► Production BMW 3-series review
► We drive 320d, 330i and M340i
► And go on a big Euro adventure
BMW hasn’t delivered on its Ultimate Driving Machine mission statement quite so convincingly in recent times. The ‘Joy’ campaign, front-wheel-drive MPVs, electric cars, the last Z4… it’s all muddied the waters. But if any model presents an open goal to get back to basics, it’s a new 3-series, the BMW that still defines the brand. The 3-series never really stopped being a good driver’s car – even the last 320d was fun to hustle – it’s more that rivals have been catching up, particularly the rear-driven Jaguar XE and Alfa Giulia, while Munich hasn’t been as generous with the dynamic fairy dust.
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With the seventh-generation 3-series, the G20, BMW has doubled down on dynamics. While, of course, trying to ensure a 3-series does all the jobs it’s always done, like offering space, comfort and refinement, relatively affordable running costs, and the cachet of a premium badge. This time the 3-series introduces new technology too, both of the infotainment and stopping-you-crashing kind. It’s grown larger while becoming as much as 55kg lighter. And it’s been tasked with accelerating faster while using less fuel.
It’s a tougher brief than building a supercar, so to find out if they’ve nailed it, we had three days with a new 330i. City centres, autobahns, snow-covered mountain passes… we’ll experience it all on a loop through Germany, Austria and Italy.
Getting started with the 330i
The 3-series is so new that when we stop outside BMW’s four-cylinder building in Munich one Friday in early December even BMW workers double-take. Based on the CLAR architecture already rolled out for the latest 5- and 7-series, the G20 looks – and is – a considerably larger car than its predecessor: 85mm longer at 4709mm, 16mm wider and with a 41mm wheelbase stretch. Height increases 1mm.
At a glance you notice the extra length between the front wheel and the front door, that the D-pillar appears thinner, and the rear three-quarter glass much larger. Thin, wide rear lights give a broad-shouldered stance with hints of Lexus IS, but squared off rear bumpers make the lower rear look bulky, like a spare tyre hanging out beneath a tight-fitting tank top. It’s a grower, but I never get used to the Mr Potato Head moustache that is our car’s gloss-back kidney grille. The last 3-series’ nose was more delicately wrought.
This is a more spacious cabin – extra width up front and extra legroom, and now ample room for large adults in row two. It’s a pleasant driving environment: leather stitched around the chubby steering wheel gives as you squeeze it for a little indulgence, and the matt chrome paddleshifts respond with a short, tight click suggestive of mechanical immediacy. The seats are classically BMW, so you can drop them right down on the floor, backside noticeably lower than knees, and despite very little elasticity in the squab, back rest and bolsters, they’re actually very comfortable.
The 12.3-inch digital instrument binnacle of our M Sport model is less configurable than Audi’s digital cockpit, but I think easier to fathom. The speedo and rev counter frame the screen symmetrically, like hands cradling binoculars, the sat-nav map permanently displayed between the two, and either side the much smaller fuel gauge and water temp. The only element you configure is the information in the centre of the rev counter – I settle on gear selection and only change it out of curiosity.
The 10.3-inch infotainment touchscreen works equally well, and it’s amazing how intuitive it becomes to shift between the touchscreen, the iDrive rotary dial, and the slaps, twirls and other offensive gestures you can use to control it.
Expectations are high: an aluminium bonnet and front wings, plus aluminium front suspension struts and engine subframe lighten the load over the front end much like the old E60 5-series. Body stiffness increases by a claimed 25 per cent overall – 50 per cent in some places – and there are wider front and rear tracks (43mm and 21mm respectively), stiffer suspension mountings, and spring rates upped 20 per cent.
In addition, BMW has fired its full ultimate driving machine arsenal at our car. It’s rear-drive (xDrive is also available) and gets the M Sport Plus pack, with uprated brakes and electronically controlled locking diff. A 330i starts at £37,660, but M Sport Plus spec is £43,160 – and that price includes adaptive dampers in the UK.
Munich to Walchensee
The road to Walchensee is relatively open and fast, meaning gentle steering inputs and brushes of pedals, and the 330i soon settles to a quick but relaxed rhythm. The suspension seems to ease on a road like this, extending and compressing quite generously, but with a sense that the dampers are well below their maximum work rate. The steering imbues confidence too – light-ish and quick enough to make the 3-series feel fleet-footed and eager, but with tangible weight and definition accompanying every twitch; it’s significantly better than the impressive 440i I ran last year. But with bone-dry roads and temperatures at around 5°C, there’s a mushy flex from our winter tyres.
We carry on the next day and the roads are wet, sometimes coated with slush, but a few squirts of mid-hairpin throttle reveal grip to be consistent and high. This unlocks a virtuous circle of trusting in the keen feel and stopping power of the uprated M Sport brakes, of pushing harder into the corners, and generating heat in the tyres.
Ease the 3-series through these corners and its dynamic cues quickly become familiar: there’s a keenness to turn that comes with a small four-pot turbo pushed back in the engine bay, a little well-contained roll over the outside front wheel as the weight settles, and strong bite from the front accompanied by steering that loads up to telegraph what grip remains. With the car settled in the corner, you can feed in the throttle early and the rear tyres find so much purchase on the black, shiny surface that, at first, it’s quite hard to believe – that squidge we felt in warmer conditions has vanished. The limited-slip diff opens up a new dimension to non-M owners too, providing precision control over the rear axle whether you’re tweaking it to mad angles for fun or adjusting your line more subtly. You’ll rarely feel the benefit in normal driving, but it wakes the 3-series’ dynamics up and adds interaction, as do the Sport and Sport Plus modes – unusual because they often feel like someone’s poured concrete over the steering and removed the suspension. Our dampers don’t change with a press of a button, but there’s just the right amount of extra weight to the steering, auto gearshifts mapped to perfection, a more exciting soundtrack and a crisper throttle too. Sport becomes my default choice.
Scything through Italy
From Bolzano and the epic SS241 to the less interesting SS48, but it’s game on again from Canazei, where the SR48 runs fast and well-sighted to Passo Pordoi, a perfect road that unfurls in front of us for miles, its ample width and corner radius the ideal framework to exploit a car while never going silly quick. It’s also a surprisingly perfect time to drive here – too cold and wet for cyclists, so early we pretty much have an entire national park to ourselves. We stop to take it all in, awed by rock formations that rise up vertically, golden sunshine illuminating them like the pipes of a church organ.
Then it starts to snow. Heavily. With 295lb ft waking up from just 1550rpm, the limited-slip diff keen to chip in, and a road surface sprinkled with gravel and layered with fresh snow, the 3-series is as much fun as a Mk2 Escort. The balance that defined it on a wet surface is just more accessible here, and it’s, well, impossible not to go for our own Ski Sunday between the snow poles. A 3-series should always embrace this mischief.
The BMW’s bodywork coated with grime like it’s been rattle-canned, we come down the mountainside to see Cortina open up in front us, spread out in a valley framed by mountains like castle walls. It is a deceptively wealthy resort for a place named after a Ford saloon; in town, Audi is trying to flog its last few RS6s, women wear fluffy hats larger than the dogs they’re carrying, and many of the men are even more glamorous.
A pizza and a quick wander, then we head back towards Germany, the route north mostly an easy, scenic mooch now the sun’s out, but as the road climbs south of Kitzbuhel, so snow again starts to fall. It’s a wide, fast road, and suddenly winter tyres don’t feel enough, especially on downhill sections. The BMW glides and slides uncertainly over the surface, making for a concentration-intensive schlep, compounded when the German autobahn fails to offer the respite I’d hoped for, with darkness, hammering rain and gusting wind conspiring to ramp up the unease.
Earlier I’d found the Driving Assistant Professional too intrusive as it aggressively steered me back into my lane, but in these conditions, after a day of driving, I’m actually glad to have it as a wingman – I let the adaptive cruise control keep to speed limits, and I can feel the steering subtly compensating for the crosswinds – I can even let go of it for 10 seconds or so. It definitely makes the final stint back to Munich less draining.
I sit there, feet off pedals, hands temporarily releasing the wheel, and it feels a funny way to return an ultimate driving machine to Munich. But there’s no doubting this BMW absolutely honours that famous tagline – it’s the best 3-series I’ve driven in years, as well as the most rounded.
BMW 330i M Sport Plus: specs
Engine 1998cc 16v turbo 4-cylinder, 254bhp @ 5000rpm, 295lb ft @ 1550rpm
Transmission 8-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Suspension MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Performance 5.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 47.9mpg, 134g/km CO2
On sale March
Keep reading for more on the BMW 3-series.
BMW 3-series review: our European launch drive
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.
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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