Into a world of SUVs and crossovers, the 2019 BMW 3 Series is coming, looking to regain its crown as the best compact, sporting saloon around. Whereas that crown was an assumption for previous generations, for the new ‘G20’ model it’s less certain. While the current 3 Series has been on sale, the likes of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Jaguar XE, Lexus IS and even the Alfa Romeo Giulia have seriously upped their games, so the one-time unquestioned class champ is these days… well, questioned.
BMW knows this. It also knows just how important it is for the 3 Series to successfully set out its stall, in a world deserting saloons in favour of faux-by-fours. Why recently, in the US market, BMW has even had to resort to heavy discounts to keep 3 Series sales chugging along. Just the usual marketing measures necessary for a car approaching the end of its life? Or a bigger meta-trend warning that saloons are a dying species?
If they are, you wouldn’t know it when hanging around the BMW engineers tasked with creating the new 3 Series. OK, so clearly they’re going to have their best game-face on when a snoopy journalist is nearby, but even allowing for that there’s a palpable sense of excitement at this first opportunity for someone outside the BMW factory circle of trust to actually drive the new model. Alongside the predictable accoutrements of disguise tape and embargo forms, there are also grins — big, broad grins — every time we sit down to discuss the 3. This is a car that is loved by the people who make it, to the point where one engineer actually told us what a relief it is to work on a car that’s not an SUV; “all of the masses are in the right place…”
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Some of that mass is gone, in fact. BMW has taken a leaf out of Mazda’s weight-obsessive book and instead of trying to find big savings on a few components has instead shaved gram upon tiny gram of weight from everything. The result is that the new 3 Series tips the scales at around 55kg less than the outgoing car, itself hardly a heavyweight.
Much of the structure theoretically comes from the 5 Series and BMW X3, as all three vehicles share the same ‘CLAR’ platform and parts-bin. It’s not that simple, though. Apparently, BMW is moving beyond the simpler version of platform sharing and instead this is about using the same hardpoints (the distance between the base of the windscreen and the centre of the front wheel, for instance), which mean that it can be built in the same factory as its brethren, and use the same electrical architecture, which is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive components.
For those of us who still care about the oily bits, the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine of the 330i test car we were given to play with gets an increase in power of about 7bhp, which should bring it up to an (officially unconfirmed) 252bhp, and an extra 50Nm of torque which should give the 330i a diesel-like 400Nm overall. BMW also claims a five per cent improvement in fuel economy, which should see the 330i come with a combined consumption figure of around 5.8 litres per 100km, which should also see a drop in emissions to around 133g/km. Not bad for an engine that should also be able to offer a 0-100kph time in the region of 5.8 seconds.
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There is a significant change to the chassis, too. If it’s taken inspiration from Mazda for the weight savings, then BMW is also apparently taking inspiration from Citroën for the chassis of the 3 Series. It’s going to use hydraulic stop dampers, which, instead of solid bump-stops at the top of the suspension, use pistons that move into and out of hydraulic fluid-filled cylinders. This means that the chassis should be better able to absorb big bumps and have smoother, less jittery recovery from those bumps. Rear-wheel-drive models can be equipped with a new M Sport limited slip differential (closely related to the M Differential deployed by the current M3 and M4), while the M Sport suspension will ride a little lower (10mm) than standard.
What’s it like to drive? Quite brilliant. Brilliant in a way that would be alien even to the excellent BMW X3 SUV, and which shows why low-slung cars are still the best choice for the committed car enthusiast.
Our test drive began at BMW’s engineering and prototype testing base at the Nürburgring, that famed spaghetti of tarmac race track that loops over the Eifel Mountains near the German-Belgian border and which has for 42 years been too dangerous for Formula One. Drive the roads around the circuit and you can see where the track designers found their muse — they are similarly tight, twisty, fast and flashing between tall, solid trees. Plus, it’s bucketing down — while the rest of Europe bakes in a 40-degree heatwave, the Eifels are living up to their reputation for appallingly wet weather.
The 3 Series laps it up. The thing that hits you first is the steering feel. While the likes of Porsche (with, especially, the Boxster 718 GTS) has recently shown just how good an electric power steering system can feel, the new 3 Series takes that up to another level entirely. The sensation of grip, slip and what is happening at the tyre contact patch is remarkable and should (if it translates to production versions) easily lift the 3 Series up to top step of the best-to-drive podium. Overall balance is excellent, too. Even pushing hard on streaming wet roads fails to get the 330i to misbehave. On M Sport suspension, though, the ride quality is occasionally too firm, when the roads get very lumpy, and that’s even with the new hydraulic bump-stops. Worth bearing in mind if poorly-made roads are your daily commute.
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A few laps of the Nürburgring really put the 3 Series’ chassis to the test, though. In such streaming wet conditions, simple survival was an achievement, and the 330i shone through the gloom, feeling easily as if it could handle another 100bhp, understeering slightly when you break the limits of grip, slipping easily into a controlled four-wheel drift if you keep your foot in.
The motoring world seems to have changed out of all proportion since the current 3 Series was launched in 2011, but if chaos and uncertainty are our daily diet these days, then at least the new car should provide a proper, sporty, rear-drive, saloon-shaped palate cleanser. It’s much needed.