s before you factor in that, at 5.8 seconds, the 330i is a whole second quicker for the 0-100km/h sprint.
We kick off our local 3 Series experience in the petrol version, on a couple-of-hundred-kay loop through the Victorian high country with lots of open road punctuated by plenty of twisty mountain corners, if bereft of much in the way of around town or urban assessment.
In standard-issue M Sport Pack fit out – the milder Luxury Line is a no-cost option – the longer, broader and aerodynamically slipperier 3 Series visage is suitably mature and upmarket. The uninitiated might easily mistake it for the big brother 5 Series.
The redesigned interior, angular in theme if simpler and more streamlined in detail and execution, is mostly successful in its aim of 3 Series evolution. The 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment with its so-called iDrive Operating System 7.0 is impressively slick and quick, the cluster of rotary dial and shortcut buttons on the console neat and intuitive to use. The simple stuff – like locating the Start button in clear sight on the console – makes a difference.
But I really dislike that new-fangled 12.3-inch high-resolution instrumentation. Gone is the neat and pleasing digital rendition of classic and conventional round dials, replaced by a weird and fussy graphic display that’s a jumbled mess at a glance and where the tacho arcs backwards much like a Peugeot 308 and, well, not much else on the market.
It’s trendy for trend’s sake, smacks of ‘keeping up with German rivals’ in garish window dressing, and I wonder how quickly BMW might backpedal from this nonsense and revert to more classic, more ‘BMW’ format in future.
The textures and general fit and finish is very good, particularly the Vernasca leather and so-called Tetragon aluminium detailing, and the M Sport spec bucket seats, with electric-adjustable side bolsters, balance comfort and support nicely. For some bizarre logic, BMW designers insist on making the M Sport wheel rim comically thick in diameter – the smaller rimmed wheel fitted to the Luxury Line is infinitely more natural and ergonomically fit.
Strangely, though, the Luxury Line front seats – called ‘sport seats,’ for added confusion – are needlessly narrow between the bolsters, very stiff in lumbar and lack decent height adjustment, so generally and noticeably less comfortable than the, erm, sports seats featured in the M Sport pack.
At 190kW and 400Nm, the 330i’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four is smooth, quiet and hesitation free, a beaut little engine that likes to rev and returns a mildly rorty note once you dig in. It would be a cracker of an engine in a 1 Series, say, though in a heavier 3er it provides requisite thrust that’s assertive and not overly stressed yet is far from properly potent.
No, there isn’t an ounce of ‘M’ once you scratch the 330i’s sporty façade, but that’s no foul for this tier of non-performance, mid-sized executive four-door, and the two-litre engine delivers amply for most buyer’s whims, right down to the frugal mid-six average fuel consumption claim, and almost in spite of the grumpy old traditionalists like yours truly who bang on that the ‘real’ 3 Series experience starts with six cylinders fired up…
Despite a sizeable 50kW deficit, the 320d’s 2.0-litre, now twin-turbocharged oiler four is quite a gem. There’s only the faintest clatter at idle, it’s smooth and surprisingly quiet either cruising or under full throttle load, and its fulsome 400Nm does a handy job of doing most of the heavy lifting for 90 per cent of driving.
The diesel does run out of breath above four grand though, making that five-grand redline rather pointless, but even in Sport mode the rather excellent eight-speed auto upshifts at around 4100rpm, just before the engine’s thrust flat-lines. Even through the twisty climb at Mount Buffalo, the 320d can be pedaled at an impressive clip.
That said, back to back, you do notice the pronounced drop in power and useable rpm, though the impressive auto really does harness either engine’s best, be it in casual Comfort or assertive Sport mode, underpinning a thoroughly polished and enjoyable driving experience.
We didn’t get a chance to put BMW’s tricky new hydraulic strut dampening to test in the 320d’s passive suspension format, mainly because the adaptive M suspension standard on 330i was optionally fitted to our diesel test car (which had, for the record, almost $12k of options). According to BMW, some effort was invested in further differentiating the ride qualities of the softer Comfort from the firmer Sport settings.
Again, there was precious little urban driving with which to assess Comfort’s ability to cope with speed humps, potholes and bumps at low speed, but on the open road the softer setting is very good, if prone to a bit of excessive vertical movement carrying speed over lumpy hotmix and the occasional jarring thud. We’re fairly sure that the slim sidewalls on those 19-inch Bridgestone Turanza run-flats – 225mm fronts, 255mm rears – weren’t doing ultimate pliancy any favours.
But by outright measures, either 3 Series is polite, dignified and nicely resolved when tasked with long-haul transit. Splitting hairs, the 330i was the quieter cruiser and less prone to road and tyre noise, perhaps down to the fitment of the multilayered front and front-side acoustic glass (a $400 option). In its primary role as an executive four-door runabout, the new 3 Series is pretty damn impressive.
Its secondary role as some ultimate driving machine figurehead is, however, important. Even if purely to protect the 3 Series heritage, its providence and its credibility. The quality of the handling, the steering and the balance has utmost significance whether or not a great many owners actually take notice or even care. But if you do care, it’s quite good news in 3er-land…
There’s a real sense of connection and fluidity to the 3 Series dynamic package and you don’t need to go sticking it into mountainous hairpins like a lunatic to reap its rewards from behind the wheel. There’s a nice evenness and clarity to the steering, the nose tracks confidently and eagerly, and the collective benefits of wider tracks, a lower centre of gravity and stiffer body structure undoubtedly allows the handling package to keenly blend stability and agility with both purpose and dignity.
Despite the 19 and adaptive suspension, these are not machines specified for heady high performance, so power, grip, corner exit drive and braking prowess are all fairly modest by design. And yet you can grab the 3 Series by the scruff and treat it like an M car, and will still reward the enthusiastic driver with impressive poise, cooperation and balance.
They are genuinely fun and downright quicker, point to point, than you reasonably expect them to be.
Not without limitations, of course. Corner exit drive is stymied somewhat without the (potential) benefit of the optional M Sport differential at an extra $2400 cost. And if you’re the last of the late brakers in downhill corners, you’ll really want the M Sport braking upgrade fitted to the diesel ($1400) that’s standard on the petrol to prevent that left pedal from going long. But in the realistic context of what these variants truly represent – warm luxury executive sedans – their fitness for the occasional fairweather back-road punt is very impressive indeed.
Safety wise, the 3 Series piles on a stack of contemporary safety smarts, such as 'full' collision avoidance AEB (paired with active cruise control with stop/go functionality), rear and front cross-traffic alerts, lane departure warning and active lane keeping, side collision and cross roads warning...it'll even defeat Drive if the door is slightly ajar...but only if you pay extra for the Driving Assistance Professional for the 320d, which only gets collision mitigation AEB.
All of the above, though, is standard on the 330i.
How they fare as all-rounders against Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class remains to be seen, but if the 3 Series brings with it the expectation of being the natural driver’s car to beat, this new version, in isolation at least, look to be more than capable of carrying the mantle and maintaining what many consider to be a hard-fought and well-earned reputation.
But between these two stablemates from Munich, it’s easily the 330i that delivers the most complete package that the 320d demands excessive cost-options in playing catch up. And given that there’s some uncertainty as to whether this new generation of 3 Series will offer a six-cylinder rear-driver below M-Car level – none have been confirmed – the 330i might prove to be the sweetest spot in the range in the long run.