Algarve, Portugal - As much as BMW’s efforts in Canada as of late seem to revolve around their various SUV and CUV products, I know the vehicle I think of when I consider the Bavarian marque with the trademark kidney grille is the 3 Series sedan. For me it remains the quintessential sports sedan. The Audi A4? Well, it’s made a name for itself thanks in no small part to it being the first in the segment to get a full-scale rollout of AWD, but it misses out a little on the intangibles that have always made the 3 so good. Mercedes C-Class? Very good – and lately, very good-looking – but always a little down on the excitement level at first blush.
Then there’s the 3 Series; you know it’s going to be a good steer – kind of BMW’s MO – and you’re pretty sure the power will be there too, but the thing about a great chassis is that you don’t need huge power to exploit it. It will always look distinctive enough without being overly flashy and while the rear seats may be snug – this is a compact car, after all – you know at least the driver position will be good.
It’s with this in mind we set out to test the all-new 3 Series, starting with the 2019 330i xDrive AWD (priced at $49,000 in Canada), followed by the M340i RWD ($59,150) and the M340i xDrive AWD ($61,850) in the spring. Yes, you read that right: AWD only at base in Canada. A plug-in 330e with AWD and a promised 60-km range is also on the way.
So, what has BMW done to move the yardstick without changing things so much as to estrange its loyal fans?
Well, for starters the new car is slightly larger in pretty much every way than the old one – the overall width and wider track widths do well to provide a very commanding stance – but the one way it hasn’t grown all that much is inside. It’s hardly bigger in here than it is in the old car, but what BMW has done is simplify the interior lines so it feels airier. There are more straight edges, which means the designers were able to make the most out of what interior space there is.
They’ve also ensured that the gauge cluster and 12.3-inch infotainment display are perfectly in line, making them easier to read and giving a kind of symmetry to the dash. The front seats are also properly comfortable and mostly supportive; I just would have liked a little more thigh support.
Speaking of that display: it’s your window to the all-new BMW Connected 7.0-inch infotainment system. Yes I know, technically it’s not called “iDrive” anymore, but I’m fairly certain most will call it that anyway. Just rolls of the tongue so much better, don’t you think? Plus, it’s still controlled by a single console-mounted wheel, just as iDrive has always been.
The screen is properly crisp and the graphics are spot-on; you notice this especially when you opt for the 3D camera option that actually lets you rotate around an image of your car on-screen while parking, to better ensure your rims won’t smack the curb and so forth. It’s cool, though I do wonder how much owners will actually use it. Also new is Backup Assist, which memorizes the last 50 meters you travelled – and can recall it the next day, month or year – and will back itself down that same path, adding a little autonomy and taking some strain away from the driver.
What I used more during my test – and that which I’m sure others will, too – is the new BMW Personal Assistant. Activated by saying “hey, BMW” – or pretty much any name you choose; “Charlie” was used during BMW’s presentation – it can guide you to your destination, change your climate settings or even read out pertinent vehicle maintenance warnings. It’s neat to have, though we did find ourselves having to speak above normal volume levels on certain occasions.
Which was strange because the cabin is so darn quiet that I can’t really understand why the system’s microphones – mounted either above the front passenger or driver’s head – were asking us to raise the volume. The quiet ride can be attributed to the very smooth roads in and around Portugal’s Algarve region, to be sure, but is also due to the 3 Series’ standard acoustic windshield. European models get optional acoustic front side window glass, too, but not us North Americans.
Helping contribute to the quiet progress is the 2.0L turbo motor; that’s your standard choice, but come the 2020 model year, a twin-turbo I6 will be available in the M340i. For now, we’ll have to settle for the I4 but that shouldn’t be too hard since it makes a healthy 255 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Its bits have also been tuned to keep the engine better balanced and the progress quiet, with a less complex belt drive system and single chain drive for less drag and better efficiency.
Smoothness and power
The smoothness is great but thankfully for this latest example of The Ultimate Driving Machine, the power is what really got me. This is a 4-banger than feels as though it’s punching way above its weight class both in terms of launch and in-gear acceleration – there was plenty of response in both situations and while it makes the car more fun to drive, it also makes it easier and more relaxing since you know you’re rarely left wanting for power. Power is transferred through an 8-speed automatic – yes that’s a “bye bye” to the manual transmission in the 3 Series for the time being, though I’d expect it to be pretty permanent.
The quiet engine is backed up by the ride, which is nicely insulated over the bumps and cracks your average road throws your way. Thing is, the Portuguese roads we drove on were lower on potholes than your average North American roads, which means that the few spots of broken pavement we did hit should have come as more of a shock, right? Well, not really, thanks to BMW finely-honed suspension system that features trick dampers with hydraulic bump-stops that BMW says further improve the ride. I tend to agree with them over large bumps, but repeated small undulations did have the car bobbing a little more than I’d like.
What a fun drive through the corners, though. This is a chassis and suspension system that needs to do justice to the great-handling 3 Series models of the past and aside from all else, it had me wanting to experience yet another curve just to feel what was going on beneath us.
An M3? Almost…
Luckily, as part of the program we had a track day at Algarve Autodrómo, where we’d have curves thrown at us to our heart’s content. This circuit is made up mostly of long, wide sweepers with the occasional hard-braking hairpin thrown in for good measure. And, we weren’t driving the 330i, oh no; we were in pre-production versions of the twin-turbo, I6 2020 M340i with M Sport magnetic dampers. This is as close as you’re getting to an M3 for the time being.
There’s no question you’ll feel the power, but it’s almost as if the turbo-4 was so good I was expecting more of a difference from the M340i. It’s unquestionably fast in the straights, but what I’d like to have seen a little more of was a quicker corner exit. You’ll want that because it’s otherwise so good through the corners – transmitting everything you need through the wheel or seat of your pants, so you know just what’s going on beneath you – that it feels the chassis could do with even more power. This is not a damning report on the (pre-prod) M340i; it’s just a really good report on the 330i.
Which would suit BMW just fine as the 330i is bound to be the big seller, even once the M340i arrives and the 330e after that. The compact performance luxury sedan segment continues to wilt in Canada in the face of the CUV/SUV onslaught, but that just means that those that continue to compete here are forced to churn out better and better product.
The 3 Series may not have the look-at-me styling, but the tech and engineering is there, and that will impress some potential buyers. The question that cannot be ignored in this segment, however, is how many are going to go for style above all else. For those that do, a few degrees will be added to the new 3 Series’ climb up the sales chart.