Photos: BMW, Fabien Kirchbauer, Derryn Wong
The seventh-generation ‘G20’ BMW 3 Series is very, very different from its predecessors. We know because we talked to it – literally.
The 3 Series is a tremendously important model for BMW, perhaps the most important model of all. Not only has it been a sales powerhouse for the brand from its ‘modern era’ (from 1975 on) with 15-million sold in the model lifetime, it encapsulates the brand more than any other model.
But as Ju-Len saw at the Los Angeles Motorshow, BMW is fundamentally different from the company that pioneered the sport sedan in 1975.
The BMW of the future, the iNEXT: Steering wheel optional.
So is the G20 what a 3 Series is ‘supposed’ to be? No.
The new G20 3 Series was announced in October, and as covered in our earlier news story, there’s a whole raft of changes. To compare, here’s the rundown on the F30 3 Series final update, the 2015 facelift.
READ MORE: All the changes of the new seventh-gen G20 BMW 3 Series
The car’s grown much larger (+76mm to length, +41mm to wheelbase, widened track and body), but is lighter, 25kg in the specific case of the 330i shown here.
The 330i we tested was in M Sport trim – the usual body kit, larger wheels, M Sport brakes, interior M bits, dual tailpipes, all absolutely no surprise and the same as we’ve seen on other cars like the X3 and previous 3 Series too.
The car’s newfound size is immediately noticeable. In Portimao Blue Metallic, it looks almost like a big coupe or grand tourer, i.e. low, wide, and purposeful, the LED headlights with their double ’underbrow’ (a tip of the hat to the fourth-gen E 46) are the giveaway that this is the new version.
Shown on this car are the LED/Laser headlights with super-long range 530-metre high-beam, though it’s unlikely to be offered as standard equipment for Singapore.
To speak of loadout, BMW says the 3er will be more worth the cash (again see our news story) as globally the 3er will have much more standard-issue stuff than before.
The glass cockpit approach is really taking off and the 3er shows it. The test car came with the optional, larger displays that are touch and gesture capable, but also thankfully preserve the rotary ‘classic’ iDrive-style controller.
We feel that the latter is still superior for those who want something less distracting than pure touchscreens, or don’t want to talk, gesture, or prod their way to their objectives.
It’s worth mentioning that BMW’s Intelligent Personal Assistant (see below) is almost as easy as Siri to use, just like the Mercedes ‘Hey Mercedes’ assistant in its latest MBUX system.
| Talking Heads
Or how we talked to the new BMW 3 Series and found out it has a sense of humour
BMW’s new speech control system is called Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA), and it does live up to the ‘intelligent’ bit. For years we’ve tested speech-controlled infotainment but come away disappointed with the machine’s inability to understand basic commands. IPA vindicates that, as not only can it understand Queen’s English, it can also understand the same phrase incoherently growled with heavy metal music blasting in the cabin. It’s not a frivolous addition but a useful one, as it allows you to access almost every function you can with manual control – for instance anything from info about the car (When was my last maintenance?) to diddling systems or finding destinations (Find me a Starbucks). It can’t do absolutely everything, for example ‘I want more bass’ deposits you at the sound equaliser menu, but it comes closer than any other system to date.It even has a sense of humour: We told it we were bored and it suggested we try Sport mode.
The cabin jumps up to the quality line set by newer BMWs, like the X3 and 6 GT, with solid, muscular lines traced by ambient light, topped by solid metal surfaces and trim. The central control section, with gearshifter, touchpad, controller and mode buttons, is neater now, but we did miss a rocker-type mode switch to easily toggle driving modes.
Important, since the 330i is fully capable of rather tremendous pace for a ‘small executive sedan’, which is officially what the segment, including the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and A4, is termed.
An enduring 3 Series trait the its ability to be driven hard on pretty much any road, and despite the G20’s size-gain, it can still do all roads, all day long.
Our test route ran the usual gamut of highway, fast A-roads, and tighter B-roads, and the 330i dealt with all of it in a remarkably consistent fashion.
The 2.0-litre turbo engine isn’t BMW’s most brilliant powerplant, but it does have unflagging power nearly up to the redline, prod-and-you-have-it torque, and a rorty soundtrack that’s more interesting to the ear than Mercedes and Audi equivalents. Only those permanently spoilt by maniac horsepower figures will have any cause for complaint.
The firm ride quality is obviously sports-biased, and less suited to slow going on really rough roads, though its busy-ness doesn’t translate to vagueness or hesitation on your part – you feel you always know what the tyres are doing.
50km/h through bumpy town roads can be a chore after awhile, which bodes less well for translation to Singapore, but the quicker you go, the better it gets. Even the worst kind of bumps – the major kind that leave the car weightless at speed and in the middle of corner – can’t shake the 330i’s implacable traction.
The new variable-lift damper system contributes to that. It’s basically a conventional hydraulic system that works like an adaptive one, but without the added weight and complexity of electronics and adaptive circuits.
Suspension choice plays a big part here (see box) – note that our test car came with M Sport suspension (non-adaptive), the variable M steering, and the M Sport differential, again, equipment which may or may not be included as standard here in Singapore.
M steering wheel seems to have gotten even fatter than before. People with small hands may be mortified.
We’re guessing that just like the previous-gen car, the best all-round 3er will be a 320i with more comfy, standard non-M Sport suspension, and it’s a pity we didn’t get to test that at the drive.
The steering is imbued with great precision, though not equally great feel at high loads, but its accuracy does help tame the 3er’s new wideness.The car no longer feels as compact or pointy as it used to, and it’s less wieldy on very tight European ‘1.5-lanes’ two-way carriageways.
The importance of that to Singaporeans is debatable, but what isn’t is the increase in refinement.
Despite the big wheelbase increase, interior room feels much the same. The boot is the same size too, at 480-litres, though BMW engineers say it’s now one larger, more usable space.
Ride-quality aside, the standard acoustic windshield and non-standard front side windows (on our test car), and low cD quelled wind noise, bolstering the 3er’s GT aspect. It can cruise, and corner, at triple digit speeds all day long, not something you could’ve said about a mid-spec 328i of the previous gen.
Most of us will welcome the gains, but the pickiest driving enthusiasts will lament the further loss of the analog element and manageable size.
Variants, mutations, and equipment aside, the G20 is quite obviously a worthy heir to the 3 Series name in the driving department. It inherits most of the likeable parts of its forebears without shedding too much character.
But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed tremendously.
Is a 3 Series supposed to talk to you like KITT in Knight Rider, pack technology even the 7 Series doesn’t have, and feel as refined as a 5 Series? Historically speaking: No, no, and no.
Like the VW Golf GTI the charming ( and to some, intimidating) mannerisms of the past have been eliminated for greater, easier-to-access speed and grace.
Even in this age of electrification, the supposed death-knell of petrol, and increased computer intelligence, BMW simply can’t afford to have a 3 Series that is anything but less than stellar. The G20 is, even if it does bring the 3 Series name into strange new territory.
BMW 330i M Sport
|Engine||1,998cc, inline 4, turbocharged|
|Power||258hp at 5000-6500rpm|
|Torque||400Nm at 1550-4400rpm|
|Top Speed||5.8 seconds|
|VES Band / CO2||TBA / 136g/km|
|Agent||Performance Motors Limited|