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CAPE TOWN – Its 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 Rosslyns 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 youll find the latest version of the Munich-based brands 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. Theres 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, Id say the G20 doesn’t feel quite as engaging to drive as the previous model (although Ill 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, theres 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 its probably a little too early to say, Id venture its German rivals will have a hard time matching the G20s all-round abilities, considering its now even loftier levels of refinement and much improved cabin.

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.

Evolutionary outside 

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.

Revolutionary inside

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.

Powertrain

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.

Different enough?

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.

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