I SHOULD HAVE seen it coming. “Rock solid, this,” claimed photographer Alastair Brook, hacking his heel at the soda crust to show just how implacable it was. The only BMW 330i in Australia, entrusted to us ahead of launch by Munich, crept out onto the playa, inching out just a few metres for the photo before we’d roll it back to terra firma. We couldn’t exactly pinpoint the moment the creme brulee gave way beneath it, but it became apparent after some time that the car was imperceptibly sinking into a pit of brown ooze. This was going to take some explaining.
This was Alex Inwood’s idea. Our gallant editor’s plan was to take BMW’s box-fresh 3 Series and, over the course of three days, cover three states while putting it up against three of its sternest rivals. Granted, he left the route for the big drive up to us, but if the three-state thing was going to work it couldn’t really be Victoria, NSW and ACT. Entirely too pedestrian. The only other viable alternative ahead of the comparison test was the VIC/NSW/SA triple. We ought to get a decent read on the new 3 figured out after 1300km of tri-state testing.
First impressions were good. Having just jumped out of the extravagantly focused M2 Competition, I expected the 330i to appear baggy and slow, but the major controls felt silky, the transmission calibration more polished and the 190kW 2.0-litre twin-scroll turbo four surprisingly perky. Like so many modern BMWs, the steering wheel rim’s thicker than Clive Palmer’s neck, but beyond that, the interior architecture has been cleverly and sympathetically updated for this seventh-generation 3 Series.
Read next: 2018 BMW 3 Series Range Review
If the cabin is evolutionary, the bones beneath the car are all-new. BMW’s Cluster Architecture (CLAR) platform delivers a torsional-rigidity gain of 50 percent, a 30mm wider track and every 3 Series model enjoys the benefit of hydraulic bump stops – effectively a damper within a damper – for ride comfort improvements. It’s just a shame that these gains are partly undone by the fitment of unspectacular 19-inch Bridgestone Turanza T005 rubber; tyres that we’ve identified in the past as both noisy and of modest appeal for the keen corner carver.
The resonance of the run-flat tyres is a constant companion for the next eight hours: up a semitone on smooth bitumen, then back down on coarse chip. Ride quality on these arrow-straight roads is good, the adaptive damping on this M Sport model best set to Comfort to mop up the secondary chatter, but it rarely settles into a truly syrupy glide. Nervous would be too harsh but you’re constantly updated on surface nuance.
“Hey BMW, direct us to Mildura,” seems a long time ago. We’ve come a decent way up the Calder Highway and the landscape is turning increasingly sandy. Distant dry lakes beckon beyond the near horizons, huge mountains of mined salt shimmering in the 40-degree haze. We’re intent on putting the hammer down first to the fruit bowl of Australia before angling west to the South Australian border. The car averages 6.9 litres per 100km, giving it a range of comfortably over 800km, the leather sports seats are faultless and we imagine they’d offer decent support if we chanced upon a corner.
Brook’s lens seems to love the subtle G20 shape, although I wonder if it’s a little too low key for its own good. Whereas once a new 3 Series was quite the event, nobody has glanced twice at, much less commented on this newcomer. Has the detailing become a little too derivative, a little Peugeot front, Lexus rear?
Read next: Alfa QV v BMW M3 vs AMG C63 comparison
The plastic trims that now accentuate the trademark Hofmeister kick of the rearmost side windows are a heavy-handed trompe l’oeil, but otherwise it’s a discreet and handsome thing. The way the horizontals at the rear accentuate its added width only serves to improve the optics. The M Sport kit drops it by 10mm, the wheelarches now shrouding the tyres nicely and we can but wonder what a G20 M3 would look like. Stunning, probably.
Apart from the sign and a lot of otherwise bored flies, there’s nothing at the border of Victoria and South Australia beyond Cullulleraine. We take some pictures, try not to get intrepid flies stuck in our sinuses and head back to Mildura. It seems odd that this sleepy country town is a hotbed of the Calabrian Mafia, but anywhere that fruit is grown in Northern Victoria, the ‘Ndrangheta will be there, parlaying grapes and oranges via bikie gangs into methamphetamine and MDMA.
It seems so incongruous, that this genteel town of spindly date palms, houseboats on the Murray, serried vineyards and suburban golf courses remains tainted by organised crime, but fruit is a big cash business and that attracts offers that don’t tend to be refused.
Friendly local Greg also has an offer that we’re not about to turn down. It involves attaching a 50 metre length of fencing wire to the towing shackles of his Mercedes-Benz GLE and hauling us out of a salt lick about 100km from civilisation. After numerous attempts to gain traction with sticks, stones, corrugated iron, foam padding and anything that delivered a higher friction coefficient than black mud, we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that help was required.
Gravity was infinitesimally claiming the front end of the 330i in the softer and deeper goop so Greg’s intervention was timely in the extreme. Standing, with hands on hips, it’s only a matter of time before good-natured Greg delivers the line. “You’re not local, are you?” he laughs. Guilty as charged.
A certain paucity of local knowledge rears its head again at Lake Tyrell, another ‘dry’ lake bed a couple of hundred kilometres south. We sensibly vow not to go anywhere near the pan, but the road skirting it gradually becomes deeper and deeper sand. Employing the old mantra that speed is your friend in these conditions, we ensure that the car is as light and fast as possible in the stretches of loose, switching off the traction control and keeping the foot in. It’s huge fun and we can report that BMW’s dust sealing is impeccable.
Further south, we even manage to find a couple of corners to punt the 330i through. It’s a little more benign in roll than I was expecting. There’s notable lean onto the outside rear on corner exit but everything is predictable and reassuring. Fun, even. Only when driven really hard will the electronic diff and stability-control system occasionally send discrete chunks of torque to that tyre where a smooth pour would be more welcome. I’m left tantalised at the prospect of how effective the all-wheel-drive 340i xDrive on decent rubber would be.
Read next: 2019 BMW M340i, 330e, 320i inbound
The lack of weight in the nose of this 330i is an undoubted asset, though. There’s a lot to like about the G20’s basic ingredients. The cabin makes a decent fist of introducing modernity while sympathetically developing BMW’s existing design language. The digital instruments and big 10.25-in iDrive 7.0 display update the look and feel while the semi-autonomous drive assists work well.
The B48 engine pulls cleanly from 2000rpm to redline without ever sounding thrashy and the cabin’s bigger and more comfortable than ever. What’s more, many of this particular car’s shortcomings could be addressed with a better tyre. The G20 would undoubtedly be a beautiful thing to drive to work in, but as a weekend plaything, I’d want to see how its bona fides shape up against key rivals. The only sure way to establish those is to point its sculpted nose towards Echuca where a more definitive verdict awaits.