Is the all-new BMW 3-Series still the benchmark for its class?

We drive three different variants
by Paul Horrell | Dec 15, 2018
PHOTO: TopGear.com
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What is it?

In the automotive woodland, the BMW 3-Series is one of the great oaks. You can name them: VW Golf, Porsche 911, Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz S-Class. They’re what define the landscape. The unchanging cars, the ones by which we all orient ourselves. Through decades of careful evolution, they have all become standards against which everything else vaguely similar is inevitably measured.

The 3-Series is also central to what its maker is all about. It accounts for one in five of all BMWs sold worldwide (and that’s before you add the sales of the 4-Series). So, if you’re BMW, you don’t mess around with this model.

Sure enough, after 40 years, this new generation declines to ambush us with any great surprises. It’s still a sporty, smart, respectable, comforting prospect. That’s despite the fact that its component parts are almost entirely different from the last one. Pretty much all that’s been handed on from before are the engines and the transmissions. But we defy you to find much wrong with that particular inheritance. And anyway, they’ve been improved.

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One of the aims for the designers was, “Don’t make it look like a 5-Series,” which is good because when I saw an old 3 or an old 5, especially as Tourings, I had a job to tell which it was.

The new coachwork has very taut metal along the sides, and subtle but sharp creases, and holds its hood low over the wheels. It’s one of the few recent BMWs without outlet vents behind the front arches; in this car, they would have made no difference, says the designer. Another easy spot: The main side crease no longer runs through the door handles.

The body is stiffer and larger now. The suspension principles, the seats, the electronics and so on cascade down from the bigger cars BMW has launched in the past couple of years. The suspension and the drivetrain use more aluminum than before; the hood and the front wings are aluminum, too. Overall, the weight saving is beyond 50kg in most variants, and this generation is more slippery through the air, too.

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The 320d (the white unit in the photos; the blue one is the 330i) now has twin-sequential turbocharging with VGT for the bigger of the two puffers. Thanks to that and to the loss of weight and drag, an automatic 320d will get to 100kph in under 7sec, but the spec says CO2 emissions of 110g/km.

The other end of the scale—at least until the M3 arrives in a pall of tire smoke—is an M340i xDrive. This one is a significant step up from the old 340i. There’s four-wheel drive, plus M mods to the chassis, brakes, and styling. This is one part of the 3-Series range where it wasn’t the de facto standard: In both power and four-wheel-drive-ness, this is BMW playing catch-up with the Audi S4 and the Merc-AMG C43. And as we’ll see, doing a stonking good job of it.

Overall, the latest G20 generation’s body is almost 8cm longer, so it’s hard to call it compact now. The width is up a bit, the front track by 4cm. Careful not to injure those wheels. Given that swelling of dimensions, the increased cabin and trunk space don’t look all that clever. But given the weight reduction, they do.

What is it like on the road?

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Back to our ‘great oak’ theory. The 3-Series is the driver’s sedan. Except that during the previous F30’s life, other saplings rapidly grew to match it. The Jaguar XE’s powertrains, for instance, are a facepalm, but the Jag is more composed than the BMW when twisty roads are bumpy, as they typically are.

First mile down the road, the new car jabs you in the chest and tells you it’s sporty. The ride is notably taut. The steering is sharp and accurate, without being nervously direct.

The response rates from steering, roll, and yaw are deliciously matched, so you peel into a bend almost without thinking, placing the car just so on the road. The Sport chassis option gets firmer bushes for more precision, and progressive-rate steering that’s useful in hairpins.

Lean harder and the BMW refuses to understeer, subtly squatting onto its thighs and swiveling around and out of the curve. Damping is solidly disciplined, and it feels light without any sense of fragility. Using up the grip will be a rare event. That said, if it’s wet, the rear-drive versions—even the 320d—are up for a neat tail-slide if you’ve tapped the DSC button into its mid setting.

It’s not a sports car, though among normal sedans, you won’t find one that’s much more fun.

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But the steering isn’t perfect—it’s disturbed and knocked off course by bumps, in straights as well as bends. This was always the deficiency of the old one. It’s better now, but not as well-suppressed as the Jag, never mind the deliberately isolating Mercedes and Audi.

As for the ride...wow, that’s really a bit punchy. Flat-through-the-esses competence is all very well, but common observation says a 3-Series is going to spend most of its time in more constrained circumstances. There’s little difference between the lowered sport version or the standard setup. The new dampers move more easily in the middle of the stroke than the ends, but even so, over small corrugations as well as big bumps, the suspension never relaxes. Or lets you.

The final option, an M Sport Plus package, gives adaptive damping with 19-inch wheels. We haven’t tried it, but BMW says that the former compensates for the punishment of the latter. It also adds an M Sport e-differential and upgraded brakes.

Still, as a long-distance car, the 3-Series does everything to compensate for that ride. Quietness and refinement are first-rate, especially from engine and wind noise. The car features screen pillars with foam and acoustically insulating glass. Highway stability is fine, too.

We’ve started with the chassis because with BMW, powertrain excellence is pretty much a given. The 320d is strong for the type, but calm. It’s still a four-cylinder diesel, so you’ve still got to get your fun from the cornering, not the engine. At least it’s muscly enough to let that happen.

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The 330i gasoline is a bit of a peach. For a four-cylinder, it’s remarkably smooth and blissfully keen to rev out to 6,800rpm. It’s a 5.8sec car to 100kph. Even more than in the diesel, the eight-speed transmission shows it to its very best advantage. There’s no significant torque-converter slip, and the gear changes are super-snappy yet perfectly smooth.

But the 330i isn’t a six-cylinder. The M340i (pictured above wearing camo) is. We tried it out on a racetrack—a place that shouldn’t suit an AWD sedan, but it does. The newly revised engine kicks out 370hp, putting it conveniently alongside the S4 and the C43 AMG. It revs to 7,000 and sounds gorgeous.

This has all the M Sport Plus chassis goodies listed above, and an electronically controlled center diff that’s been programmed, in Sport mode, to chuck to the rear tires all the power they can handle. And quite a bit more for luck, provided the brain sees you’re up with the steering correction. It lets you play the fool, but protects you from your foolishness.

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It might be a driver’s car, but of course, you can spec a pack of driver aids. When you choose to use them, you’re well supported by the speed and lane control. That’s nothing special for this class of sedan. Better than that, it’s pretty easy to configure them to do what you want at the time you want it. Especially with the heads-up display, it’s also easy to see what’s activated and what’s not.

That reduces a common problem with driver aids—that they intervene when you’re not expecting them to. Or, worse, you neglect to do what you should because you’re expecting it to be done for you.

Layout, finish, and space

The new 3 is emphatically better-furnished than the old one, but it hasn’t moved ahead as fast as the best opposition. It’s modern, all right, with high-def screens all over the place and ambient lighting strips and lots of metallic highlights. But it’s not as plush or as lovingly crafted as an Audi or a Mercedes. Just a little cold-looking.

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It’s certainly big enough. The longer wheelbase serves up adult-size rear legroom. Behind that is a bounteous trunk, with folding seatbacks if you need more. This could be a family car, though you’d probably wait a bit for the Touring, which is only a matter of months behind the sedan.

As rivals increasingly migrate to touchscreens and swipe pads, the good old iDrive rotary controller feels more and more like coming home. You can use it without looking down, even when the car is bouncing along. There are innumerable other ways to interact, including a touchscreen, plus a full Alexa-style ‘connected personal assistant’ by voice. Which sometimes actually works. Sometimes.

The base variant gets hardware instrument dials. We asked the project director if they are actually less expensive to manufacture than a virtual-screen setup, and he said not really. It’s all about giving the sales department an upgrade to charge for.

So, the upper-spec versions get a virtual driver’s cluster, plus a 10.25-inch display. As we’ve said before, BMW’s virtual dials are long on information and short on legibility.

Final thoughts

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No one was expecting BMW to screw it up, and as you’ll have gathered that hasn’t happened. Not a bit of it. There’s a new life and sharpness to the powertrains, and the handling is tighter than ever. Yet it’s also quiet and refined.

The hygiene factors are all there in abundance, too. It’s good to sit in, roomy enough, well-equipped, and not costly to own.

All that’s keeping the new 3-Series from scoring higher on our tally sheet is the firm ride and the excellence of the opposition.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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