The BMW 3 Series has always been the mid-size car of choice for those after a sporty drive, but competitors from Alfa Romeo and Jaguar have put Bimmer's engineers on their collective toes in this department.
At the same time, Mercedes-Benz and Audi have demonstrated, respectively, that flashier design language and cutting-edge cabin technologies are higher priorities for many prospective customers.
With that context in mind, say hello to the 'G20' 3 Series – a car that has impressed nearly every motoring analyst who’s set foot in it, because it juggles traditional BMW strengths along with much-needed improvements.
The chassis is a clean-sheet redesign, based on the company’s longitudinal CLAR (cluster architecture) shared in large part with the recently launched new X3, X5 and 5 Series. The car is bigger in every area, and the monocoque is up to 50 per cent stiffer than before. Yet it’s also counterintuitively 55kg lighter.
The purpose of these 'range reviews' is to explore a singular model line-up with the goal of clarifying which variants suit which buyer, and which you should steer clear of.
The 3 Series family currently comprises four engine and spec-level choices, kicking off with the 320i (there’s no 318i for now). Next step is the volume-selling 330i, then there’s the left-field 330e plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and finally the M340i xDrive flagship in lieu of the yet-to-be-released new M3 coming soon enough.
Spec and price breakdowns
For a base car it comes well equipped. You get a projecting head-up display, a 12.3-inch digital instrument display, and 10.25-inch centre screen running the latest BMW operating system controlled by touch, iDrive dial or voice commands. Alongside traditional sat-nav, it also enables nifty wireless Apple CarPlay.
Other standard fare includes a 32GB onboard memory system, a wireless phone charger, a digital radio receiver, a 10-speaker audio system, Intelligent Personal Assistant, and subscriptions to BMW’s app-based remote services, a concierge service, and traffic information. There’s also an inbuilt SIM with emergency call.
Inside, you get fake leather and Alcantara electric (driver) memory seats on the standard M Sport or leather on the no-cost Luxury version, and climate control with two zones up front and a separate temperature function for the rear-seat vents.
Safety features include eight airbags, forward and reverse autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, parking assist, and a reversing camera with reversing assistant. On the outside, you get 18-inch wheels in multiple designs, adaptive LED headlights, anti-dazzle mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, and run-flat tyres.
Naturally, there are extra-cost options.
Our 320i tester had $2500 Vernasca leather seats, $1500 BMW Individual 19-inch wheels, the $2600 Comfort Package (automatic boot, a proximity key fob, heated seats) and the $5070 Visibility Package (metallic paint, a glass sunroof, ambient cabin lighting, and BMW Laserlight selective beam LED headlights).
All of these prices include luxury car tax if applicable, plus GST.
The engine is a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol with 135kW and 300Nm, and provides a claimed 0–100km/h sprint time of 7.1 seconds. The combined-cycle fuel use claim is 6.3 litres per 100km. The sole transmission is a ZF eight-speed automatic, and it’s rear-wheel drive.
One new feature is a coasting function built into the drive-mode selector’s Eco Mode, which decouples the drivetrain if you lift off the throttle when going downhill to save fuel. The Sports mode instead makes the throttle response more immediate upon pushing the pedal, and the steering more resistant.
The G20 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.
There are cool passive dampers at the rear that house a slimmer internal cylinder which tapers downward and, as a small plastic ring on the piston enters, forces the internal oil pressure to grow and add controlling force over big hits.
For a brief window, there was a $3000 more expensive 320d diesel model with the same features as the 320i, but 140kW and a potent 400Nm, and fuel use of only 4.5 litres per 100km.
But reflecting dwindling diesel demand, it’s been deleted from dealer lots. Bad luck.
It is not particularly hard to see why this version is the top-seller. At $70,900, this mid-range model is a fairly modest $6000 (or 8.5 per cent) more expensive than the 320i.
In return for this, you get Vernasca leather and keyless entry, 19-inch alloy wheels, M Sport Brakes, a 360-degree camera view, an expanded parking assist system, and extra driver-assistance features like active cruise control and steering assist that keeps you between road lines.
Those clever passive dampers are also axed in favour of trick adaptive suspension with various damper tunes built into the drive-mode selector to make the car feel softer, or more firm and controlled, at the touch of a button while rolling.
If you were to tick these extras as options on your 320i, BMW’s list pricing including luxury car tax on every dollar would come to $10,600.
Plus, above this you also get a more powerful version of the 320i’s engine making 190kW and 400Nm, slashing the 0–100km/h time to 5.8 seconds (down 22 per cent) and barely affecting fuel use (6.4L/100km, up 1.5 per cent).
Finally, the 330i is also the only version of the G20 offered in wagon form, for $73,900.
Some of the options found on our two 330i test cars included a $400 heated steering wheel, $1400 front and rear heated seats, a $900 Sensatec dash cover (free with the Luxury Line), an $1100 nine-channel 464W Harman/Kardon audio system, and both the aforementioned Visibility and Comfort packages.
The $5000 more expensive 330e matches the 330i’s spec levels, since the difference is all in the drivetrain. The sole exception is a range of services built into the iDrive (renamed eDrive, shudder) including charge station locations, and the ability to set climate control via a phone app to prepare the car before you hop in.
Part of the set-up is the 320i's 135kW 2.0-litre engine, but it also sports an electric motor in the gearbox fed by a 10.3kWh capacity battery pack. With a new overboost mode making all systems ‘go’ and the fake sound inductor firing into the cabin, it can dash from 0–100km/h in just 5.9 seconds despite a 300kg weight premium.
But more importantly, the electric motor lets you drive in zero emissions EV mode for up to 60km before you need to plug it in for a 2.5-hour recharge on a wallbox, or do an overnight charge from your wall socket with the supplied 5m long, 1.8kW cable. That’s 50 per cent more range than before.
Once you run out of juice, the petrol engine with a 40L tank can then kick in and run the car, and charge the batteries. The claimed combined-cycle fuel economy of 2.2L/100km obviously degrades once the battery pack is out of power and you’re relying on petrol only.
Options on this particular black test car included $2500 ‘Merino’ leather seats and touchpoints, $300 metallic ‘Galvanic’ controls, and both the Comfort and Visibility packages.
BMW M340i xDrive
In lieu of the M3, a new version of which we’re yet to see but will soon enough, there’s the $99,900 M340i xDrive. Power comes from a 3.0-litre inline-six with twin-scroll sequential turbocharging. Output peaks are 285kW and 500Nm, the latter on tap between 1550 and 5000rpm, similar to the Mercedes-AMG C43.
Perhaps the biggest news, though, is the configuration. That ‘xDrive’ badge denotes all-wheel drive, which this car has as standard. The system does, however, have variable power distribution between the axles, and BMW claims it won’t easily lose its real-wheel bias in Sport and Sport+ modes.
The big benefit of AWD is all-weather stability, but there’s also straight-line acceleration. BMW claims the 0–100km/h sprint takes just 4.4 seconds. It’s just 0.1s ‘slower’ than the outgoing F80 Series M3. BMW has also fitted a valve-controlled exhaust unit, which makes the noise emanating from the pipes gruffer.
As well as the performance bumps over the $29,000 cheaper 330i, you get about $10,000 worth of extra features.
These include BMW Laserlight selective beam headlights, a tyre-repair kit rather than run-flats, an M Sport rear differential with fully variable rear-wheel locking, a spoiler and bodykit, 19-inch wheels, that 464W Harman/Kardon audio system, Benz-style changeable ambient cabin light piping, those Galvanic embellishers, heated seats, a Sensatec fake leather dash panel, and seat lumbar support.
The G20’s interior is a big step up, more spacious and sporting a cleaner layout. The fascia is still driver-oriented, but there are higher-grade materials used. The standard contrast trim finish is called Aluminium Tetragon, though you can buy various wood or metallic finishes for $300.
The new centre console and 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.
The centre screen’s latest 7.0 operating system is super easy to operate and premieres BMW’s new personal assistant activated by saying ‘Hey BMW’. The instrument screen can be modified to show navigation or active safety programs, or be minimised altogether. The head-up display is industry-leading for clarity and quality.
The trunk remains 480L (the wagon’s is 500L with a bigger aperture to… boot), and the 40:20:40 folding back seats carry over, too. There’s more head room and shoulder room, and bigger entry and exit spaces. I’m 194cm and can sit behind my own driving position, and had my own air vents and USB plugs back there.
A 3 Series needs to drive well, and the G20 retains this. The 320i’s passive dampers are quite good, with the body control staying flat through corners and the comfort level despite low-profile and hard-sidewall run-flat tyres proving decent even over Australia’s crap roads.
But the 330i’s adaptive dampers are better, letting you loll around in soft Comfort mode or add more stiffness and control when you choose. The Individual setting lets you make the engine and throttle sportier, speed-sensitive steering weightier, yet keep the ride softer, too.
The 330i has that wonderfully cohesive feeling where everything seems to work for everything else, from the razor-sharp turn-in, the firm-but-never-brittle ride, and the punchy enough four-pot with its preternaturally good ZF 8AT (the drivetrain is noticeably swifter than the 320i’s tuned-down one). The only downside is the ridiculously fat-rimmed M Sport wheel.
Of course, the M340i xDrive’s inline-six has far and away the raunchiest exhaust note. Taking a leaf from AMG in Affalterbach’s book, BMW has also fitted an M Sport valve-controlled unit, which makes the noise emanating from the twin pipes gruffer, louder and more inclined to pop and burble on overrun.
Thankfully, when pushed hard in tighter corners, the car also feels quite rear-driven thanks to the back-wheel bias and tricky diff shuffling engine torque across the axle. It retains some proper BMW soul.
The 330e’s electric-only range of 60km proved hard to match, but daily commutes of 40–50km are doable in EV form, and the petrol engine kicks in quietly. You can also save battery charge for later or let the car’s brain choose to best balance for you.
Yet ultimately, without government-enforced CO2 emissions caps, you won’t make up the $5000 price premium in fuel savings, so it has to be an environmentally minded decision you make despite of financial imposts. It’ll remain a niche as a result, based on Australia’s general sales figures for electrified cars.
I can’t really see why you’d get the 320i, when the 330i is patently a superior offering in every single way, including value for money.
But if you can drive away in a 330i for $75,000–$80,000, you’re getting what I think is legitimately Australia’s best luxury car. For now. But the market moves fast.