PORTIMãO, Portugal – For more than 40 years, the BMW 3 Series, with its combination of luxury and rear-wheel-driven dynamic agility, has won favour with buyers looking for something a little more dashing than its business-suited segment rivals. Now in its seventh generation (check out pricing here), the 3 Series faces stiffer competition than ever, and its engineers have to shoulder the massive challenge of bettering a car that’s not just the core of the company’s product portfolio but also a motoring institution.
BMW has carefully instituted aesthetic changes that remain close to its predecessor, while moving the game along without ruffling too many feathers. Perhaps the most noteworthy elements are BMW’s more angular take on its signature kidney grille and much narrower, L-shaped brakelamps that lend the rear a bit of visual width. Otherwise, the taut sheetmetal and proportions are unmistakably 3 Series.
Sitting on a compact version BMW’s CLAR modular platform, which also forms the foundations of the 5 Series among others, the G20 3 Series measures in at 4 709 mm long and 1 827 mm wide, making it an appreciably larger car, especially in its 2 851 wheelbase, which stretches some 40 mm past that of the F30.
In all honesty, the F30’s interior wasn’t at the forefront of material quality and was beginning to look rather dated. The new BMW 3 Series, with a neat centre console that now incorporates the previously perched infotainment screen, clean lines and dense, slush-moulded trim, more than atones for its predecessor’s so-so finishes. Factor in a crisp digital instrument cluster and there’s a pleasing but sporty simplicity about the 3’s interior that does enough to carve out its own take on premium midsize accommodations.
BMW’s Intelligent Personal Assistant is pegged as one of the new car’s technological highlights; an automotive PA that can waft you with cool air, blue lighting and vigorous music from your on-board collection when drowsy, or sniff out good restaurants and other points of interest, all the while learning your preferences and moulding itself to your lifestyle. As with many voice-driven infotainment systems the implementation is hit and miss, but maybe time and practice will change that.
Behind the wheel
The tweaked aesthetics and new technology are welcome improvements, but it’s what happens behind that chunky steering wheel that’s really important. What is it like to drive?
Well, it’s not vastly removed from what you’d experience from the outgoing car … but that’s actually a great thing. The servo-assisted steering is marginally lighter but still feelsome and possessed of a more pleasingly progressive self-centring action. Body control remains supple, and whether you’re wafting along motorways or avidly tacking wonderfully sinuous mountain roads such as those on our launch route, the 3 always feels poised and in its element – a feat that sounds so straightforward, but remarkably few cars can capably carry off.
In the course of the G20’s development, BMW’s engineers managed to shave up to 55 kg off the kerb weight of certain models, and the agility that’s traditionally garnered the 3 such praise is very much in attendance, despite the new car feeling more substantial and planted. Although we’ve had few qualms regarding the F30’s ride quality, time spent with this latest model showed that BMW’s engineers have worked hard to make the ride feel even more resolved; implementing new lift-related adaptive dampers that rein in excess body dive under cornering and resist rebound.
Serving up 190 kW and 400 N.m, the 330i’s 2,0-litre turbopetrol is a solid performer that impressed on the roads near Portimão. Barring a slight hesitancy in response to sudden, hard throttle inputs, the four-cylinder unit pulls like a freight train and gels well with the eight-speed Steptronic auto transmission. That well-balanced chassis also inspired enough confidence on the narrow hillside roads to muck about with the paddle shifters. In most lower-powered cars, these manual overrides are largely a gimmick, but with the sportiest setting on the drivetrain management system engaged the transmission’s response to paddle inputs was surprisingly snappy.
In keeping with the new 3’s more polished demeanour, refinement has also taken an audible step up. Plentiful sound deadening and acoustic glass for the windscreen ensure that just a distant snarl of engine noise permeates the cabin when burying the throttle, while motorway stints are pleasingly serene.
BMW was never going to make sweeping changes to the 3, remaining true to its core product by leaving much of what appeals relatively untouched and smoothing out the bits that don’t.
Does it break the mould? Not as such, but as was mentioned earlier, the existing formula was already so good that the new car’s improved material quality and a modicum of refinement added to a satisfyingly adaptable package has just served to firmly cement the 3 in the finely balanced habitat it has created for itself in the premium midsize sedan scene.