The BMW 3 Series rolled out globally in 1975 igniting a new premium high-performance sedan battle that still rages to this day. But while the Munich manufacturer certainly pioneered the market, it hasn’t always lead it.
Since the E21 3 Series launched 44 years ago, many rivals have attempted to take the mantle from BMW. Some have succeeded. Certainly from a sales perspective, Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class sedan is the current champion in Australia with nearly five Mercs sold for every BMW, but the 3 Series is not giving up the fight.
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Now in its seventh generation, the G20 3 Series has arrived and it promises to mark a return to the core principles that put the original model on the map and made it a standard that so many have tried to emulate.
Priced from $67,900, the new 320d diesel is only marginally more expensive than the equivalent F30 model that it replaces. Stepping up to the only other variant, the 330i, costs $70,900 which is exactly the same as the outgoing 330i petrol.
However, BMW claims it has packed in up to $12,000 worth of standard equipment compared with the previous model – we’ll get to that in the next section.
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If you’re cross shopping other brands, the most affordable Mercedes C-Class sedan costs $63,400 for the C200 while the 320d-equivalent C220d is $64,900, while the C300, which bumps gloves with BMW’s 330i, costs $71,400.
Audi’s A4 starts from $56,100 with BMW 330i equivalent 45 TFSI Quattro costing $70,300 - although that car brings four-wheel drive versus the BMW and Mercedes’ rear drive.
Look outside the German brands and you’ll find an Alfa Romeo Giulia that kicks off from $58,895 and a Jaguar XE range priced from $60,500.
If fuel economy is high on your list of priorities then the diesel is certainly the variant to go for with a claimed WLTP consumption figure of 4.5 litres per 100km. That said, the 330i is still frugal returning a reported economy figure of 6.4L/100km.
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Unlike some other global markets including Germany, which gets bare-bones versions of most BMW models, Australian customers enjoy a more equipment-rich offering, and both variants arrive in a choice of no-cost M Sport or Luxury Line specification.
The M Sport pack adds a sporty aerodynamic bodykit complimented by gloss black exterior trims, 18-inch alloy wheels for the 320d and a 19-inch version for the 330i which house beefier M Sport brakes with sports suspension.
Inside, the kit upgrades the roof liner to black, there’s a fatter steering wheel and aluminium trims.
The Luxury Line receives Vernasca leather upholstery in a choice of five colours (also standard for the M Sport), synthetic leather for the dash, a sports steering wheel, sports front seats and wood interior trims. Luxury Line wheels are also 18- and 19-inch respectively, but the 330i gets a design picked from the BMW Individual line of accessories.
Powering the 320d is a four-cylinder 2.0-litre diesel which produces a respectable 140kW and 400Nm thanks to a pair of turbochargers which helps to improve engine responsiveness especially at low speeds.
The 330i also has a 2.0-litre four cylinder engine but uses petrol and a single turbo to produce 190kW and 400Nm. Both send power exclusively to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Other notable standard kit includes a fully digital instrument cluster, 10.3-inch central information touchscreen, USB-A and USB-C connectivity, wireless device charging, 10-speaker sound system and ‘professional’ navigation. Apple CarPlay is free for the first year and has to be purchased thereafter, while Android Auto is not offered.
330i customers get all of the above plus adaptive suspension, keyless entry, the largest 19-inch wheels and the Driver Assistance pack, which adds more safety and assistance systems plus a more detailed manoeuvring camera view.
Black and white are the only no-cost paint colours with all metallic finishes attracting an extra cost.
Overall, the new 3 Series is 76mm longer, up to 43mm wider and sits 10mm lower than the previous model taking its dimensions to 4.7m long, 1.82m wide and 1.44m tall. That slots the 3 Series firmly into the mid-size sedan segment.
Its boot can accommodate 480 litres of luggage and tall adults just fit into the rear seats with little head or leg room to spare. The 3 Series’ proportions are easy to live with and present no challenges when parking or manoeuvring, although parking radar and a reversing camera are nice to have.
A family of four will be very happy for day-to-day duties aboard the 3 Series but loading up with four people plus their luggage may cause challenges for trips away if you intend to take anything more than suitcases.
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Opt for the 320d and you’ll get forward collision mitigation technology which helps the car slow if a crash is imminent but full emergency braking that brings the car to a complete halt is only available as standard on the 330i. It is possible to upgrade the 320d to full autonomous braking with the Driver’s Assistant Package which costs $2400, which also bundles in Parking Assistant Plus and a tyre pressure monitor.
A head-up display is standard for all, as are LED headlights that can be upgraded to BMW’s proprietary Laser lights. Occupants in both variants are looked after by eight airbags and ‘run flat’ tyres are fitted as standard.
From the driver’s seat, everything is pleasantly familiar. There’s the traditional 3 Series focus on the driver with an excellent seating position made possible by flexible seat adjustment and all instrumentation subtly angled toward the driver – a feature that has carried through from the original E21.
While the rear seats aren’t exactly cavernous, there is room for two adults plus one further body in the middle, although that scenario is best limited to shorter journeys. Touches such as cutting-edge USB-C sockets in the first and second row assert the new 3 Series’ position in the market as a modern and advanced machine.
There is some notable road noise on coarse surfaces but no more than you would expect from a vehicle running low-profile run-flat tyres. Commendably though, wind noise is almost completely absent, no doubt thanks in part to the super slippery drag co-efficient of 0.23.
The 3 Series manages to have a purposeful and firm ride that hints at its sporting intent without greatly impacting comfort while cruising.
Another feature that dramatically brings the new model into the technological forefront is its new voice control system which allows conversational commands to control vehicle comfort and entertainment features.
Simply addressing the car with a pre-determined alert (“hey BMW” is the default) activates a virtual personal assistant. Informing the car that you’re hot prompts the assistant to ask what temperature you would like the climate control set to. Saying you are hungry brings up a list of navigation results detailing nearby dining options.
The technology works eerily well and is a direct shot across the bow of Mercedes-Benz’s new MBUX system.
On the Road
Until the confirmed M340i and yet-to-be-confirmed-by-a-certainty M3 arrive, the 330i is the high-performance halo - but its credentials are strong enough for it to confidently hold its head high.
Two litres of turbo power and 190kW feels athletic and versatile on the road and even in the shadow of its more powerful siblings, the 330i should never be regarded as the soft option. Acceleration is strong and accompanied by a satisfying soundtrack.
Gear changes are dealt with deft smoothness and manual interventions are met with staunch obedience when using the steering wheel paddles, but it’s the chassis that really shines from under the handsome panel and paintwork.
A clever suspension hydraulic strut damper innovation is partly responsible for the almost defiant resistance to body roll, while the neutrality in front to rear balance is class leading. While the Mercedes C-Class has a fussy rear axle that is easily bothered by surface imperfections, the BMW’s is almost psychotically stoic by comparison.
Add to that a beautifully weighted steering system that seems to have banished the unsatisfying system of the previous model and you are looking at one of the best chassis set-ups to emerge from Munich in years.
Settle into a cruise when all the fun is over and the 3 Series becomes subdued and benevolent. It’s relaxing and intuitive and allows you to get on with enjoying the scenery or your company without distraction. What a dutiful and brilliant return to form that has been missing for at least one generation.
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The 2019 3 Series is, says BMW, ‘set to redefine the sports sedan segment’ and, a first meeting with the new model would suggest it indeed has the potential to wrench back a significant chunk of the fiercely competitive action from Mercedes.
While the previous generation didn’t do anything notably wrong, the premium sports sedan arena is not a place that can be dominated with a benign offering. Instead, BMW has returned to first principles and its new 3 Series is both a technological tour de force and a fitting tribute to the early model that started it all.