BMW 3 Series First Drive Review: Keeping the sporty sedan alive

BMW 3 Series First Drive Review: Keeping the sporty sedan alive

The seventh generation of the 3 Series is finally here. Does this new generation stay true to its sporty roots or soften things up further? Only one way to find out.

The new 3 Series is here, and it is an all-new car for this generation. This entry level luxury sedan has always been a sporty offering compared to the more luxury focussed rivals like the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Audi A4. The G20 3 Series is an entirely new generation car right down to the platform, and the design is a testament to that. It doesn’t look like an evolution of the F30, but distinct enough to walk its own path. More importantly, it doesn’t look like a shrunken 5 Series or the 7 Series. At a time when BMW’s rivals (we’re looking at you Mercedes-Benz) are trying harder and harder to make their entry level cars look like flagships, BMW has let good sense prevail and bestowed the 3 Series with its own visual identity. Imagine this car with those god-awful mega-sized grilles from the 7 Series!

The 3 Series is now bigger!

Cars have uniformly getting bigger across the board, and the 3 Series is no different. It is now based on an all new platform — the CLAR platform that underpins the 5 Series and 7 Series also. It has gotten larger by a whole 76mm on the outside out of which 41mm was found between the two axles. It is wider by 16mm and more focus has been placed on comfort with this generation than ever before. It isn’t much taller though — just 1mm and this lends the car a nice stance. Purists moaned and moaned when the new 911 got bigger for this generation, but promptly shut up once they drove it. I was hoping it was the same case with this car. The 3 Series has always been a sporty offering, it would be a shame to see that DNA diluted.

Engines from the old 3 Series

The 3 Series will be sold in India with two different engines to start with — one diesel badged the 320d, and the petrol that we were driving, badged the 330i M Sport. Both these engines were also available on the outgoing F30 generation 3 Series and have been tweaked for this generation. Not that we’re complaining, the engines were always great.

This car has a 2-litre petrol engine hooked up to a twin-scroll turbocharger. Outputs are impressive — 255bhp and 400Nm of torque. This is up 6bhp and 50Nm over the last generation. The engine is essentially the same power unit, however there are a few minor updates — the fuel pump generates more pressure, the crankshaft is lighter, there is lesser internal friction and heat is managed better. There’s a new particulate filter to improve emissions too. Performance from a standstill to 100kmph is great too — a claimed 5.8 seconds, helped in no small measure by the 50kg weight saving in this car over the last generation.

Is the 3 Series quick?

Are you saying 5.8 seconds ain’t quick enough for you? The 330i’s performance is certainly impressive. Step on it and there’s barely any lag to speak of before peak torque kicks in at 1550rpm. It keeps pulling cleanly till 5000rpm where you can feel the torque drop off as you approach the top-end. You could short-shift and keep it in the meat of the rev-range for that constant firm shove, but I wouldn’t recommend you do so. Why? Because the engines sounds so sweet being revved out to the 6800rpm redline. The 330i’s exhaust note isn’t obnoxiously dramatic, but it has a noticeable growl as the revs rise. It’s thoroughly invigorating, constantly remind you that this little luxury sedan of yours has a potent motor under the hood. The motor, being a petrol, is refined and there’s all the torque you want without having to deal with unnecessary diesel clatter. The eight-speed automatic shifts smoothly and quickly, you’re never left wishing you could dump the torque convertor for a DCT.

More importantly, does the 3 Series handle?

BMW has been softening up their cars at the expense of dynamics — the X5 we recently tested is a case in point. ‘Not the 3 Series too,’ is what I thought before I got in to it. All those apprehensions I had were dispersed within minutes of getting in to the driver’s seat. You can immediately tell that the steering is direct. It feels extremely accurate and really allows you to place the car as you’d like to on the road. There is weight to it, which is ramped up in Sport and Sport Plus mode, but it doesn’t feel overtly artificial like the car is trying too hard to be sporty. We couldn’t drive this test car too far out of the city so I cannot give you a definitive verdict on how it will handle a properly twisty road, but the first impression I have from the city and highway driving is that it will fare rather well. It does have proper 50:50 weight distribution and an even wider track (40mm) over the last gen car on its side, after all.

Ride quality is good too but borders to the firmer side of things. It’s got a certain tautness to it, it’s not as soft as a Mercedes-Benz C-Class for instance, but it has trick dampers that allow you comfort without compromising performance. These dampers compress and expand more easily in the middle of their strokes compared to the ends, making them passive dynamic dampers of sorts. They iron out small bumps rather well, and work better at speed as the car doesn’t get floaty but there’s a firm edge to it. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends what bent of owner you are — if you want to relax with a newspaper in the backseat, this isn’t going to be fun but if you’re the kind that likes getting behind the wheel, this sort of communication from the chassis will only keep you happy. It isn’t uncomfortable by any sense of the word, this is still a ‘luxury’ offering and it behaves like one but leans to the sporty end of the spectrum. We like.

Has it been made luxurious?

The interiors have been given an overhaul too, yes. Space is obviously more thanks to the increase in dimensions — the rear bench has a little more legroom and there is a marginal increase in shoulder room too. This combined with the larger sunroof makes the cabin a much more airy space to be.

The cabin is suitably well appointed — there’s the fully digital information cluster that’s been featuring on all new BMWs, a 12.3-inch touchscreen for the infotainment system and ambient lighting. There’s also a virtual assistant that you can talk to and command the car to say, change the music, check engine oil levels or adjust the temperature of the cabin by just talking to it. You can even name this assistant anything you want! The cabin of the 3 Series feels the part of a entry level luxury sedan. The materials used feel expensive and the metallic finish on the dash and centre console are a pleasant change from the wood and leather we usually see in this segment. Quality is top notch, however, I don’t think the cabin looks as exclusive a space as the C-Class. The layout is properly driver focussed, but doesn’t have the same sense of classiness that the C-Class does. That, however, is a matter of perspective.

Does the new 3 Series get it right?

I think it is does. The chassis does justice to the enthusiastic drivetrain and it feels like a proper driver’s car — exactly what a 3 Series should be. It dials up the luxury on the inside, but doesn’t stray away from its roots in the process. It sets an even higher benchmark when it comes to sporty dynamics, and gives you a properly involving drive with adequate performance without you having to shell out big bucks for a full blown M car. There’s actually very little to fault about it and it is a rather complete offering from BMW. I wish we were given more time with the car, and could have taken it out to a winding road that would do that chassis justice. Well, at least I’ve got an excuse to ask BMW to send us one again.

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