While BMW has been wildly successful with their X-models, the 3-Series has always been the heart and soul of their range. The car that created the compact prestige sports saloon segment in 1975, the 3-Series had the field all to itself until the Mercedes 190 arrived in 1983.
Following on from the motorsport successes of the -02 range, it was natural that the 3-Series should go racing, and the many races and championships won only reinforced its sporting image. The 3-Series remains the marque’s core model to this day, and the amazing 15,543,000 units sold over six generations make it the world’s best selling premium car.
Now the all-new seventh generation 3-Series has arrived, and while BMW were keen to introduce as much state-of-the-art technology as possible into its new car they were also keenly aware that you cannot be too radical with the styling of a core model like this.
“While they want others to recognise it as a new model, repeat customers still want to feel at home with a new car,” explained Stephan Horn, Head of Product Management for the 3-Series. “Lineage and heritage are important to buyer loyalty, which is why it is important for a new model to retain the familiar overall proportions and be instantly recognisable as a 3-Series.”
While the styling of the new 3-Series may not exactly polarise opinion it is also not a universally agreed thing of beauty like the outgoing 4-Series Coupe for instance. Some of those present at the launch liked it more than others but there were no strong feelings either way. Perhaps that middle ground is best for a car that has to be all things to all men.
Because it has more muscular rear arches the new 3-Series definitely looks better with at least 19-inch wheels, which give it a more purposeful stance. Cars with the base 16-inch and 17-inch footwear might well look a bit top heavy and under-tyred, but that is a cross that volume designs with a wide engine range often have to bear.
The tape measure reveals an increase of 76mm in length, 16mm in width with just 1mm added to height. Critically, 41mm has been added to the wheelbase, while the 43mm and 21mm wider front and rear tracks help the handling and stability.
However, the extra room has not come at the expense of more weight. While many cars become heavier with greater size, clever use of the right high-strength, lightweight materials in the right places has improved the structural stiffness of the new 3-Series by 25%. The body-in-white is 20kg lighter thanks to the aluminium bonnet and front wings, and kerb weight can be up to 55kg less depending on the model.
While the double-joint spring strut front and five-link rear suspension is similar to the previous model, all the components are new and re-dimensioned with lighter suspension control arms made from forged alloy instead of pressed steel. A further 7.0kg was shaved from the rear differential by using an aluminium alloy housing.
As driving dynamics engineer Robert Rothmiller explained, “Good handling begins with a stiff bodyshell. In the past we looked at torsional rigidity as a static measure with the twisting forces applied at certain points of the shell. This time we homed in on measuring local stiffness where the suspension meets the body as this is where dynamic forces act on the shell in real world situations as opposed to on a test rig.”
“This led us to create new style rubber suspension bushes that can be stiffer to add precision without adversely affecting ride comfort. We also designed new lift related dampers that cost more to manufacture but are worth it from a performance and comfort point of view,” he continued. “
The new sports suspension is eight percent stiffer than before, and the wider tracks allow us to make the front and rear axle kinematics more neutral so the steering rod to rack movement is less and the car is more stable when you hit a bump mid-corner. We now have 1° 5’ of negative camber in front, which makes the turn-in crisper. The rear camber of 1° 45’ is similar to the outgoing model.”
Meanwhile the drag coefficient (Cd) has been pared from an already good figure of 0.26 to a class leading 0.23 on the entry-level 320d with the smallest wheels. This is efficient engineering in action.
BMW interiors have always been driver oriented with big, clear round instrument dials and a centre console canted towards the driver. If the exterior of the new car is clearly 3-Series, the cabin design is a significant break with the past.
The new style digital instrument pack was first seen on the X5 a few months back. While many X5 owners are conquest sales from other brands the serial 3-Series owners who make up the repeat customers may find the new design controversial, especially as the rev counter now reads the opposite way from normal. Personally I am not a fan.
Beyond that the iDrive system works really well and the big widescreen display is one of the best in the business, while the Driving Experience Control is simple and intuitive in use. The latest version of the optional Head-Up Display projects a 70% larger image onto the windscreen.
The wide range of seat and steering wheel adjustments allow most people to find a faultless driving position. In terms of cabin room, the slight increase in dimensions gives everyone just a bit more space, but the greatest benefits are felt in the rear seat.
The launch rollout models were the 330i petrol and 320d diesel, both featuring updated versions of existing 2.0 litre four-cylinder engines. The former produces a healthy 258hp from 5,000 to 6,500rpm, accompanied by 400Nm of torque between 1,550 and 4,400rpm. The smooth eight-speed automatic helps the 330i deliver a rapid 5.8 sec 0-100km/h time, while sipping fuel at a best average of 5.8 L/100km.
With a balancer shaft helping to filter out secondary vibrations this twin-scroll turbocharged four is smooth and willing away from rest. Mid-range is also strong, and you only notice the lack of cubic inches at the top end where there is simply no substitute for displacement and the extra two cylinders that come with BMWs finest engines.
As always the 320d provides a great balance of performance and economy, its output of 190hp at 4,000rpm and 400Nm of torque from 1,750 and 2,500rpm translating into a brisk 6.8 sec 0-100km/h time, accompanied by a miserly 4.2 L/100km average fuel consumption.
On the road it performs like a good 2.0 litre four-cylinder turbo diesel with decent throttle response and strong and linear pull through its working range. It is probably as quiet and refined as any compression-ignition four is going to get, but the key to its driver appeal is its strong and eager character. As diesels do not rev high this motor does its best work when coupled to the automatic transmission.
The all-new seventh generation 3-Series comes with the choice of three suspension options. Unfortunately, as happens on so many press launch events across the board BMW did not bring along the bog standard version, which would have given us a comfort baseline to judge the optional M Sport Active Damping fitted to the M340i xDrive cars we only drove on track.
Normal M Sport suspension and 19-inch wheels shod with 225/40R19 and 255/35R19 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber was fitted to all the 330i and 320d test cars we drove on the road. The camouflaged pre-production M340i xDrive cars we drove around Portimao Circuit on the second day had active damping, which is an option on lesser models, along with the electronic M Sport rear differential.
If I had to describe the suspension behaviour of the new 3-Series it would be composed, sure-footed and agile. However, our conclusions are not definitive as BMW chose to equip all the 330i and 320d test cars at the launch with the optional M Sport suspension, which is 10mm lower on uprated springs and dampers, and 19-inch wheels.
More’s the pity, as I so wanted to try the basic suspension on bumpy Portuguese country roads. On smooth roads, the combination of precise steering, responsive and well-balanced chassis really shone though, making the car a real pleasure to hustle through the bends.
However, the introduction of short, sharp bumps instantly changed that equation. While it maintained iron-fisted control over body movement thanks to effective rebound control the M Sport set-up was too restless for my liking.
The M Sport suspension would therefore not be a box I would tick if I lived in a country with dubious road surfaces and was looking for a suspension set-up able to facilitate a rapid, yet comfortable and unstressed pace on such roads. While the optional adaptive damping set-up should combine maximum comfort at one end with optimum sportiness at the other, the base suspension with say 17-inch wheels might be a good compromise for the comfort seeking normal driver.
The new 3-Series is certainly made of the right stuff. It looks tougher and sleeker than before, has a well-designed and ergonomically sound cabin with state-of-the-art telematics.
As the year progresses the two engines we tried on the launch event will be supplemented by the 184hp 320i, 150hp 318d and 265hp 330d models as well as the 330e Plug-In Hybrid. The xDrive all-wheel-drive system will be available for the 320d. In time the new 3-Series Estate, and then 4-Series Coupe and Convertible spin-offs will join the range.
The new 3-Series looks tougher and sleeker than before, has a well-designed and ergonomically sound cabin with state-of-the-art telematics. There is no doubt that it has the right stuff to carry on the fine sales record set by its predecessors.