FINALLY it’s here. After months of spy pictures, product analyses and overseas driving impressions, BMW’s new 3 Series range has reached local showroom floors. And we make no apology for running a picture of it on the cover yet again. After all, it’s a car that defines a whole segment. Established compact executive offerings such as the Mercedes- Benz C-Class and Audi A4, along with a range of wannabes stretching from the Alfa 156 to the latest Volvo S40, owe their market positioning to the iconic compact BMW.
The 3 Series is also BMW’s banker model. Accounting for something like two-thirds of the brand’s sales, it is crucial to the survival of the Bavarian company. So it’s not surprising that the Three is always the last of the model ranges to undergo the regular generational changes demanded by fashion and the march of technology. In the cases of both the E36 and E46 versions, the Three represented the ultimate refinement of the design direction being followed by the company at the time.
Aesthetically, there was no argument: both previous models were the final iterations of design parameters that, from their conception, had borne the stamp of approval of both the BMW faithful and converts to the brand.
This time round, the 3 Series comes in the wake of protests about the new style, adopted under the leadership of design director Chris Bangle, that has already appeared on the new Seven and Five, as well as on more niche offerings such as the Z4, 6 Series, X3 and 1 Series. So it’s understandable that the stylists have trodden warily with the new model, designated the E90. Although the slashes, swirls and socalled flame-surfacing are all there, they are all more subdued than in the other models. Chris Bangle has reportedly remarked that the new design direction has been perfected in the new Three. We think it’s simply been dumbed down…
Which is good news for 3 Series fans, many of whom will see in the E90 much that was admired in the E46. And, of course, it is a safer option for BMW, which won’t have to put up with the howls of protest and potential loss of sales that may have resulted from more extreme treatment.
At launch, the newcomer is being offered in 330i, 325i, 320i and 320d versions. Although slightly fussier in detailing than its predecessor, the 330i test car presented a muscular appearance, enhanced by optional 18-inch alloy wheels instead of the standard 17-inch units. They were fitted, sportscar-style, with slightly wider, lower-profile rubber at the rear. The Michelin Pilots (225/40 ZR18s in front and 255/35 ZR 18s at the back) were run-flat units, BMW having opted to delete the spare in the E90’s standard spec. A tyre pressure monitor warns the driver of a drop of over 30 per cent in pressure, and BMW says it is safe to continue driving for distances of up to 250 km at a speed of 80 km/h in the event of a puncture.
Body dimensions are slightly up on those of the E46, apart from the rear cabin, which offers slightly less head clearance. Model-for-model, the E90 is claimed to weigh 20 kg less than its predecessor, but body stiffness is said to be up by 25 percent, thanks to improved design and the use of new high-strength steel.
Suspension follows a formula adapted from the new Sevens and Fives. MacPherson struts do duty up front, with tiebars, track control arms and pivot bearings all executed in aluminium to save weight. A new fivearm axle is employed at the rear. In BMW tradition, there’s a full range of standard driver aids, including the latest- generation DSC, which includes ABS as well as functions such as antiskid control, cornering brake control and a system that wipes water off the discs to allow optimum braking in rainy conditions. Brake force display, which enlarges the brake light area when the ABS comes into play, is a standard feature. The test car was also fitted with optional active cruise control (ACC) – a function offered previously only on larger models – which maintains the required cruising speed by applying throttle or brakes when required, and incorporates a radar unit that allows it to maintain a pre-set following distance behind vehicles travelling ahead.
The new 330i’s 2 996 cm3 six is an all-new engine with slightly squarer dimensions than the unit in the E46 versions. It weighs 10 kg less than its predecessor, thanks, in the main, to a lightweight magnesium crankcase. Making its début in the six-cylinder range, BMW’s Valvetronic throttleless fuel-delivery system is combined with Vanos variable cam-timing and new lightweight camshafts to achieve impressive peak outputs of 190 kW at 6 600 r/min and 300 N.m between 2 500 and 4 000.
Though there is a six-speed automatic option, the test car came with a conventional six-on-the-floor manual shift. Fifth provides a direct 1:1 ratio to the 3,15 rear differential, with top an overdrive gear giving just under 44 km/h per 1 000 r/min.
Inside, the E90 follows BMW’s new style more closely than the exterior, with a facia that looks very similar to that of the smaller 1 Series. Even if you don’t like the style, you can’t fail to be impressed by the quality of the materials. Our 330i’s two-tone upholstery treatment gave an impression of space, with a wide brushed aluminium inlay spanning the facia, to reinforce the effect. The centre console also has an aluminium topping.
Though there is a more straightforward dash for those who choose to dispense with the much maligned iDrive system with its mouse-like controller and raised centre display, the test car was equipped with the latter. As in the 5 Series, the 3 Series’ iDrive has been simplified compared to the system as it first appeared in the 7 Series. Even so, it will take most owners at least a week (consulting a handbook, which wasn’t supplied with the test car) to really become familiar with all its functions. Integrated into the system are the in-car entertainment (radio, CD and DVD systems) and in-car navigation set-ups.
Despite the fitment of iDrive, which is supposed to do away with facia clutter, the central hangdown section is crammed with DVD/CD slots and air-con/ventilation controls. In usual BMW style, the major controls are well-positioned (the steering is adjustable for rake and reach), though our tallest tester found that the offset position of the pedals meant his foot kept brushing the footrest when depressing the clutch. He also found the central handbrake awkward. Several testers expressed their dislike of the stubby one-touch 7 Series style indicator and wiper stalks, which can occasionally have you selecting the wrong function if you press too hard.
Leather seats are standard on 330i models. The test car’s front chairs featured electric adjustment. The wide range of movement means drivers of all sizes can find a comfortable position at the wheel, but extra side-bolstering would be welcome. As we suggested up front, this is the most spacious 3 Series yet, apart from limited rear headroom. And, at 312 dm3 (measured by the ISO-block method), boot capacity is identical to that of the E46, but the test car’s rear seatback did not fold to extend the luggage area. A handy removable “drawer” in the boot can be used to store small items, but takes up 8 dm3 when in place.
As with the outgoing range, the 330i is offered with a long list of standard luxury and safety features. In addition to items mentioned earlier, the standard spec includes electric windows (with one-touch), climate control, remote central locking, optimised seatbelt systems, and six airbags. And there’s also a whole range of options. One fitted to the test car was an electric sunroof. Another, not fitted, but a useful safety feature, is bi-xenon headlights, which can be specified with an adaptive function that directs the beams around bends. Yet another, also not fitted to the test car, is active steering, which adjusts steering angle to road speed, cutting down wheel-twirling during parking manoeuvres, for example.
Start-up is by the the straightedged key and push-button system pioneered in the 7 Series. Although it’s all-new, the three-litre motor purrs into life with a familiar BMW six-cylinder sound. You immediately notice its greater flexibility: there’s no chance of stalling through applying too little accelerator on take-off. But creeping in traffic can result in some jerking until you modulate the pedal.
The steering is a bit numb around the centre, lacking the purity of the system in the old model, but it’s still a lot better than the competition. It’s also fairly heavy at parking speeds, though nowhere near as leaden as that of the 1 Series. And the vagueness around the centre made for some apprehension at top speed…
Ultimate grip and handling are of a high standard, even better than on the class-leading E46. Even with the electronic aids switched off, you can turn in and stand on the brakes with very little drama. With DSC in place, it’s as secure as you’re going to get. Braking ability is stupendous, the test car averaging 2,64 seconds in our 10-stop 100-to-standstill emergency braking programme, without the slightest protest.
Despite the run-flats, the ride is absorbent on most surfaces, and body movement well-controlled. But a particularly bumpy section of tar produced a jounciness that some may not be prepared to live with.
Performance is towering. The new 330i accelerated from zero to 100 km/h in 6,69 seconds, almost half a second quicker than the last E46 version we tested, blasted past the kilometre mark in 26,84 seconds, and topped out at an electronically limited 254 km/h. And with it all comes excellent economy. The new 330i’s CAR fuel index (our estimate of overall consumption in enthusiastic driving) worked out at 10,7.
Dumbing down Chris Bangle’s controversial new styling direction was just what the BMW marketers needed. The new looks, while not as pure as those of the E46, will offend few buyers. And they convey a true picture of a car that, under the skin, is more evolutionary than revolutionary. The strength of the E90 lies in the fact that (rear headroom aside) it is better than its predecessor in every area. It has upped the standards for the class. And that should have rivals such as Audi and Mercedes-Benz not a little concerned.