CAPE TOWN – It’s safe to say the G20-generation BMW 3 Series is one of the most highly anticipated new cars to arrive in South Africa so far in 2019. Still, the venerable 3 Series is these days facing a threat from within its own Bavarian stable, as the buying public continues its migration away from sedans and towards SUVs, with the high-riding X3 even replacing the saloon on Plant Rosslyn’s production line in Pretoria.
That said, there is certainly still a local market for the compact executive sedan, particularly if it happens to wear a German badge on its snout.
As associate editor Gareth Dean pointed out when he drove the petrol-powered 330i in Portimao, Portugal late in 2018, the new-generation 3 Series takes an evolutionary approach to exterior styling (and a revolutionary one to cabin design, given the requisite options are selected). Interestingly, the 320d I drove in the Western Cape was not equipped with the M Sport package, but rather the Sport Line kit, which nevertheless provides a fairly aggressive front and rear treatment, and a suitably athletic profile. In fact, from some angles, I’d argue this simpler spec looks more attractive than the M Sport kit.
Under the bonnet of the 320d you’ll find the latest version of the Munich-based brand’s 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine, which here delivers 140 kW and 400 N.m of torque to the rear axle. Interestingly, the torque figure is the same as that of the 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbopetrol mill found in the 330i, the only other engine derivative offered at launch (more variants are expected later, of course).
Although the 320d is outgunned by the 330i in terms of outright power, it still does plenty to impress dynamically. The engine is peppy and highly capable in the mid-range, which makes exiting tight corners an effortless process. It communicates well with the eight-speed automatic torque-converter, which shifts smoothly and swiftly. The cleverly spaced ratios of this gearbox endow the 320d with impressive acceleration off the mark as well as a refined cruising ability.
Indeed, the oil-burner is surprisingly hushed, with almost no diesel clatter or vibration making its way into the well-insulated cabin. In fact, you really have to concentrate to hear the engine when driving at cruising speeds. There’s very little tyre roar, either, although I did notice some wind noise at higher speeds. Still, perhaps the most impressive feature of the 320d is its fuel consumption. After some 250 km of driving, the turbodiesel sedan consumed only a quarter of a tank, which equates to a figure not far off the claimed 4,8 L/100 km.
And the ride? Well, for the most part, the 320d offers a plush experience, but its 18-inch alloys sacrifice some degree of comfort over rutted tarmac. Although it shares plenty of characteristics with its predecessor, based on my first impressions, I’d say the G20 doesn’t feel quite as engaging to drive as the previous model (although I’ll certainly wait for the M340i and upcoming M3 to arrive before making a definitive call). That said, the 320d is more than capable of tackling a set of corners in a manner we have all come to expect from a 3 Series, and likely still ahead of the competition when it comes it dynamics.
Interestingly, while the 320d and 330i are evenly priced, there’s a distinct difference between the two once you’re enjoyed some time behind the wheel. While the 330i has more character and better performance figures, the 320d counters with a terrific mile-munching ability that makes it very well suited to open-road driving. That its turbodiesel engine takes small sips from the tank (resulting in a very respectable range) is another bonus.
So, is the 3 Series still the premium mid-size sedan benchmark? Well, while it’s probably a little too early to say, I’d venture its German rivals will have a hard time matching the G20’s all-round abilities, considering its now even loftier levels of refinement and much improved cabin.