► Production BMW 3-series review
► We drive 320d, 330i and M340i
► First verdict: it’s another corker…
It’s the big one: the 2019 BMW 3-series. Since the mid-‘70s Munich has built and sold over 15 million of this model, and it’s the closest you’ll get to a BMW becoming a household name.
Internally dubbed G20, this is an all-new 3, despite looking similar to the previous one. It’s built on the modular CLAR architecture, affording it full access to BMW’s parts bin, and takes the fight directly to its main rivals in the shape of the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4.
We’ve finally been behind the wheel of a couple of production-ready cars in Portugal ahead of its UK on-sale date in March 2019, and a track test of the warm and wonderfully wicked M340i xDrive around Portimao was the veritable icing on the cake.
Read on for our full new BMW 3-series review.
All the news, specs and details of the new BMW 3-series
On road we sampled the 320d diesel and a 330i petrol. While we’ve become accustomed to the former being a fairly noisy four-pot, the latter has the same cylinder count instead of the inline-six used in the earlier E46 incarnations of 330i. It won’t surprise anyone to find we didn’t enjoy it as much as a result, but it still managed to do the job required. That silky delivery isn’t quite in evidence, but thanks primarily to the tuning of the transmission, it’s still an enjoyable thing to drive.
Driven: 2019 BMW 320d and 330i review
By far the longer of the two drives was in the 320d (the white car pictured), which accounted for 50% of sales in the previous-gen 3-series. We’re told this sort of volume is expected to continue in the wake of ever-tightening restrictions on diesel, which we find slightly difficult to believe given a 330e plug-in hybrid will follow in July 2019, boasting 0-62mph in six seconds and an electric-only range of 37 miles with CO2 output pegged at 39g/km. Fleet managers have some difficult decisions over the next year or so…
Revealed: the best hybrids and plug-in cars
Anyway, back to the 320d. From outside the car you’re under no illusion this is a diesel – there’s a fair clatter coming from under that bonnet. But climb aboard and we were astonished at the cabin refinement BMW has built in here – an acoustic windscreen and odd-looking foam-filled window shut covers are standard-fit on all 3-series, and do a fabulous job of keeping unwanted noise out of the car.
Off out for a spin and this 2.0-litre diesel doesn’t feel as fast as the previous one did – perhaps due to the increased isolation from driveline and external noise. Its 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds with the eight-speed automatic we’re sampling here means on paper the new car is a whole second quicker than its predecessor, which gives you an idea of the effect these noise suppression tricks have had.
We did think the transmission in particular was impressive in its mapping, however. Cog swaps occur quickly and seriously smoothly, and the manual control using paddles works seamlessly.
All our BMW reviews
How does the new G20 BMW 3-series handle?
Its chassis, of course, is top-drawer, but it’s one of the new wave of BMW products that don’t feel as heavy-set as the previous generation. The steering is lighter in resistance, but also far sharper and that makes it easier to place on the road. Munich claims up to 55kg of weight has been shed, and this coupled with nimbler control weights lends the new 3-series a new-found agility.
Once you’ve factored in the 50:50 weight distribution, even this 320d diesel mpg-hero is an entertaining steer. In this sense it’s more akin to an Alfa Giulia than either of the 3’s German rivals, placing it right towards the top of the handling class.
The cars we were driving on the road in Portugal both had BMW’s new M Sport passive suspension installed. This uses hydraulic bump stops at both ends, but for different reasons. At the front they prevent lift, which means the tyre’s footprint on tarmac can be more accurately controlled at speed. At the back they’re for controlling compression, which keeps the rear end more stable.
This set-up has a good effect on handling, clearly, but it is at the expense of ride quality more solid than supple. You can spec adaptive dampers, but our experience of these so far has been limited to a millpond-smooth FIA racing circuit…
Is the BMW 330i any better to drive?
In a word, yes. The four-cylinder is a lighter lump, meaning it feels dartier, and of course it sounds far better than the BMW 320d oil-burner tested above. The 330i is still no creamy six-pot, alas, but instead BMW’s mapped in some four-banger theatrics in the shape of pops and bangs on the over-run.
It has a relatively linear power delivery for a turbo motor, and actually sounds pretty interesting – particularly in the Sport drive mode that winds up engine and gearbox responses.
The only caveat we’d have with this engine is that there is a better option. Read on…
What’s the BMW M340i xDrive like?
While the rest of the range we’ve tried so far has impressed us in a not-too-unexpected manner, our six laps in the M340i xDrive prototype around Portimao had us wondering which organs we really cared most about.
You see, this model is billed as an answer to the Audi S4 and Mercedes-AMG C 43 4Matic, but our initial drive suggested it’s a step above both of those cars. The M340i uses an M Sport diff that employs similar software logic to the M5's, and adaptive dampers that can tighten-up at the front on turn-in, ushering the rear end into play despite its xDrive AWD system.
The effect is quite addictive once you’ve got your head around its character. Placed in Sport mode and with a single push of the traction control button (which engages Traction mode, sending more twist rearwards), you notice the back end gets extremely mobile once the speed is wound up, but it works with you rather than providing hedge-endangering tank-slappers.
Let the car do its thing on turn-in, with the variable-ratio steering weighting up precisely, but instead of trying to correct the slide, maintain your steering angle and use your right foot to skid the car onto your chosen line. It’s easy to do, and the result is a good few seconds-worth of Michelin spread over the tarmac – with safety systems engaged, remember? It’s ace.
In quicker corners the same character remains, and while you might expect you’re glad of the headroom afforded by some front-wheel intervention, actually the gait exhibited by the 3-er in this scenario inspires confidence to push. In this application, xDrive easily trumps current Quattro and 4Matic.
BMW 3 Series 2019: let’s talk tech
There are some new features on the new 3-series that are right at the bleeding edge of modern tech, nattiest among them being the Personal Assistant (below) that lets you name your car, and then have a conversation with it.
We’ve tried ‘hey Mercedes’ a number of times now, but you can call your Beemer anything you bloomin’ well want, however childish or inappropriate. We’ll let you make your own decisions here…
BMW’s entire suite of parking assistance is on-hand too (automatic parking inside or outside of the car using the key, 360-degree camera, rear-view camera and sensors), alongside a multimedia system with full internet connectivity, Microsoft Office 365, CarPlay and real-time traffic updates. It’s all controlled using BMW’s iDrive rotary controller, the touchscreen or buttons on the steering wheel.
Tested: BMW iDrive v7
Options will include a variety of M Sport gubbins, laser headlights, a glass roof, a larger fuel tank and powered bootlid. There’s also the now-ubiquitous set of driver-assistance aids on offer.
Trim levels will be SE, Sport and M Sport for the UK, with a 330e plug-in version coming in July 2019, a 3-series Touring following that and an M3 expected in 2020.
What’s the 2019 BMW 3 Series like inside?
It’s a much quieter, smarter and more interesting place to be than ever, getting better as you climb rungs on the spec ladder.
We thought the seats were excellent in both adjustment and support, going a small distance towards mitigating against the harsh ride, and clearly there’s been renewed focus on the fit-and-finish in there too. We predict some head-scratching at Audi while they try to figure out how to fire back…
Our first experience in the 2019 BMW 3-series – a prototype drive at the Nurburgring
BMW’s engineers describe the Nurburgring as ‘a natural home’ for the 3-series. The prototype we’re testing here has already completed thousands of miles on the Nurburgring and its surrounding roads and BMW let CAR magazine's James Taylor loose in it earlier in 2018.
Of course, the new 3-series isn’t being solely developed on the Nurburgring – a significant amount of testing has also taken place at private centres and on the public road in the USA, France and, of particular interest to us, Wales. The latter is a gift for testers and chassis engineers because it’s quiet, full of great driving roads, and features some of the type of challenging, broken tarmac unique to the UK that makes many cars developed overseas struggle for ride comfort on these shores.
First off, it feels like a big car, almost more like an old 5-series in size than a 3-series. You notice the increased width of the new G20 BMW 3-series for sure, in both a negative and a positive sense. On the downside, it’s less intuitive to thread down a narrow country road before, taking up most of a lane on a typical B-road, but the flipside is incredible stability. This car can carry serious corner-speed, and its limits are sky-high.
The sport-spec brakes’ feel and feedback through the pedal is excellent. So is primary ride quality, i.e. the way the suspension deals with large bumps. We have reservations about the secondary ride quality, however. To BMW’s credit, we drove the 3-series on some seriously rough, pockmarked roads close to Nurburg, as bad as any you’ll find in the UK, but even on smoother tarmac the ride felt just a little jiggly and tremulous on lower-frequency bumps.
BMW is still fine-tuning the dampers, and this may improve. Many may see it as a fair trade-off for the handling regardless. It will be interesting to see how the adaptively damped and Comfort-spec passive cars compare.
The power steering is still being fine-tuned, and has some (literal) wiggle room remaining on the software front. The current Sport setting has a pleasing sense of precision, but does feel a touch artificial. A touch more change in weight or torque off-centre might make it feel more natural – but steering feel is as personal and divisive a subject as they come.
The engine is smooth and linear in its power delivery, and sounds surprisingly fruity too, its sound artificially enhanced by the speakers in Sport mode.
What’s it like on the Nurburgring, then?
We drove two laps of the Nordschleife following BMW engineer Thomas Kafer, who was driving a BMW M2 as a pathfinding pace car – and that pace was very, very quick. ‘We have to work really hard to stay ahead of the 3-series in testing,’ he says.
We're not surprised; the 3-series prototype was seriously impressive on track. High-speed stability was quite something, particularly under braking and mid-corner, the long wheelbase and wide track coming into its own. Body control is rock-steady, and the limits are incredibly high, more akin to an M car than a regular 3-series.
Not even the occasional ill-advised confidence lift mid-corner troubles the 3-series’ chassis, and the stability control system feels well calibrated – there to step in effectively when it’s needed, but going about its business unobtrusively otherwise.
Those sky-high limits are perhaps a positive and a negative; on the road, at ordinary speeds, there’s a sense that the car is almost too good, the feeling that you’re never scratching the surface of its dynamic envelope. But on the other side, there is a pleasing sense of precision to its movements and, like a wristwatch rated to an incredible diving depth you never plan to take it to, there’s an innate appeal in knowing that it can do it.
This 3-series sets a new dynamic benchmark for the executive saloon market, as well as featuring the very latest of BMW’s tech, and a promising, if not yet complete, range of engines and transmissions. The 320d is likely to remain Britain's best-seller and it's a polished, accomplished all-rounder for many users.
We were so impressed with the M340i prototype that it had us wondering just how good the next M3 is going to have to be, and whether it’ll use a similar version of the xDrive.
We can’t wait to find out. Click here for our scoop on the new 2020 BMW M3.
BMW 330i specs
- Engine: 1998cc four-cylinder turbo, 255bhp @ 5000rpm, 295lb ft @1550rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
- Performance: 5.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph top speed, 48.7mpg, 132g/km
BMW M340i xDrive prototype specs (provisional)
- Engine: 2979cc six-cylinder turbo, 369bhp, 369lb ft
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
- Performance: 4.4sec 0-62mph, 155mph top speed, 37.7mpg, 172g/km