When you’ve created and then dominated a sector for as long as BMW has with the compact sports sedan, it stands to reason that there will be others who will want a slice of your juicy pie. Initially for the 3-series this only made it stronger, but in more recent times you could argue it has let its crown slip. It started with the E90 – still great to drive but a less distinctive design and an interior that was more generic than considered – and fell further with the F30, with a look direct from the European Car Design instruction manual and a chassis that had left its rear-drive USP at the kerbside. Little wonder you see so many A4s and C-classes on the road.
This has been a big concern for BMW, so its new 3-series is a big deal. Huge, in fact. It needs to bring the thrill back to the model, appeal to the keen driver as much as it does the fickle buyer who puts the monthly payment above dynamics. It needs to be bloody good.
It doesn’t get off to a brilliant start. The 330i M Sport that BMW has laid on at the car’s international launch looks distinctive enough in its bright-blue hue, but it lacks presence and the intent of its predecessors, especially the toned E46 and the original E30. Inside it feels more upmarket than its predecessor and, crucially, more driver-focused. The modern-car curse of being seated too high (thank side-impact protection regs) is unavoidable, which also means there’s still no legs-outstretched driving position to be had.
Technology dominates, with TFT screens and new instrument designs, which in my humble opinion are pretty horrific, near impossible to read and change for the sake of change.
From launch there will only be two engine options – the 320d SE and the 330i M Sport petrol, the latter available only with an eight-speed ZF gearbox. It’s not the most charismatic of engines, nor is it one that you get much enjoyment from by pushing it hard, the performance being all too readily available that it all becomes a bit of a non-event. The eight-speed ZF is hard to fault, but it’s even harder to get excited about and revel in its ratios.
In terms of its chassis the new 3-series comes equipped with BMW’s new lift-related dampers. A passive system, they are designed to reduce body roll overall as well as front lift and rear compression. Their benefits are hard to detect, but one big negative is noticeable and that’s the ride quality. Harsh and surprisingly unsettled even on Portugal’s finely layered surfaces, it’s such that you find yourself backing off when the road opens up and invites you in. It’s not what’s expected. Not very joy of driving.
The 330i is, however, nicely balanced and feels distinctly rear-wheel drive, unlike its predecessor. The steering is precise and weights up well, but feels as natural (or not) as you would expect a speed-sensitive electric system to. A brief drive of the prototype 340i xDrive highlights that the six-cylinder petrol is still highly desirable, the xDrive chassis’ rear-drive bias is better than ever and that this really is the 3-series an evo reader should hang on for. Stuart Gallagher
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1998cc, turbocharged
Power 190kW @ 5000-6500rpm
Torque 400Nm @ 1550-4400rpm
Weight 1470kg (129kW/tonne)
Top speed 250km/h (limited)
Basic price $70,900