Curbing the SUV growth. That’s what cars like the BMW 3 Series are measured and scrutinised against. In gigantic markets like the USA and China where vehicle size sees the largest number of L (long wheelbase) variants, the 3 Series continues to perform well. And there’s always fleet or rental markets, Uber Black and company cars to sustain it everywhere else.
But there’s another enduring quality which stands out while being shepherded from presentation to presentation – the 3 Series is still a major anchor point for the brand. If SUVs must drive like passenger cars, then the 3 Series is the acid test. If technology exists to improve the lives and safety of the democratised buying public, then 3 Series is the chosen medium. For this is the car still perceived as the entry-point to the brand, the car that does most market conquest from rivals. And within its own company, the 3 Series is the convergence point.
Enough about why BMW will sell many thousands of them irrespective of whether you like sedans or indeed the new design. Which we do; worthy of the all-new tag and tastefully concealing some big gains in the length (76mm) and width (16mm). The design’s not all bling or exaggerated Hofmeister kink. The front isn’t dominated by the kidney grilles while all models get twin exhausts. Most of all the design will age well, will not alienate generation upon generation of loyal 3 Series owners and yet still reason strongly with those current 3 Series owners to get behind the wheel of the new model.
In a bid to depose the Alfa Giulia as the best handling sedan, there are sweeping changes to the 7th generation 3 Series in what can be underlined as an obsession to neutralise body roll and work magic with the dampers. Time to get technical; 55 kilos has been shed and rests 50:50 over the axles with a lower SUV-shaming centre of gravity. Body rigidity is 50 per cent more, erm, rigid, 43mm has been added to the front track with 21mm added to the rear- for stability. I wish it had some of the Alfa’s suppleness still, but the new 3 Series has a lot else to offer.
Launch models of the new 2019 BMW 3 Series sampled on the international event will mimic those in South Africa and attempt to cover the fundamentals until others arrive. One diesel in the 140kW, 400Nm 320d and one petrol in the 190kW, 400Nm 330i. These will be followed later in the year by a 320i and then the 340i xDrive with that venerable 3.0-litre bumped up to 275kW and 500Nm.
First the 330i; on-paper a tempting performance model but because 3 Series’ refinement levels are a few notches higher and the exhaust note intentionally muted you come away from Portugal’s quiet flowing roads feeling like it’s a very pleasant piece of turbo petrol power with ample overtaking reserves, rather than an outright exciting one. For the same money, BMW’s 320d coupled with the whole package’s reduced vibration and calmer cabin ambience ticks a similar number of boxes while offering better consumption.
Advocates of analogue dials or even traditional USB ports (all but one have migrated to USB C so thank goodness for wireless charging) will find the 3 Series as the genesis of a whole new interior design. Just look at how the centre screen now merges with the digital instrument cluster, rather than pokes out like in almost every other competing brand. The flowing integration of the speakers and door handles amid the increased storage space and the fact that all the controls still point, fractionally, towards the driver like in all the 15-million-sold predecessors. The learning curve is a bit steeper and during the two days with the car we were naturally reverting to iDrive rather than gesture control or touchscreen the minute things deviated from menu-base-camp. The preferred method, if you believe BMW’s press material, is by voice; BMW’s Personal Assistant which is commanded by the phrase ‘Hey BMW’ – although you can programme any other word. Ostensibly you follow this prompt with a number of commands from navigation inputs, weather reports, vehicle status or climate control. More will be added with over-the air updates and we imagine these could become quite fun in time. For now though, away from theory, the system wouldn’t pass the Turing Test because of unrelated conversation between me and co-driver often catching the ear of the Personal Assistant and leading into a lengthy cancel process. Perhaps it’s the South African accent? And in this technology paradox where intelligent cars aim to give us greater freedom, I sometimes got the feeling the exact opposite was happening.
The Three, decides and acts a great deal more than a current 7 Series and the level of fitment isn’t far off either. Breakthrough technology preserved for flagships merely a year ago has now been included and expanded – try BMW’s reverse assistant which memories the last 50 metres of forward travel and then can do the same route in reverse, by itself. And the full autonomous suite is all here, grinding against every line of legislation as different markets work out what’s acceptable.
The latest Three is the best Three. I like how BMW remains absolutely committed to its bread and butter model because it embodies the brand, and therefore the BMW models around it. South Africans will buy many, even though for the first time in nearly four decades, we no longer build them. ANDREW LEOPOLD
- BMW 330i
- Price: R652 415
- 1998cc, 4cyl turbo petrol, RWD, 190kW, 400Nm
- 6.1l/100km, 139g/km CO2
- 0-100km/h in 5.8secs, 250km/h
- Verdict: The archetypal anchor point for the BMW brand still leads the way