2019 BMW G20 3 Series - Return to Form?
The most BMW of BMWs has been renewed. The seventh-generation 3 Series is out and we trek to Portugal to see if it marks the return of the ultimate driving machine
It’s always a challenge for car makers come time to design a new model, but a remake of the BMW 3 Series must be a particularly curly one. It’s facing a world of change in terms of how and what people drive, and also how that vehicle helps them interact with the world around them. So just how do you make the 3 Series relevant in times of disruption while reaffirming it as a true driver’s car?
Old and the new
To the casual observer, the look could be described as a mix of the old 3 and the new 5. They’ve gone for fewer body lines but made them bolder. It looks wider and lower and though the 3 is now 76mm longer (41 of those in the wheelbase), it’s just 16mm wider and only 1mm lower. An increase in track helps ground the look as the wheels have been pushed out to fill the arches better. The grille is bigger with slimmer headlights, LEDs now standard, laser lights optional.
Taillights have a sculpted effect about them, something the designer would have liked to see up front too but for practical reasons these needed to be flush fitting. Inside, there has been more of a generational leap as BMW looks to keep the 3 Series relevant in a fast changing carscape. Cue more screens and digital tech. The 3 is now the most up-to-the-minute BMW in terms of assistance features, both in terms of driver aids and on-board helpers. A screen replaces the analogue dials and sits on the same plane as the infotainment monitor for ease of viewing.
The tacho sweeps anticlockwise enabling more info to be displayed within the dial, and the infotainment screen can be customised to suit. There are now more touch and gesture controls for this, although the iDrive knob remains. The minor controls are coupled neatly together on the centre stack, though with the new assistant you’ll use fewer of them. The 3 features the latest operating system and aims “to connect life with the car”.
Like that in the just-released Mercedes, the onboard assistant will perform all manner of tasks by simply asking it nicely. It can adjust the air con, set the sat nav, check traffic and, in Europe at least, help you find a park. It manages well with the nuances of the Kiwi accent, performing most tasks we asked of it, occasionally apologising for being ‘a bit hard of hearing’, and for not being able to activate Sport mode as some functions still require you to press a button. BMW admits it’s not 100 per cent perfect.
As the digital guru, Christoph Maertin, told us BMW engineers of the past would have preferred to wait five years to ensure perfection but the digital world waits for no one.
So as improvements come along, the system can be upgraded over the air. Business users can sign in with MS Office 365 but it is also compatible with third party apps like Alexa. There’s the now usual swag of driver assistance features with improved active cruise and lane keeping systems, speed sign recognition and more advanced AEB tech.
Still got it?
Keeping the car relevant in a digital world is not the only challenge for BMW; it wanted to ensure the 3 was again the ultimate driving machine.
While the new compact sedan is larger with more kit onboard, it’s claimed to be up to 55kg lighter. Along with the usual 50:50 weight distribution they’ve lowered the centre of gravity (-10mm), increased the tracks and dialled in more camber up front. Body rigidity delivers better dynamics and while overall stiffness is up by 25 per cent, key areas like suspension mounting points are now said to be 50 per cent more robust.
Stiffened too are the front suspension links and bushings to deliver better steering but not at the cost of ride quality. With improved damper technology, this new 3 handles as you’d expect but where it used to be unapologetic about its sporty ride, it now delivers a more courteous carriage. The dampers are different front and rear and both have an additional piston in the shock tube, or ‘a damper in a damper’ as they call it.
On the front end, the aim is to keep the nose from bucking up over a bump, and at the rear they work to stop it bottoming out during compression. Upon hitting a bump, the extra force gets the secondary piston working and as it moves through its stroke the oil is forced through a narrowing section of the tube, ramping up the damping forces to smooth the blow and keep the car from pitching and diving.
To highlight the progress of this set-up, both cars we drove, a 320d and 330i M Sport, had the standard shockers, not the usual optional adaptive damping tech used during a product launch drive to hide any ride issues. The first car we drove was a 330i with the M Sport configuration. This brings with it a 10mm lower ride height, 20 per cent stiffer springs, more camber up front and even stiffer bushings.
Now while the 330i doesn’t quite roll out the magic carpet, it’s general progress is much improved, no boniness about it over roads that were far from perfect. It’s quieter too, engine and wind noise muffled with only some tyre roar on rougher surfaces, which is likely to be amplified on our coarse chip paths.
Heading off up an interesting hill road, it wasn’t long before the suspension faced a stern test through a series of deep depressions. Approaching them rapidly, we thought it was going to be an ‘oh dear God’ moment where bump stops get a workout but the 330i emerged unscathed, never threatening the stops or undercarriage. Through corners with ruffling bumps and chunks missing from the tarmac, the imperfections were well soothed, the body control and cornering line maintained, the steering uncorrupted.
The 330i was lapping it up, however our friendly local BMW minder in the back seat wasn’t, so we cooled our heels. It gave us a good chance to test BMW’s effortlessly fast ideal, and this can be quick without having to try hard, your progress smooth yet still comfortably swift. We jettisoned our back seat cargo for a run in the 320d, which surprisingly was also fitted with M Sport suspension.
We say surprisingly as we didn’t suspect it at first until checking the car’s spec sheet. While still not amazingly plush, any worries about ride harshness and M Sport suspension are relegated to the past. Pushing on through the bends, there’s an inherent balance that gives it a nimble character while the steering is sound; well assisted, shock free with feedback enough to manage the front end.
A determined approach is needed to unstick it up front, and just as you wind off the steering to get it gripping again, the rear end, which they tell us is tuned to be neutral ie not to induce too much understeer or oversteer, helps out to have it all tracking true and online. It’s a satisfyingly sporty drive this. Other bits specific to the M Sport set-up are bigger brakes and a larger booster for a more responsive pedal feel.
Adaptive M suspension is still optional while the M diff is on the menu too. The locking effect, controlled by an electric motor operating the clutches on either side of the diff, helps shift power to the wheel where it’s most effective to improve traction, cornering and stability.
The engine line-up is familiar but improved. The 2.0-litre 330i now makes 190kW with 400Nm on from 1550-4400rpm. There’s a low inertia twin-scroll turbo integrated into the exhaust manifold for better response while the direct fuel injection system gets a higher pressure pump, now squirting at 350bar. BMW says the 330i will crack 100 in 5.8sec and consumes between 5.8-6.1L/100km on average.
European models will get a particulate filter to comply with Euro6 standards, but is likely to be left off the NZ-spec cars, which only need to meet Euro5. This engine boosts up quickly, the torque coming on strong early and it revs with a certain verve when it’s called for, the power flowing to just past 6000rpm where the auto silkily plucks another gear.
The eight speeder (no manual options) has been optimised with a wider gear spread (shorter lower ratios, taller overdriven gears) and the shift speeds improved. Some would say the 320d is all the car you need. It now operates a bi-turbo set-up to improve low speed delivery while ramping up torque through a wider engine range.
BMW says it’s lighter and quieter than the old one while making 140kW and 400Nm from 1750 to 2500rpm. It’s good for a 6.8sec 0-100km/h and consumes between 4.2-4.5L/100km.
It too has the torque roused early, and on a cruise it lugs cleanly from 1200rpm in taller gears. Cantering at 130km/h it’s pulling a lazy 1500rpm in top. It lacks the added fizz of the petrol but doesn’t dither when the auto is in sport mode.
And from inside the cabin at least, it’s quiet. Frugal too, a 9L/100km average after a prolonged flogging in the hills dropped back to 7L/100km after some easy motorway miles. The only other variants confirmed for NZ are the 330e plug-in and the M340i.
The hybrid they say will offer a 60km electric range thanks to a better battery and return 1.7L/100km on average. There’s a system output of 185kW from the electric motor and 2.0-litre turbo, while a new XtraBoost mode will help develop 215kW for a short burst.
A more mature 3?
That’s our impression. There’s a sense of the 5 Series when you’re in the cabin, with added width and more premium finishings. The buttons concerning the drive are now all grouped around the gear lever (looks great, feels a little flimsy), including the start button and the electric handbrake. Cabin storage is at least improved (not amazing) and there’s no lack of charging points.
Rear passengers now enter more easily, and there’s more space back there too. The boot capacity and lid aperture are also better. Expect this new 3 Series to arrive here in March. While the dollars are still TBC, we’re told to expect some consistency in pricing with the outgoing line-up. And that’ll be good considering the big step up across the board.