Given that the BMW 3 Series is the company’s best-selling model of all time and, by extension, one of the biggest-selling premium-badged cars in the world, it’s safe to say that a large proportion of its buyers don’t have driving dynamics at the top of their list of priorities. As much as we here at wheels like to think that the world revolves around driving, we’re also realistic, and millions of buyers have chosen the 3 Series for a variety of other reasons, including image, technology, running costs and personal preference. Nonetheless, BMW cares about its dynamic image and that feeling runs through the whole company, held up by the engineers that develop its cars. And the engineers that developed the new BMW 3 Series have been unequivocal in their stated aim: to make the 3 Series the sportiest-to-drive model in the sector.
Some will dismiss the new car (codenamed the ‘G20’, it’s the seventh generation of 3 Series) as a little derivative looking, but it’s undeniably sporty in appearance, with a ‘cab-back’ profile, big air intakes, LED lights all-round and exhaust outlets on both sides of the rear bumper on all models. The M Sport versions come in for a modest visual update, as before, and they’re likely to remain the big sellers. But what that new bodywork doesn’t reveal is that the track widths have been increased front and rear (in comparison to the previous model), the centre of gravity is lower and so is the weight of the 3 Series. All these things have been done in a bid to enhance how the car drives.
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The wheelbase has also been lengthened, which should help with stability, while increasing interior space. That’s about on a par with most other sports saloons in the segment, though there are plenty of non-premium alternatives on sale with way more rear legroom and boot space. Interior space has never been a strong point for the 3 Series and that hasn’t changed by a significant margin. Nonetheless, the cabin of the new car is worth poring over, as it shares a lot with BMW’s other new models (namely the X5 and 8 Series). The overall design is quite subdued, but the build quality is exceptional and, depending on specification, it can be crammed with cutting-edge infotainment technology, including BMW’s clever new voice-activated ‘digital assistant’ and the swish-looking digital instruments.
It may all look new inside, but the core 3 Series recipe is intact. So, the longitudinally mounted engines up front drive the rear wheels (xDrive four-wheel drive will be available on some models) and the weight distribution is 50:50, front:rear. One of the most important versions of the new car on a global scale is the 330i. This shares its core four-cylinder petrol engine — of 2.0-litre capacity despite the badge on the back — with the 320i, but it produces more significant figures including 254bhp and 400Nm of torque. That helps explain the impressive 5.8-second 0-100kph time. And yet, this model doesn’t look or immediately feel like a focused performance car.
Indeed, the first thing that strikes you about the 330i is how refined it is on the road. The engine is quiet and smooth when ambling around at normal speeds, the eight-speed automatic (always a BMW strong point — and the transmission has been further improved) slips between gear ratios without interruption and there’s a sense that the outside world is further away than it might have been in the previous 3 Series. That’s helped no end by the double-glazed windscreen (standard) and side windows (optional) fitted to our test car. First impressions on a dealer test drive will be enough to convince many that this is the junior luxury car for them.
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But you’ll need to drive further than that to truly get under the skin of the new 3 Series. Indeed, at low speeds, depending on the road surface, you may detect a distinct firmness to the suspension of the car. It’s not uncomfortable as such, but it hints at this car’s cornering ability. To help the car juggle the diametrically opposed requirements of comfort and control, BMW has for the first time employed ‘lift-related’ dampers. These are a passive design, so the driver cannot alter their characteristics, but the cleverness is that the damping characteristics are different depending on the wheel travel. This helps smooth out low-speed jiggles, for example, without compromising on the stiffness of the springs.
Some will undoubtedly find the M Sport suspension package a little too firm for their liking, but if you love driving, then you’ll put up with that in return for the iron-fisted body control. Over bumpy Portuguese back roads, the 330i held its line at high speeds and never felt out of its comfort zone, even after a sudden rain shower. The variable ratio steering made the mountain roads an absolute joy to attack and the (optional) M Sport differential allowed you use all of the considerable power through the middle and exit of a corner with little worry of sliding off into the undergrowth. In fact, the chassis, while enjoyable to drive neatly, is clearly capable of handling a lot more grunt. A quick drive in a pre-production version of the M340i (about 370bhp and 500Nm of torque) confirmed that, and revealed how incredibly agile and fun the 3 Series can be. Not that everyone cares about such things. But we do. And we like what we see so far.