Keen dynamics and impressive tech headline the new 3 Series, but does the price-leading 320d still suffer BMW's base-model malaise?
History can leave an indelible impression. Witness the BMW 3 Series, long upheld as the standard to which all other premium mid-size sedans are judged, though over the years it hasn’t always been a standard bearer.
Regardless of how you rank generations past, the new G20-model 3 Series is the one that matters right now, and the 2019 320d shows some promising signs that BMW might maintain its reputation as the standard setter for the class.
As the price leader in Australia, for the moment at least, the 320d opens the range with pricing from $67,900 plus on-road costs and equipped with a diesel engine – fast looking like a rarity in the local market.
Audi no longer offers a diesel A4 here, Jaguar has dropped diesel variants of the XE, Lexus has never sold a diesel IS in Australia, and Mercedes-Benz is one of the few segment specialists persevering with diesel in the C220d.
It’s hard to see the logic in launching the 320d ahead of potential bigger sellers like the petrol 320i. However, if you’d prefer petrol power, the 330i is also available from launch, and of course the range will expand further as variants are made available.
As the entry point to the range, the 320d comes equipped with a four-cylinder turbo diesel engine rated at 140kW of power and 400Nm of torque. Power is sent to the rear wheels via a standard eight-speed automatic.
Both engine and transmission are carryover items from the previous-generation car, updated slightly to comply with the latest Euro emissions standards, but just about every other aspect of the 2019 320d is all-new.
You’ll no doubt notice this most obviously from inside the cabin, where the new car (understandably) takes a big step forward over the previous one. BMW’s latest modular interior elements, shared with cars like the new X5 and 8 Series look right at home, properly premium, and strikingly modern in places.
A standard feature is the digital instrument cluster, though the layout is perhaps a little busier than BMW’s previous classic dial ever used to be. Plus, the latest ‘OS7.0’ generation of BMW’s iDrive packed to the hilt with a variety of online services, digital radio, and a 12-month subscription to wireless Apple CarPlay.
That raises a few issues. BMW’s choice of a subscription model, instead of simply allowing open access like almost all other carmakers, is questionable. But given the constant dropouts and connectivity issues I experienced with the car (across all Bluetooth functions, not just CarPlay), it’s unlikely you’d want to put your hand up to pay for a system that worked less than half the time on test.
Were it not for that flaw, the new iDrive system would have impressed. It’s easier to use than ever before, and new conversational voice inputs further simplify operations by simply saying “hey, BMW” and asking for a change in cabin temperature, directions to an address or point of interest, or a variety of other in-car functions, though there’s still a long list of things the system can’t do.
Materials and interior presentation also step up. Tighter trim tolerances, a more liberal use of brightwork finishes, and premium tactility to just about any touchable surface give the 3 Series a much needed upmarket shot in the arm.
Unfortunately, even with a nearly $68K buy-in price, real leather trim remains an option depending on how you style your 320d.
With the standard M Sport package, Sensatec simulated leather and Alcantara seat trim are standard, but for a touch over $1900 you can add leather trim. The no-cost Luxury Line treatment (shown here) includes leather as standard, but deletes M Sport touches from the bumpers, wheels, steering wheel and front brakes.
Other spec highlights include a huge colour head-up display, wireless phone charging, adaptive LED headlights, 360-degree camera, three-zone climate control, and a clever function that recalls the last of your drive at low speed and can play your steering manoeuvres in reverse to help you semi-autonomously back out of a tight parking space you’ve driven into.
Driver tech encompasses traffic sign recognition, lane-departure warning, lane-change warning, forward-collision warning with autonomous emergency brake intervention, and rear cross-traffic alert, but oddly misses out on adaptive cruise control and adaptive lane keeping, though both are available optionally.
Tech might be part of the appeal to get you into the showroom, but getting you out with the keys to a 320d in your hands falls to the driving experience. Encouragingly, the news there seems good.
As is frequently the case, the new 3 Series platform grows in size but drops slightly in weight thanks to an increase in aluminium components underneath. Torsional rigidity is improved so handling should be sharper – which it is.
There's fantastic balance to the steering too, with a decent heft to the wheel and more feel and feedback than other non-M3 models have included for quite some time.
The car you see here is fitted with optional Adaptive M-dampers and upsized 19-inch alloy wheels (passive dampers and 18s are standard), so it’s hard to comment on what the standard ride is like, but there’s little to complain about with this set-up.
The ride remains comfortable over all but the ugliest of Australian road surfaces, with excellent body control and bump absorption that few will find reason to complain about. Toggling through from Comfort to Sport driving modes gives things a firmer undertone if you’re having a red-hot go too.
Unfortunately, the 320d isn’t really a red-hot kind of car. Although 400Nm of torque on tap is handy to have and endows the car with a sense of strength, it doesn’t react in any kind of hurry. BMW claims you’ll hit 100km/h from standstill in a brisk 6.8 seconds – the reality, though, seems much more sedate.
Rolling acceleration is the diesel engine’s strong suit and overtaking at highway speeds is a fuss-free affair, riding a solid wave of torque. Highway cruising also favours the 320d’s impressive economy, officially rated at 4.5L/100km in mixed driving with a not far off 5.1L/100km recorded on test.
Owners can also preview upcoming service costs through BMW Service Inclusive set-price servicing, which is priced at $1565 for five years or 80,000km (whichever comes first) at intervals determined by condition monitoring of the vehicle.
Despite the value inherent in capped-price servicing and frugal fuel consumption, the 320d’s biggest struggle seems to be an internal one against the petrol-powered 330i.
For an extra $3000, the more powerful (with matching torque) 330i includes additional standard equipment such as adaptive cruise control with integrated steering and lane-control functions, adaptive suspension, 19-inch alloys, comfort-access keyless entry, which also allows access from a compatible mobile phone, a power-closing bootlid, plus upgraded driver assist and parking assist functions.
Adding those features to a 320d, if you badly wanted them, would make it the more expensive of the two by far, though no BMW escapes without at least one or two options boxes ticked, it seems, 330i included. Factor in a minimum of $5K to get a 320d close to 330i spec (depending on if you opt for packs or individual options) or around $10K to go spec-for-spec, which still doesn’t account for the engine upgrade.
That’s not to put the 320d down, though. It’s a solidly engineered mid-sizer brimming with the kind of on-point handling that first roused the 3 Series legend – bolstered by a new, more impressive interior quality and tactility lacking from previous generations.
While it may not deliver demonic speed, it doesn’t really need to. Getting the value matrix just right, though, isn’t where the price-leading 320d excels. For that, upgrading to a 330i seems to be the better bet.