It’s a cracker! The 3 Series is the core of the BMW range, so this latest G20 version needs to deliver the goods. Shane O’ Donoghue gets behind the wheels to find out if it does Photos: Barry Hayden, Tom Kirkpatrick, Gunter Schmied and Fabian KirchBauer.
NEW 3 SERIES TESTED First impressions of the G20
Portimao race circuit, on the Algarve in Portugal, is no place for nervous novices or ordinary cars. It’s characterised by its many blind crests and extreme undulations, not to mention a wickedly long final corner that eats tyres before spitting you on to the long main straight at high speed.
The likes of Porsche, McLaren and Mercedes-AMG frequent the facility and indeed, BMW held its international launch of the F80 M3/F82 M4 here, back in 2014. It’s a brave place then, to bring us to try the all-new G20 3 Series. But you wouldn’t bet against BMW knowing what it’s doing, would you? After all, ever since it started telling us about the seventh generation of the 3 Series lineage, it hammered home the point that it was refocusing on dynamism.
Unsurprisingly, the track element of the 3 Series launch this time was limited to a preproduction version of the rangetopper; a new M Performance Vehicle called the M340i xDrive. For now, this is the only six-cylinder model in the line-up, so it’s defi nitely shaping up to be the choice of the enthusiast that can’t quite stretch to the price or running costs of the full-on M3. And, as the M340i won’t go on sale until the summer, we won’t lean on this engineering vehicle too heavily for a final judgement.
Nonetheless, we do know that the BMW M340i G20 will be powered by a new version of BMW’s exalted 3.0-litre straight-six, turbocharged engine, producing 374hp and 369lb ft of torque – that’s a lot of torque. Power is sent to all four wheels using BMW xDrive, and the set-up features the electronically-controlled M Sport diff erential at the back as standard, plus the revised, eight-speed Steptronic automatic transmission and upgraded brakes.
With all that lot helping us out, it was easier to keep a professionally-driven BMW M2 Competition in sight than I was expecting, in this heavier, four-door saloon. It wasn’t the pace of the M340i that stood out, though, but the way it engaged the driver and made this really quite senior race track a veritable playground. The brakes stood up to a half-dozen very fast laps well, and so did the tyres.
Experimenting with the driving modes, I discovered that the Sport Plus setting best-suited the conditions, together with the middle setting for the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control). This allowed for a surprising amount of oversteer on the exit of the tighter corners under full power, making it huge fun. Evidently, the xDrive system sends lots of the engine output to the rear axle. Saying that, in the faster bends you could sense more power being diverted to the front, making the car more stable and safer. This certainly bodes well for this car’s all-weather, allroads ability.
So, what are the regular versions like, at realistic speeds on the road? First up, was the big daddy of the diesel range, the 320d. In Sport guise, it looks pleasantly, well, sporty, without going over the top. The new look is quite evolutionary at the front, and unmistakably from the recent school of BMW design. But the rear is causing a little controversy, as the taillights can look like those of the Lexus IS, from some angles.
Rest assured, though, they look great in real life, especially when lit up, and the LED technology means they’re really bright and quite distinctive. Another aspect of the rear that’s worth noting is the presence of an exhaust on either side of the bumper – that’s a standard feature across the line-up.
Glancing at the specifications of the new 320d, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the diesel engine has been carried over unchanged. The 190hp and 295lb ft of torque maximum outputs are the same, but this is a substantially new unit. The most pertinent modification is the addition of multi-stage turbocharging.
There’s a small, high-pressure turbo plus a second, large low-pressure unit that uses variable turbine geometry. BMW says this set-up offers many advantages over a single turbo installation, namely fuel economy at low speeds, throttle response at all times and higher, full-throttle torque. There are new injectors too, delivering fuel into the combustion chambers at up to 2,500bar. Bizarrely, the 320d felt rather flat and unexceptional in performance terms to start with, but then I noticed the speed I was travelling at, and just how easily more could be accrued. Then I realised that the new torque curve is flatter, so more of it is available more of the time. Humans are better at sensing changes in torque than a sustained high level of it, which explains this phenomenon.
What’s more, another factor that disguises the performance is a tangible improvement in refinement. This engine is much quieter than before, partly due to the inclusion of an acoustic windscreen and sound insulation within the A-pillars. Indeed, the 3 Series, in general, is quiet, though the way it handles the road could never be confused with its more comfortorientated big brother, the 5 Series.
The test cars I tried in Portugal may not be truly representative of the majority of BMW 320ds that’ll be sold in the UK, as they rode on 18in alloys shod with Michelin Pilot Sport tyres (not run-flats). BMW had also fitted the optional M Sport suspension, dropping the ride height and firming everything up – and firm it was. Stopping short of being uncomfortable, this 320d’s suspension was certainly busy over some surfaces, and didn’t absorb bigger bumps as smoothly as some might like.
Saying all that, the damping is superb, controlling body movements quickly and imperceptibly. That’s likely to be due in part to the new ‘lift-related damping’ design used front and rear, which passively alters the damping according to vertical wheel travel. Clever stuff – and standard on all cars. Buyers can go for fully adaptive damping, too, of course, mapped with the driving modes.
Variable Sport Steering comes as standard with the M Sport suspension, so I’ve not tried the standard steering yet. However, this system (adding variable steering ratio to the standard steering rack’s Servotronic, speed-sensitive power assistance) is great from a driver’s point of view, though, with virtually no slop or play at all. It felt incredibly responsive on the entry to a corner and there’s even a modicum of feedback through the steering wheel’s rim, so you can detect when you’re getting close to the limits of grip.
As it turns out, in the dry, those limits are remarkably high. The chassis of the 3 Series has clearly been tuned to eradicate understeer completely. And yet, the rear end doesn’t move out of line unless you provoke it, so the car corners with a neutral stance most of the time, allowing you to accelerate out of tight corners quickly, while easing back off the steering lock. It’s highly dependable and stable, yet also quite involving. No doubt the lower centre of gravity of the G20 model combines with the wider front and rear tracks to achieve all of this.
But while the 320d was one of the best-selling variants in the past, Europe is slowly rediscovering petrol and turning on to hybrid in a big way, all of which BMW is quite prepared for. The 330e plug-in hybrid we’ve been told about already, but driving it is for another day. Conventional petrol power will kick off with the 320i and sharing the same core engine is the new 330i model, tested here in M Sport guise.
Under the bonnet is BMW’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, putting out a chunky 258hp and 295lb ft of torque (the 320i makes 184hp and 221lb ft). Unlike the 318d and 320d, which get a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, the petrol versions only come with the eight-speed Steptronic auto. Detail changes have been made to this engine, resulting in slightly more output, plus the addition of a particulate filter to get through the latest rounds of emissions legislation. It certainly feels perkier than the 320d when you’re pushing on – and a 0-62mph time of 5.8 seconds is impressive by any measure. What’s more, choose Sport Plus mode and it emits a sportier sound, too.
That’s entirely in keeping with the driving experience, as this is definitely something you’d class as a sports saloon. Along with the Variable Sport Steering and lowered M Sport suspension, the 330i test car was kitted out with the optional M Sport differential. This is a fully variable locking design that takes input from the Dynamic Stability Control system to decide which wheel to send more of the engine output to.
It’s subtle at work on the road, but it does help with the car’s stance on the exit of a corner, and it should also assist with stability in an emergency manoeuvre. I loved the quotation from the press pack on the subject, which stated that the differential ‘allows the new BMW 3 Series Sedan to accelerate out of the bend with satisfyingly lavish levels of dynamism’.
MORE INTERIOR SPACE
But, while BMW is clearly making a lot of noise about the driving experience of the new 3 Series, for many, the interior and technology within will be of just as much importance. The really good news is that the new car is larger than its predecessor, meaning more shoulder room up front, a little more legroom behind and more headroom all-round.
The front and rear seats have been redesigned for long-distance comfort, while the optional sport seats up front can be upholstered in luscious new Vernasca leather upholstery. I also got to sample the electrically-adjusted side bolster function, which works a treat.
To be honest, few prospective buyers of the car are likely to notice all that, even if they’re upgrading from an older 3 Series, as the cabin is dominated by the new dashboard layout. It’s very similar to what we’ve already seen in the new X5, Z4 and 8 Series, though there will be two versions available in the UK market. The standard offering, called BMW Live Cockpit Plus, pairs an impressive 8.8in touchscreen with colour instrumentation on a 5.7in screen in front of the driver. It includes a wealth of connected technology including Apple CarPlay and satnav.
The Professional version of the same system brings with it a large touchscreen and the full-on, customisable instrument screen, measuring 12.3 inches across the diagonal. That’s what’s pictured on our test cars here, and it looks fantastic. Augmenting this is the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, which responds to your voice when you say, ‘Hey BMW’ (though you can change the activation word to pretty much anything you want…). This might seem like a gimmick at first, but it turns out to be useful, and has been designed to respond to normal speech, not just rigid commands. What’s more, it should improve over time as BMW rolls out remote software upgrades.
Unfortunately, given the limited space available, I’ve only scratched the surface of what the new G20 can do in terms of technology. It’s saying something that there’s so much to write about how it drives, that there’s not enough room to feature it all, but that reveals how cutthroat the sports saloon segment has become; how competitive it is in an automotive world obsessed by SUVs. It’s no place for ordinary cars and, thankfully, the new G20 BMW 3 Series most certainly isn’t one of those.
Stopping short of being uncomfortable, this 320d’s suspension was certainly busy over some surfaces
Although the 320d’s outputs remain the same as the outgoing model, the four-cylinder diesel engine is a substantially new unit that benefits from multi-stage turbocharging. One of the few criticisms concerns the rear light clusters, which have been likened to those on the Lexus IS. The 330i model is powered by a 258hp, four-cylinder petrol engine that pushes the car to 62mph in a nippy 5.8 seconds. The interior is dominated by the two display screens, which help manage the new car’s impressive levels of tech. It’s evolution not revolution at the front of the new 3 Series, with BMW obviously reluctant to fiddle too much with such a successful model.
It was easier to keep a professionally-driven BMW M2 Competition in sight than I was expecting
Smart sports seats feel as good as they look, especially when clad in the luscious new Vernasca leather. The new G20 3 Series will initially be made available in 320d and 330i forms, with a sportier 340i following in the summer.