WHAT IS IT?
The BMW 3 Series sedan has a lot of convincing to do. Two so-so generations have seen it cede its lead in this class, but the early signs are that this ‘G20’ generation has the chops to get back on the top step of the podium. We find out.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
An all-new BMW 3 Series is big news and this 330i delivers, on paper at least, a hefty slug of power, great fuel economy and a list price that’s aggressive to say the least. Can something finally put a dent in Mercedes C-Class sales? We go on a monster drive to establish the 3 Series’ bona fides.
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Audi A4, Jaguar XE, Lexus IS300, Mercedes-Benz C-Class
THE WHEELS REVIEW
YOU CAN tell a lot about a car in the first hundred metres. Driveline refinement, consistency of control weights, driver’s seat accommodation, an initial handshake with the steering, sightlines out of the cabin and so on. On every one of those measures, BMW’s 330i scores an instant win. It’s the equivalent of the person who walks into the interview room and has landed the job even before their clacker hits the chair. Some of us live to regret superficial hires, however, and in order to assess whether the latest G20-generation 3 Series was more than just a shiny smile and a firm handshake, we decided to take it on a road trip. A genuine horror show of a road trip.
The initial brief called for the 3 Series to hit three states and be compared with three key rivals over three days. Responsibility for the comparison landed on Byron Mathioudakis’ lap, leaving me with 48 hours to put almost 1500km onto the odo. From pickup in Mulgrave in Melbourne, we had to tick off another two states. NSW and ACT seemed a bit pedestrian, so we plumped for NSW and SA, stocked up on Haribo and Kombucha and pointed the 330i’s nose north up the Calder.
Some context first. This is the seventh generation of 3 Series. For a really quick primer on the prior models, see the breakout below. The cliff note version is that the 3 Series’ star was in the ascendancy all the way to the fourth-gen model, the E46, after which it seemed to lose its focus somewhat, becoming bigger, heavier and increasingly outshone by rivals. In developing this G20 version, BMW set out to reimpose the Dreier’s superiority as a driver’s car, widening the track, concentrating on superior weight distribution and sharpening its responses.
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Heading out on the wholly crummy blacktop on the way to Bendigo, I’m wondering if BMW has sharpened it a little too enthusiastically. The ride never quite settles into much resembling a waft, even with hydraulic bump stops and the M Adaptive suspension in its softest setting. Much of that comes down to the tyre, a vaguely unimpressive Bridgestone Turanza T005 runflat which is both noisy and of modest tenacity when lateral G is thrown at it. This car deserves better. Still, it’s debatable whether any of its key rivals would settle into a syrupy glide here. The last Mercedes C-Class we threw into a group test lost its composure markedly on roads like this, yet it’s the biggest seller in the class by a country kilometre or two. Go figure.
The steering feels well-oiled and, for an electrically-assisted system, does a reasonable facsimile of feedback. At 2.3 turns lock to lock, it’s reasonable quick, but never nervous. The eight-speed automatic transmission is a gem of a unit and not once did we hanker after the additional incisiveness of a twin-clutch. The brakes (348mm ventilated discs up front and 345mm rotors at the rear) are decently specified and the drive modes have a sensible and appreciable difference between them.
That B48 2.0-litre powerplant is also genuinely hard to fault. The days when BMW delivered you six cylinders of the good stuff when you bought a 330i are long gone, but aside from the soundtrack, this turbocharged four-pot has the old M54 covered in virtually every regard. For a start, at 190kW, it’s up 15kW on the best the six-cylinder could ever muster and its 400Nm torque figure knocks spots off the old six’s 301Nm. It’s a lighter powerplant too and its keenness to turn into a corner and – tyres notwithstanding – its relative composure when clouting mid-corner bumps give it an effervescent feel. The engine pulls cleanly all the way from 2000rpm to the redline without becoming harsh. About the only caveat I’d mention is that when you’re really punting the thing through a corner, the stability control and e-diff can occasionally have a moment of discord, bringing power in and out in a discrete series. Switching the ESC off fixes this and allows you to explore the delicacy of the chassis and throttle responses. Time and a place for all that, though.
Finding a corner on the way to Mildura can be tough. Beyond Bendigo, the landscape becomes infinitesimally more desiccated with every passing kilometre. Dusty truckstops and agri-towns which have changed little in the last half century punctuate your route, allowing you to pause and take in catering that has yet to be hipsterised. We stop in Charlton for a huge serving of hearty roadside fare, chock-full of gristle and big-hearted ineptitude.
Dry lakes start to dot the horizon, all arc-light white soda shimmer. The 3 Series is making decent progress. The cabin report is good. The digital dial pack is neatly integrated, updating the existing design language for a new milieu. Thankfully the silly chrome bezels of the old clocks have gone. Some might baulk at this fully digital representation and the tops of the speedo and rev counter are obscured by the ridiculously chunky steering wheel rim, but this is just software, so that can change with an update. One small moment of concern came when the 330i wouldn’t start while in a remote location, detecting no key in the vehicle. After working ourselves up into a bit of a sweat, the solution was to hold the key fob against a key logo on the side of the steering column which, we assume, houses some sort of RFID chip and the handshake is re-established.
Space inside the car is good, with decent legroom behind a six-foot plus driver and no shortage of stowage space for oddments. The hefty 10.25-in iDrive 7.0 display look slick and the semi-autonomous drive assists work well. We fill up and the 3 Series has clocked 6.9 Litres per 100km, with a range of over 800km showing on the binnacle. That ought to see us to the South Australian border easily.
The approach to Mildura begins with a few scratchy orange groves before bursting into fields of vines. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spotted signs that warn of ‘Grape Spills On Road Ahead’ but in the fruit bowl of Victoria, it’s apparently a fairly common occurrence. The one thing we notice as we roll through town is that nobody notices. Not one person has clocked that this is a new 3 Series. It used to be a real event, but even in car-mad Melbourne, the only G20 in the country slips unobtrusively out of town.
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Photographer Alastair Brook seems quite taken with the low-key G20 shape, although perhaps it’s a little too refined 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? 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.
Turn left in Mildura and drive west and you’ll enter a gently rolling arid country, the Mallee to your left and the Murray River valley occasionally punctuating the horizon to your right. Hundreds of emus stand at one dry lakebed, contemplating their options, the heat haze distorting their forms into Lowry matchstalks. There’s little to see at the border, just short of Renmark, other than a sign and a genuinely impressive quantity of flies. Back in Mildura that evening, we nip across the Murray to another scenic disappointment, the New South Wales border appearing on a truck-choked arterial out of town.
The long drive south gives the 330i time to convince. It’s such a likeable thing. It drives well and its styling is handsome and refined enough not to date rapidly. The additional width in the car has given it a far happier stance than either the E90 or the F30 that preceded it. The pricing is an eye-opener too. True, $70,900 isn’t something you’re likely to find with a furtive dig down the back of the sofa, but that includes leather trim, adaptive LED headlights with auto high beams, sat-nav, digital radio, digital instrumentation with head-up display, surround-view camera, three-zone climate control, wireless smartphone charging, powered front seats with memory, keyless entry/start, adaptive cruise, AEB, lane departure warning, lane-keep with steering assistance, blind-spot monitor, front and rear cross-traffic alert, speed limit recognition, park assist, powered boot lid and 19-inch alloys. That’s quite some list.
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This M Sport model also gets 10mm-lower sports suspension, adaptive dampers, beefier brakes, a bodykit, questionable interior fascia trim and an even chunkier steering wheel. Metallic paint is $2K on top, and the sunroof, M Sport differential and other options brought that figure up to $80,100. Try speccing a Mercedes-Benz C300 to this level and it’s doubtful you’d get any change from $100k.
So is this the BMW we’ve all been waiting for? It’s probably just a decent set of boots away. The 330i gets so many of the fundamentals right that it would go straight to the top of our shortlists in this class. Sometimes it takes a very long road to answer a short question and on other occasions it pays to trust a first impression.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The brief for the G20 BMW Series ought to have been easy. It needed to be more elegant than that which went before, of better quality, and the best fun to drive in its class. It’s hard to contend that the Bavarians have failed on any of those counts. Does that make the Three the best in class? That depends on how much of a priority you put on driving. We reckon the 330i will prove the sweet spot in the range and that the 3 Series does so much right, it’ll become the default choice in this class for those who look for the road less travelled. In which case, mission accomplished, Munich.
PLUS: Willing engine; planted chassis; classy interior; decent packaging; good value
MINUS: So-so tyres on test car; some odd trim choices; styling may be too low-key for some
Model: BMW 330i sedan
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v twin-scroll turbo
Max power: 190kW @ 6500rpm
Max torque: 400Nm @ 1550-4000rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Economy: 7.0L/100km (test average)
Price: $80,100 (as tested)
On sale: Now