We're about two minutes into our drive of the 2019 BMW 3 Series and starting to worry.
This global best-seller faces a herculean job. Not only must it compete with growing SUV sales, it also must slay the hugely popular, and distinguished, Mercedes-Benz C-Class that’s flanked by the stylish Audi A4.
And this 330i, which will debut the seventh-generation 3 Series in Australia alongside a 320d variant, has to set the tone for a brave new future that includes an all-wheel drive M3. Gulp. Its spec offers hope, with an M Sport pack that upgrades the brakes, suspension and wheels. It will need them.
It’s taken us a while to accept that the 3 Series will no longer offer atmo sixes, manual gearboxes (locally, at least) and capacity-related badging, and the previous one crossed a line too far. If it wasn’t for the M3 CS, we’d say it had abandoned fun rear-drive handling as well.
BMW turned to the Nürburgring to develop its new model. And when you first drive it, the pillars blocking over-shoulder visibility suggest it has been serious about its development, focusing on a stiff body to unlock handling as well as trademark ride quality.
Celebrating driver's cars: M3 CS
But, as we said, we’re worried. Because the ride is far from that. The new 3 Series is on the firm side. Yes, they designed a structure that’s 50 per cent stiffer in some areas, but they also added stiffer springs and dampers, beefed up the bearings and roll bars, and braced its body with more mounts.
All Aussie cars get M Sport suspension as standard, which lowers the ride height 10mm. The 330i gets two-mode adaptive dampers (instead of the diesel’s passive set-up), which calms the secondary ride down to tolerable levels, but you’ll still double-check if it’s really in Comfort mode.
So, BMW has clearly sacrificed compliance, now the question is whether that adds precision and agility.
From the first time you tip into a corner, it gives you a clear sense of where the front wheels are pointing. You still get bugger-all feedback through the Bratwurst-sized steering wheel rim, but it has banished that ghostly feel from just off-centre, tracking inputs with laser accuracy.
It turns in with confidence, relishes throttle steer and finds excellent traction. That’s because the wheelbase is longer, the tracks are wider and the weight is perfectly balanced front to rear. Along with that, the centre of gravity is 10mm lower and it has shed as much as 55kg.
BMW offers an LSD for $2400, but we’d opt for a good set of performance tyres instead. The LSD struggles in the wet, while the stock Bridgestone run-flats don’t gel with Sport damping and hold the road better in Comfort.
It’s quick between corners, too. BMW focused on the 2.0-litre turbo four’s heat management, internal friction and tuning to unlock another 5kW and 50Nm. And it delivers its 190kW and 400Nm (which also matches a 2009 twin-turbo 335i coupe on torque) in a free-revving, linear way.
Power is sent through a revised eight-speed auto that is hard to fault. It shifts smoothly, with true obedience and urgency, making it a joy to hustle in manual mode.
Inside, the new 3 Series is hushed, and the seating position is spot on. Importantly, technology from its superiors, like the 7 Series, have influenced its steering wheel, centre console and swish new digital cluster.
We’re digging its looks, too. Yes, those kidney grilles might have grown to the size of a humpback whale’s and its character lines might get lost in the flanks, but it’s much more striking in the metal than expected. It’s squat, aggressive and low. And the interior is a leap forward.
Sadly, specifying the 330i solely with 19-inch wheels and run-flat tyres damned its ride from the beginning, but that’s about all the serious criticism you can level at this new 3 Series.
Otherwise, it’s a serious step up on chassis dynamics, handling response and driver involvement. It’s even something we’d entertain unleashing at a local track day. That’s how much fun we had in the bends.
The Ultimate Driving Machine? We’re getting there.
Tested and rated on MOTOR car reviews
2019 BMW 330i SPECS
Engine: 1998cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Power: 190kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 400Nm @ 1550rpm
0-100km/h: 5.8sec (claimed)
Like: Decent grunt; smooth transmission; sharp handling; good looks; high-tech interior
Dislike: Firm ride; no 18-inch wheel option; over-shoulder visibility; chunky wheel
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars