Contrary to popular belief, the sports sedan is not dead. In fact, BMW says its 3 Series will remain the most important car in its lineup for the foreseeable future. This was the bold message from the Munich-based manufacturer, which rolled out the 7th-generation of its "3er" business class sedan in Portugal. How can the Bavarian marque be so confident? Ah... well, that's because the new 3 Series significantly shifts the goalposts in this cut-throat segment.
South Africans love the BMW 3 Series. Though we missed out on the first-generation (E21) car, it's a love affair that started with the E30 and is rooted in performance, motorsport success and, in general, a more youthful appeal than what its main rivals from Audi and Mercedes-Benz have ever been able to offer. This golden thread of dynamism and performance is something BMW is acutely aware of, and while the latest G20-generation car offers more on-board and autonomous tech than any of its current rivals, it is clear that when it came to defining the product direction of the new 3 Series, BMW wanted to ensure that the new car again put clean air between itself and its rivals in terms of its driving experience.
> ALSO READ: New BMW 3 Series pricing released for South Africa
So, fret not... while the new 3 Series can reverse itself out of trouble, drive autonomously for longer distances than its siblings and even exchange pleasantries with you after a tough day at the office, BMW promises that the G20 remains a blast to drive. And that's why I find myself on the stunning, near-empty Algarve roads around Porches in Portugal; I need to figure out whether it's all just hot air...
Challenge 1: Best-in-class dynamics
This 330i M-Sport proved fun to drive on the near-empty Portuguese roads. Excellent body control, yet refined on rough surfaces.
Whereas it could be forgiven for focusing on technology, luxury and build quality (as its rivals do), BMW prioritised dynamism for the G20 and set lofty road-holding and on-road refinement targets from the outset, which significantly impacted decisions around the car's footprint. Consequently, it has grown in some key areas: the front and rear tracks are wider (by 43 mm and 21 mm) and the wheelbase longer (by 41 mm).
Of course, the Munich-based marque has made some savings too: the kerb weight is lower (by up to 55 kg) and so is the car's centre of gravity. The structure, meanwhile, is up to 50% stiffer than before (and the previous car was far from flimsy in that regard). Finally, it's worth pointing out that BMW has again achieved the desired 50/50 front to rear weight distribution. All of this sounds like a great base to work from, doesn't it?
But that's not all. There are essentially 3 distinct suspension set-ups available and, given the sportier pretensions of the newcomer, the standard comfort-oriented suspension should still deliver very crisp handling. The cars we drove in Portugal were equipped with the firmer, lower M-Sport set-up, but for those who want even more dynamic verve, adaptive damping will be optionally available (R11 400*).
Whether the latter will be necessary is difficult to say at this point, seeing as the standard, passive dampers are impressive in their own right. They feature hydraulic bump-stops and theoretically should allow for increased stiffness towards the end of their stroke. The pièce-de-résistance for the driving enthusiasts – those who like to let their Ultimate Driving Machines' rear-ends hang out, for example – is the optional electronically controlled limited-slip differential, which will be available on some of the pricier derivatives. According to our info, the latter will cost R19 500* in South Africa.
Precise steering and nice, thick-rimmed wheel make the 3 Series a pleasure to pilot.
BMW wheeled out the 2 derivatives that will be available in South Africa in March 2019: the 320d and 330i. I jump into the 320d first. Its 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbodiesel engine has the same outputs as before (140 kW/400 Nm), but efficiency has been improved to meet new (and much tougher) emissions legislation. It's no slouch, either... coupled with an 8-speed automatic transmission it can get to 100 kph from a standstill in only 6.8 sec.
But I take it easy on my first run on the unfamiliar (and very curvy) Algarve roads. First impressions are good... the steering feels very precise and responsive and the car's body stays reassuringly flat under cornering. I'm also impressed by the refinement.
BMW says it went to great lengths to reduce interior noise levels in the G20; all 3 Series derivatives, for example, are fitted with special "acoustic" windscreens that minimise wind noise intrusion. You can even order similar-spec front side windows. I'm not sure whether my test unit had these optional windows, but I can vouch that the newcomer's cabin is comparatively, very quiet, even when the road surface deteriorates.
M-Sport package adds bigger wheels and a lower ride height. As was the case with the F30, the 3 Series looks best in this garb.
The 330i M-Sport is next. The 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbopetrol produces slightly more power than its predecessor (190 kW/400 Nm) and is claimed to sprint from 0 to 100 kph in only 5.8 seconds. On my second run, I am relieved to find the roads that hug the Algarve quieter than when I sampled the 320d. That, combined with greater familiarity, allows me to drive the 330i significantly harder than its sibling.
And, the 330i responds beautifully to driver inputs. To me, the hallmarks of a great driver's car are responsiveness and control harmonisation. The latter is rarely achieved... I want a similar weighting/feel to the major controls (steering, brakes, throttle) and the new 3 Series seems to get very close to achieving this feat. Later, I ask the Driving Dynamics Project Manager Albert Maier why the steering in the 330i had more feel than in the 320d, thinking that there must be a spec difference. He suggests that it is down to tyres... And perhaps I just pushed a lot harder on the 2nd run...
At the time that this launch review goes live, there is nothing in this segment that can match the G20 3 Series for its ability to not only to be superbly agile in the corners, resist body roll and yet offer a satisfactory level of suppleness during everyday driving. Oh... and while purists will continue to lament the lack of a 6-cylinder engine underneath the 330i's bonnet, considerable acoustic tuning does give it a nice, throaty sound.
Challenge 2: More "evocative" design
With its long nose and rear-set cabin, the 3 Series retains the sporty persona of its predecessors. But the beauty is in the details.
Much as I imagine Porsche's designers will tell you at the birth of every new generation of 911, designing a new 3 Series is a major challenge. There is a lot of heritage that is valuable, yet there is also a lot of pressure to make more decisive steps than before. Design being a very subjective thing, I'm going to leave it up to you to decide (as you will, anyway) whether you like the look of the new 3 Series or not. I must caution you, however, that you may change your mind when you see it in the metal.
Believe it or not... this is a 320d. It's kitted out with M Performance Parts and set our Instagram account on fire.
The G20 retains the sporty, low-slung and cab-to-the-rear stance of its predecessors and although there's nothing particularly radical about its overall appearance, BMW has instituted a significant number of detail changes – and those aesthetic elements come to your attention when you put in the time and effort to find and study them. The 3er is also a lot more aerodynamically efficient than before (Cd figure of 0.23, as opposed to 0.26).
The surfaces are cleaner, the lines more defined and nods to the past clever. The L-shaped taillamps are particularly attractive, and I do love the nod to the E46 headlamps, though the treatment is far more angular on the G20. Of course, much of a modern car's facial persona is defined by the design of its headlamps and their interior detailing. The LED signature of the new 3 is fierce, which I like. Furthermore, the M-Sport package ups the drama and if you specify items from the M Performance Parts catalogue, you can transform an otherwise demure 320d into a serious head-turner.
Clean, crisp and very modern... the new 3 Series cabin may not look that different at first glance, but it is a big step forward.
Compared with the 3 Series' exterior packaging, its interior has taken a more significant step forward, though it may not initially appear that way. The "outlines" of almost everything will be familiar to BMW owners, but in terms of detailing and surfacing the G20 has moved forward appreciably. I spoke to the leader of the interior design team during a lunch break, and he mentioned that BMW wanted to achieve a "double generational step" for the cabin. Much of that will come down the tech (see the next point lower down), but in terms of design, he says, this has been achieved by cleaning up the surfaces and even cutting back on the number of different types of materials used, to avoid clashes and unwanted contrasts. A particular favourite of mine is the knurled finish of the ventilation outlet controls. They were inspired, I'm told, by one of the buildings at BMW HQ in Munich.
It's a thoroughly modern cabin, in the way it looks and functions, and when I consider the average age of the representatives that BMW made available for the launch in Portugal, it's easy to see why. It was created by a young team.
Challenge 3: Groundbreaking tech
Neatly clustered on the transmission tunnel - BMW's latest iDrive controller has become a very familiar and easy to use item.
There's no space here to go into detail on all the various comfort, safety and connectivity systems offered by the new 3 Series, but there are definite highlights that I'd like to point out. The first is the new BMW Personal Assistant system: essentially a digital "co-driver" you can interact with. As standard, you call your Assistant's attention by saying "Hey BMW", but you can also rename him/her. And what can your assistant help you with?
Well, the list is already long, and courtesy of remote updates, will continue to expand. The system also learns your habits and favourites, so can respond with the appropriate context. So, whether you need to find an Italian restaurant nearby, or want to know what the remaining range is, or the weather forecast, for that matter, the Assistant can provide you with that information. You can also call up certain functions through conversation.
If you say "Hey BMW, I'm tired", the Assistant will activate a music/lighting/air-conditioning routine to make you feel more energised. But perhaps most importantly, the Assistant knows how all the functions in the car work, and given that there are so many, it's cool having "someone" in the car who can explain how High Beam Assist works, for example. And does it all work? Well, I think it's one of those things that will get better (and more useful) with familiarisation, and the "assistant" did misunderstand me a few times, so perhaps the jury remains out on this one.
Find yourself in a tight spot? Don't worry, the new 3 Series can reverse out of trouble (almost) all by itself.
The 3 Series can be fitted with a raft of monitoring equipment, including radar, cameras and ultrasonic sensors. It therefore comes as no surprise that it offers such impressive autonomous ability. In markets where it is allowed (such as the USA and China), the 3 Series will drive its occupants at speeds of below 60 kph for much bigger distances than before, simply because it is far more aware of its surroundings.
I particularly enjoyed the ease-of-use of BMW's latest Active Cruise Control. I hit only one button on the steering wheel to indicate that I'm ready to go "virtually hands-off" and appropriate following distances, lane assist and speed settings (among others) were automatically selected. No fuss.
BMW has also been able to add some other interesting features, including a Reverse Assistant. How many times have you driven into a narrow, confined space with limited visibility, only to find that you can't continue and have to reverse? Well, activate this new system and the 3 Series will reverse you out trouble automatically (you only have to apply inputs to the accelerator and brake pedals).
In terms of connectivity and digitization, BMW has not been conservative in the least. The screens in the new 3 Series are every bit as large and sophisticated as those in the 7 Series, though ultimately lack the customisation that is offered by, for example, Audi. Voice control and (the more controversial) gesture control are part of the package, too. Interestingly, Apple CarPlay will be available but BMW hasn't quite cracked a deal with Google yet for Android Auto. Another cool feature (ironically for Android 8.0 and higher, NFC-enabled Samsung Galaxy phones, not iPhones) is the ability to open the car with your mobile device.
As ever, many features are optional extras, and I urge interested buyers to head for BMW's online configurator to spec the 3 Series of their hearts' desires to get a clear idea of just how much "all that wonderful" will cost.
The end... twin tailpipes will be standard on all new 3 Series models.
To say that BMW's new 3 Series has shot to the top of its class is to damn it with faint praise – after all, the current Mercedes-Benz C-Class may still be an attractive, recently facelifted car, but at its core, it is old. And the latest Audi A4 (itself due for a facelift in SA soon), has not quite received the welcome its maker may have hoped for. Alfa Romeo's Giulia is a painfully slow seller locally, as is the Lexus IS. Infiniti has disappeared and local consumers must still get their heads around paying premium-badge money for a Volkswagen (Arteon). So... the opposition is not at its strongest.
Even so, and within that context, the G20 represents a much bolder generational step than to what we've become accustomed from BMW, especially as far as the evolution of the 3 Series is concerned. Remote updates will ensure that it can stay in the tech game in the coming years and design-wise it certainly looks the part, inside and out, right now. These are areas where its rivals may find it easiest to catch up, but when it comes to the overall driving experience, the challenge to match the new 3 Series will be much harder. Once more, the BMW 3 Series stands apart as the most dynamic, sporting car in its class. But this talent no longer comes at the cost of refinement... or ride quality... or anything else I can think of.
New BMW 3 Series – price in SA
320d Steptronic auto - R649 253
320d Sport automatic - R652 253
330i Steptronic auto - R652 416
330i Sport auto - R655 416
Prices include BMW SA's 5-year/100 000 km maintenance plan.