The current 3 Series has scored consistently high in road tests. Will a humble petrol and flagship diesel continue the impressive streak?

At the end of each year, we publish lists on CARmag.co.za reviewing the previous dozen months in motoring and one such compilation – which you can still find on the site – ranked the highest-scoring vehicles tested by CAR in 2019. It comes as little surprise that our 2020 Performance Shootout winner, the brilliant Porsche 911 Carrera S, posted the highest score of 89/100 (which in our new system would translate to 4,5 stars). Perhaps even less surprising, considering the praise heaped on the G20 3 Series since its launch last year, is that the 330i and 320d placed second and third, with a converted score of 4,5 stars each (85/100 for the petrol and 84/100 to the diesel).

When we publish another such ranking at the end of the year, the already-tested M340i will surely feature with its 4,5 stars. Is it clear how highly we rate BMW’s latest midsize-executive sedan?
 To find out if the quality of 
engineering filters through the range, we’ve brought together the local flagship diesel in the shape of the 330d and the second-from-bottom petrol (320i; there’s an entry-level 318i but the price difference between the two is marginal, rendering the 320i the better buy considering the boost in performance). They’ll also be an interesting study in whether it’s worth stretching to the delights of the 330d should you have considered the 320d; and if it’s worth purchasing a 330i when the 320i is nearly as accomplished.

Design outside and in

We’ve written at length about BMW’s new design philosophy – big kidneys; fussy bumper inserts – but the G20-generation 3 Series stays on the right side of classy and conservative, as befits one of the company’s bestselling models catering to a multitude of global tastes. Both these test units boast the optional M Sport package, which adds just short of R50 000 to each model’s price. Bundled into the set are Shadow Line trim, an M aerodynamics package with a sportier front apron and side skirts, a diffuser insert aft and 18-inch alloy wheels (swapped out on both these vehicles for 19-inch items shod with 225/40 tyres). They look fantastic, especially the 330d painted in vivid Sunset Orange Metallic paint, and the proportions are perfect, sporting a classic cab-backwards stance.

Inside, this 330d features a demure selection of materials – Vernasca Black leather coupled with Aluminium Tetragon trim (some testers loved these inserts; others thought they cheapened the look) – that are uniformly solid to the touch and feel built to last. This 320i, meanwhile, is trimmed in optional Vernasca Cognac leather alongside ash-grey wood veneer that, again, you’ll either love or loathe (we settled in the former camp). There are myriad combinations available, which could be a fun/daunting exercise when speccing your car.

The 3 Series’ cabin is practically beyond reproach. As mentioned, the materials are excellent, easily feeling like a match for those in the Audi A4 and pipping the post-facelift Mercedes-Benz C-Class’ solid trims. The infotainment system – now uncreatively called BMW Operating System 7.0 instead of iDrive – is class-leading but perhaps offers one or two too many control methods. We generally deactivate the optional gesture control in a test vehicle, as expressive hand movements during a conversation can easily trigger the system into changing settings. Best is to use the traditional scroller instead of the voice system or touch functionality on the 8,8-inch central screen, which increases to 10,25 inches should Live Cockpit Professional be selected, as it is on both these cars.

If there’s an element of the 3 Series’ display setups we’d criticise, it’s a lack of adaptability for the digital instrumentation. Other manufacturers allow you to shift through several design themes or even organise the screen to your requirements. The oddly shaped dials aren’t the easiest to read, either; it’s a pity the superb head-up display system is a pricey R17 000 option. We rejoice at the presence of physical climate-control buttons as they’re much easier to adjust quickly and safely on the move than controls relegated to a screen.

Elsewhere, leg- and headroom are abundant for four adults – a fifth’s legs would be uncomfortably splayed either side of the intrusive transmission tunnel – and the 40:20:40-split seats fold to enlarge the generous boot from 
368 to 1 000 litres of utility space. No longer can a 3 Series be considered cramped.

Under the bonnets

This is where the differences between the 320i and 330d are most stark. The former features an evolution of BMW’s familiar TwinPower Turbo 2,0-litre petrol engine sporting 135 kW and 300 N.m available between 1 350 and 4 000 r/min.

The 330d, meanwhile, boasts an inline-six 3,0-litre engine generating 195 kW and 580 N.m of torque from 1 750-2 750 r/min. Both models – as do all other non-M3 Series iterations – feature ZF’s renowned eight-speed automatic transmission, coupled in the 330d to steering-wheel paddles thanks to its standard Sport Steptronic setup (R3 000 more on the 320i).

If the 320i impresses with its strong acceleration, passing the 100 km/h point from standstill in just 7,89 seconds, the 330d is the real star of the show. It needs a mere 5,68 seconds to accomplish the same feat and sounds great doing so; a low rumble gives way to an inline-six cry at higher engine speeds (although it still sounds very much like a diesel, don’t be mistaken). The 320i has a surprisingly appealing metallic edge to its tone, as we found with this engine in the Z4 sDrive20i we tested previously. Both powertrains work flawlessly with the transmission, swapping cogs intuitively and smoothly without every feeling lazy or overzealous.

Impressively, the 330d managed to post hot-hatch-rivalling performance figures the one minute and a meagre 5,9 L/100 km fuel-route figure the next. Perhaps more remarkable, considering it fills from the petrol pump, is that the 320i sipped just 6,4 L/100 km on its outing in similar conditions.

Ride and handling

We’ve mentioned in previous drives and road tests on the 3 Series that it’s crucial to spec your Three carefully to extract those qualities you expect in your midsize-executive sedan. The M Sport package includes firmer suspension settings as well as variable sport steering. While we have no qualms with the latter’s varied gearing, the suspension setup is resolutely firm. Interestingly, however, M Sport can be supplemented with Adaptive M suspension with adjustable damping settings, a feature fitted to this 320i (but not the 330d). The adaptive option is a worthwhile addition considering the relatively low price of R11 400.

So equipped, the 320i rounds off the worst bumps and scars while retaining the class-leading body control that’s become synonymous with the 3 Series. Still, it’s unquestionably firmer than a C-Class and we suspect the perfect setup is a Standard or Sport Line (not offered for the 330d) model or an M Sport with the standard 18-inch wheels and the Adaptive M box ticked. It’ll retain most of the dynamism while softening the ride in daily conditions.

However you spec your 3 Series, though, you’ll be buying a vehicle that’s at the head of the pack for handling ability and grip (mild understeer is the default cornering attitude but can be easily corrected with a dab of throttle). Certainly, the Alfa Romeo Giulia steers a touch more cleanly and the A4 and C-Class are plusher yet none match the BMW’s raft of overall talents.

Braking, too, is exceptional, this 330d posting an average time across 10 stops of just 2,69 seconds and the 320i only slightly tardier at 2,77 seconds.

Equipment and safety

All 3 Series models boast LED head- and taillamps as standard, plus attentiveness assist, sat-nav, park-distance control front and rear, keyless start, Bluetooth connectivity and USB ports. The 330d replaces the 320i’s Sensatec faux leather with real hide and adds electric adjustment to the front seats plus a memory function for the driver’s side, as well as a reverse-view camera. A number of optional extras are offered and, while it’s tempting to add such niceties as a sunroof (R14 300) and upgraded audio (R11 400 for a Harman Kardon system), keep in mind you’re unlikely to recoup these costs when you sell your vehicle.

Items we would opt for include wireless smartphone charging – pricey at R5 800 but the convenience of not fiddling with cables is worth it – and BMW’s entry-level driver-assistance suite that, at R12 900, includes lane-departure and lane-change warnings, brake intervention when a front collision is imminent, plus cross-traffic alert, rear-collision prevention and a digital readout of the speed limit. Ambient lighting is, of course, not essential at R5 300 but does give the cabin a real lift during evening driving (curfew permitting, of course).



TEST SUMMARY

We’ve now tested five different 3 Series derivatives and they’re all unvaryingly outstanding. The 330d has a drivetrain of such immense appeal, we could easily recommend it over the 320d should your budget allow, while the 320i offers a surfeit of performance to render the 330i potentially obsolete … we’d completely understand if you fell for the latter’s bolder charms, though. 
Is there another range of vehicles in our market that’s so consistent, from entry-level derivatives right to the flagship (in this case, the M340i)? We can’t think of one. No pressure on the new M3, then, to further this stellar pedigree.  

BMW 320i score: 4,5 stars
BMW 330d score: 4,5 stars