Similar on the outside, very diferent inside
Seven generations in, BMW has finally created the first perfect 3-series. In fact, after a sneak first drive, we suspect it might be too good...
ON THE FACE of it, it’s just a compact saloon. And traditionally a pretty expensive one at that. But, by dusting its practicality with a little race-bred rear-wheel-drive dynamic magic, BMW’s 3-series has always added up to more than the sum of its parts. Practical yet perky, versatile but keen to oversteer, the 3’s been making late-night airport runs and early morning commutes fun since 1975.
And now, to see off Alfa’s Giulia, a recently revised Mercedes- Benz C-Class and an unlikely challenge from those plucky Swedes, the all-new G20 3-series is here. There are no carryover parts from the old car – this is a new-from-scratch 3-series and, hearteningly, it’s put being great to drive right at the top of the to-do list. Sure, semi-autonomous driving tech and smart infotainment interfaces are present and correct, but while the 3-series is technically capable of being driven by its own ECU, it’s more interested in being driven by you. With a smile on your face.
‘IT’S A LOT OF MONEY - IT SHOULD BE FUN’
THE 3-SERIES’ essential magic? That driving one makes you feel a bit special, because it’s a bit special to drive. In recent years, however, first Jaguar’s XE and now Alfa Romeo’s Giulia have snapped ever-closer to the outgoing F30 3-series’ heels. The new G20 arrives with one crystal-clear objective: to be indisputably the best car in its class to drive.
‘We wanted to bring the sharpness back,’ says Peter Langen, BMW’s senior VP for driving dynamics. ‘Our customers are paying a lot of money – the car should be fun to drive.’
How to achieve this noble objective? There are no carryover parts from the outgoing 3-series, but a 50:50 weight distribution remains – a good start. The G20 is also up to 55kg lighter, depending on spec, and BMW’s engineers have pulled its centre of gravity down 10mm while lengthening its wheelbase by 41mm for increased stability at speed. Track widths are also up, by no less than 30mm – a big increase, and the result of a decision taken very early in the engineering phase. Langen says body and suspension were developed simultaneously, by engineers in all departments working collaboratively. Langen claims the result is a very high level of structural stiffness – a key requirement of accurate, consistent handling.
The 3-series remains rear-wheel drive (sDrive in BMWspeak), with xDrive all-wheel drive also available. For the first time, a locking rear diff will be available for both sDrive and xDrive variants. As before, rear suspension is a five-link arrangement and front suspension is still by MacPherson strut (the 3’s bigger, platform-sharing 5-series sibling uses double wishbones, as do the XE and Giulia).
Cause for concern? Langen says not, and that the humble strut is a very tuneable animal. (Porsche’s Cayman serves to back up his assertion.) There are three suspension options: the standard comfort set-up, the 10mm lower, firmer M Sport set-up, and optional adaptive dampers. The latter are designed to act faster than before, while the standard passive dampers have a trick of their own, with hydraulic bump-stops for greater control at the end of their stroke. The claimed upshot is quicker and more precise impact absorption and improved driver feedback and – that word again – accuracy.
‘There was no question driving dynamics were the most important attribute,’ says Langen. ‘We spent more money on dynamics than before. It’s an emotional aspect – there needs to be a clear reason for the customer to want this car.’
SO GOOD ‘M DIVISION MIGHT HAVE A DIFFICULT TASK’
MAYBE, BEFORE WE SET OFF, I should have emphasised the point that I don’t know the Nürburgring that well. A veteran of just two laps of the Nordschleife, I’m in a prototype G20 3-series, zebra camouflage and all, following senior engineer Thomas Käfer in a BMW M2, acting as a pathfinding pace car. And that pace is quick; very quick.
Thing is, the 3-series is so planted and agile I feel like a ’Ring regular. The BMW’s high-speed stability is quite something. Piling into the Hatzenbach sweepers, it’s clear this M Sport-spec car (with lower, firmer suspension, on the standard passive dampers) doesn’t really do bodyroll, and resists dive under braking like a sweetly set-up competition car. It gives you the confidence to push hard within the first few corners, even on this most unforgiving of circuits.
The power steering, too, feels at home on a track, staying unerringly true under braking and requiring very little lock for the ’Ring’s rare tight corners – you hardly ever need move your hands from quarter to three. It’s a variable-rate system, as introduced on the facelifted F30 3-series, but it’s been fettled for a smoother ratio, with less of a sudden change as you progress around a corner. It gets my vote.
This prototype is fitted with what will be an optional M Plus package when the 3-series goes on sale: 19-inch wheels with wider tyres at the rear, an electronically-controlled locking diff and larger front brakes with four-piston calipers.
Even the servo is different, for a shorter, more defined pedal feel. When I climbed into the car, still ticking from a previous hot lap (the car, not me), the pedal felt soft but from the first press they’re spot on, faithful and full of loquacious feedback.
As the Nordschleife unfurls ahead, I’m occasionally confidence- lifting for corners where I shouldn’t be at three-figure- speeds, in ways that would unbalance most mainstream saloons, but the 3-series is made of sterner stuff. Its limits seem unassailably high, and when you do scale them the stability control system, set to its most lenient mode here, already feels well calibrated; there to step in effectively when needed, staying unobtrusively in the background otherwise.
This particular car uses the 330i engine, a development of the outgoing 2.0-litre four with a little more power and torque than before, up by around 7bhp and 37lb ft respectively to 255bhp (despite a new, more restrictive filter), while fuel consumption has reputedly improved by five per cent.
Performance feels ample for a four-pot, and it’s a linear, free-revving engine, with a moderately zesty note – albeit partially enhanced by the speaker system. The chassis certainly feels like it could handle more power.
Headroom for an M3, then? On the basis of this frantic first impression, the regular 3-series already possesses M-worthy stability and agility. A touch more tactility and feedback below the limit as well as on it is the only area it feels lacking. Improving on this base car could be a tall order.
‘We think our colleagues at M Division might have a difficult task,’ smiles integration engineer Robert Rothmiller. Or, put another way, they’ve got a hell of a base to work from.
WASN’T BROKE: FIXED IT ANYWAY
Existing 3-series fans will feel right at home; you wouldn’t mistake the new car’s cabin for anything else. But the BMW has de-contented its lines and upskilled its tech. A fully digital instrument cluster is now available – the same size as the 7-series’ – though entry-level models retain analogue gauges. The cluster sits at the same level as the mid-dash touchscreen, which measures 8.8 inches in entry-level cars and a generous 10.2 inches in top models. The 3-series has long angled its primary dash elements towards the driver and the G20 is no diferent, with even the touchscreen’s glass curved subtly towards the car’s pilot.
All cars get latest-generation voice control, now better able to understand a variety of accents, vocabularies and colloquialisms. It no longer depends on exact phrases; say ‘hey’ followed by the name of your choice to get its attention – ‘Hey BMW’ is the default, but you can change it to anything you like. You can follow up with ‘Take me to the airport’, or ‘I would like to eat Italian’ (which brings up a list of nearby restaurants), ‘I’m tired, please wake me up’ (drops the temperature, changes the ambient lighting, starts an upbeat music playlist – stopping might be a better idea…). Personal Assistant function can remember diferent family members’ preferences.
Apart from voice control the new 3 also features gesture control, as per the 5- and 7-series; twirl a _inger in front of the dash to change the volume, for example. But there’s still the reassuring presence of physical buttons, now grouped together in more logical clusters to reduce clutter. The air-con switches and vents are now grouped in one unit (as per the new Z4 and X5). Shame they’re a little nondescript and plasticky. The rotary iDrive controller returns, as a safer alternative to the touchscreen, now on its latest iDrive 7.0 software. While it’s iPhone-compatible, BMW and Google haven’t currently come to an arrangement for Android users.
M Sport models, like the car pictured, get the usual aesthetic tweaks: blue stitching, real metal pedals and sill kickplates, and a smaller-diameter (but still python-fat, in the modern M tradition) soft-touch steering wheel. Elsewhere in the range, aluminium and wooden (open-pore or high-gloss) trims will be available. The cabin’s newly cleaned-up lines are picked out with strips of configurable ambient lighting, as per the 7-series. Optional, generously cushioned sports seats (standard on M Sport cars) feel seriously supportive, and you can still crank them right down to the floor for ‘I’d have been a DTM frontrunner if I’d gotten the breaks’ vibe.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON
The heartland diesel, evolved to meet the latest emissions regulations. There won’t be a standalone Eficient Dynamics model this time; all versions are as eficient as they can be. Also available in all-weather 320d xDrive form with an auto gearbox only. Go all-wheel drive and the 0-62mph drops (to 6.9sec) while top speed (145mph) and CO2 (118g/km) go marginally backwards.
> 1995cc four-cylinder turbodiesel > 187bhp, 295lb ft > 6-speed manual or 8-speed auto > 7.1sec 0_62mph (6.8sec for the auto), 149mph, 115g/km CO2 (110g/km for the auto)
330i: SHOULD BE A STRAIGHT-SIX, ISN’T
A development of the previous-generation four-cylinder petrol, with a little more power and torque. 330i isn’t a six but it doesn’t really need to be – performance is astonishingly good, as a 5.8sec 0-62mph time testifies.
> 1998cc four-cylinder turbocharged petrol > 254bhp, 295lb ft > 8-speed auto > 5.8sec 0_62mph, 155mph (limited), 134g/km CO2320i: LIKE A 330i BUT WITH LESS OF EVERYTHING
Same four-cylinder turbo architecture as the 330i but with everything turned down (181bhp and 221lb ft) for slower lap times and better CO2 and mpg numbers.
330d: THE BIG ONE
‘One car to do it all’ diesel bruiser joins the UK range in Q3 2019. Packs 261bhp and a handy 428lb ft.
M340i & M340d: THE MINI M3s
The ones we’re all waiting for: 340i gets the M Performance treatment, and the power to make the new 3-series’ chassis dance. There’ll be an M340d, too.
330e: NEXT-GEN HYBRID
The plug-in hybrid 3-series returns, once again pairing a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a modest e-motor. New battery takes up the same amount of space as before but ofers 50 per cent more range. EV-only range is a handy 37 miles, and CO2 is likely to be oficially rated at 37g/km. BMW says e-motor boosting will make the plug-in 3-series as much about fun as eficiency. There won’t be a pure EV 3-series – the closest thing will be the 4-series-based i4.
‘3-SERIES MUST LOOK EAGER FOR CORNERS’
IT’S DEFINITELY A 3-series. The G20 hasn’t deviated radically from its design roots, and you wouldn’t mistake its chopped nose, broad rear haunches and square-cut stance for anything else at 20 paces. Walk around it close up and some of the subtleties of its new design become more evident: the interacting highlights over the rear arches, and the body panels’ surface creases pinched to a starched-crisp point in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for a mainstream production car only a few years ago.
‘It’s easy to achieve this type of line on a simple surface, but much more difficult in 3D,’ explains design manager Marc Michael Markeka. ‘It became a strategic project for the whole development team. We needed the will of all departments to achieve it.’
The kidney grille is bolder and more three-dimensional than before, and features active shutters to blank off sections for lower drag on the move. (Cd has dropped to 0.23 compared with the previous car’s 0.26, helped by a totally flat floor.)
Another BMW hallmark, the Hofmeister kink (the reverse flick on the trailing edge of the side windows) has evolved too – it’s now a separate trim piece on the bodywork, rather than the window, coloured dark to visually stretch the windowline more towards the rear of the car, and help it look more athletic as a result.
This is an M Sport car, with the go-faster trim so beloved of UK buyers. (It’s expected to make up 70 per cent of sales in Britain, with the remainder equally split between entry-level SE and mid-spec Sport.) This car is also fitted with the optional upsized 19-inch wheels, and laser headlights – easily spotted by their blue light insets and different daytime running light signatures.
‘It was important to keep the headlights’ height very low – it makes the car look more dynamic,’ says Markeka. Further emphasising the 3-series’ sporting credentials, all cars get twin tailpipes – of a beefy 90mm diameter on launch models. (Later base models will be a slightly more understated 80mm.) The M340i will get its own rectangular tailpipe design, and unique headlights.
And it’s not just the interior that makes use of ambient lighting. On the exterior too, light shows are becoming part of automotive design. Puddle lamps – projected logos onto the floor – are becoming commonplace. The 3-series goes a step further with its ‘light carpet’ function: projectors under the front of the sill beam a long L-shaped motif, similar to that of the tail light graphics, along the car’s length. A standout feature, it’s standard on all 3-series in the UK.
The big question, though – have BMW’s designers been bold enough? Markeka: ‘We wanted to make a step forward with the design, and I think we have, but at the same time there is heritage we were keen to keep.’
You can appreciate the conflict. But given the new 3-series will be on sale seven years, with a minor mid-life refresh, the G20’s likely to be looking a little too ‘heritage’ come 2025.
MARKEFKA ON THE TASK OF EVOLVING AN ICON
‘THIS IS A DRIVING MACHINE – that was our guiding headline when we designed a new 3-series. It has typically rear-wheeldrive proportions, with a long bonnet, a short front overhang and a cabin that sits towards the rear wheels, giving the car a dynamic appearance. The 5-series’ appearance is more about autobahn speed, the 7-series about relaxation – the 3-series has to look eager for corners.
‘The broader track widths were de_initely an opportunity – we were asking for these! The larger wheels too. They help to emphasise the proportions.
‘We started with initial ideas from our Design Works studios in the USA and Shanghai as well as Europe. Designing the new 3-series was challenging but also very fun. All of the features we wanted are here – there were compromises and discussions between departments, but none that changed what we wanted to do.’
KIND OF A BIG DEAL
Safety regs and the quest for increased stability have both widened and lengthened the new 3-series… to similar dimensions to those of the E39 5-series, in fact
BMW E39 5-SERIES (1995-2003)
PREVIOUS BMW F30 3-SERIES
NEW BMW G20 3-SERIES
IT’S NOT THE ULTIMATE DRIVERLESS MACHINE – YET
TAKE A LOOK at the new 3’s lower grille and there’s no missing the huge front radar sensor for the raft of semiautonomous driving systems. There are further hidden sensors behind the bumper’s secondary grilles, and a broad tri-focus camera at the top of the windscreen. Working together, they can detect roadworks and other vehicles, so even when regular road markings run out, the 3-series can still keep itself within its own lane – provided the driver is ready to step in. In Europe, hands-free driving is considered Level 3 autonomy, and is not permitted without various backup systems. In the USA and China, however, drivers can let the 3-series take care of its own driving fully hands-off, the car stopping, pulling away and steering autonomously up to 60km/h (37mph); ideal for LA traffic jams.
An internal camera tracks the driver’s face, and won’t pull away autonomously unless the system is satisfied that you are looking ahead at the road. So if you’re scrolling through your phone at a set of traffic lights, for example, it won’t pull away when the light turns green unless you’re looking up and over the dash, not down in your lap.
Park Assist and Reverse Assist are both standard on cars built for the UK. The former is an established technology – take your hands off the wheel and let the car take itself in and out of a parallel or bay parking space. The system can check for oncoming vehicles, including bicycles. Reverse Assist can retrace your steps if you drive forwards into a narrow space – an intricate underground parking lot, for instance – and help find your way out again, scuff-free.
The Personal Assistant function is becoming intertwined with autonomous driving too. For instance, if every day on your commute you drop the window to retrieve a ticket for a barrier, it could learn to lower the window for you, and disable the stop/start system each time at that point in the journey.
THE 3-SERIES PERFECTED?
THE CHALLENGING ROADS surrounding BMW’s Nürburg development centre have been just as key to the 3-series’ development as the village’s famous race circuit (and so have roads in the USA, France and Wales).
We’re on the engineers’ secret test route in the hills and plains close to the Eifel mountains, a mix of fast, flowing sections and narrow, unsighted capillaries, in the same camo’d 330i prototype I was hot-lapping at the ’Ring just a few hours ago. On these quick, testing roads the new 3-series feels right at home, with top-drawer body control, plenty of feel through the M Sport-spec brakes and an eight-speed auto gearbox that feels notably well calibrated, supplying the right gear at exactly the right time – a surprisingly rare commodity. The sports seats are superbly comfortable, with support in all the right places, and you could easily imagine putting away a few hundred miles without fuss. Superb rolling refinement is one of the 5-series’ biggest assets, and more than a little of that car’s profound peace and quiet has filtered into the 3.
A perfect car, then? There are a few, minor, question marks left for the production car to answer. The prototype we tested was fitted with passive dampers in the firmest Sport set-up and 19-inch wheels. To BMW’s credit, the test route roads are seriously gnarly, including stretches of rough, pockmarked asphalt as bad as any you’ll find in the UK. Primary ride was excellent, but the car felt just a little jiggly and tremulous on lower-frequency bumps, even on some of the smoother stretches of tarmac. BMW’s still fine-tuning the dampers at this point; it’ll be interesting to see how production cars feel, and whether this particular fly can be plucked from the ointment.
One thing that can’t be fine-tuned is the car’s sheer width. The newly broadened 3-series feels like a big car now, more 5-series than compact backroad weapon. It’ll take up most of the lane on a typical B-road, and threading it along the line of your choice at speed is a little more stressful as a result. But the flipside is incredible stability, and the ability to carry serious corner speed.
Those sky-high limits are both a positive and a negative; on the road, at ordinary speeds, there’s a sense that the car is almost too good – you sense you’ll never get to really exploit all that it has to offer. But there is a pleasing sense of precision to its movements nevertheless. Like a wristwatch rated to an incredible diving depth you never plan to take it to, there’s undeniable appeal in knowing it can do it.