The BMW 3 Series sedan is a big deal - and always has been. It's one of those iconic models that sets benchmarks and gets plenty of attention. So when a new generation comes out, the whole world sits up and takes notice. Being amongst the first from India (literally since I was in a smaller first group - which won't matter since we all have the same embargo!) to drive the car is special. They're claiming this to be the most innovative, most intelligent, and most connected car from BMW - ever!
India is going to get the 320d and 330i when the seventh generation car gets to us in mid-2019. And so let me tell you, I have driven both extensively. (And then there's also another special variant that we won't be getting - but am still happy to have driven! But more on that later). The new 3 Series has grown marginally over its predecessor: in length (+76 mm), wheelbase (+41 mm), width (16 mm), and height (+1 mm). It now carries the new face of BMW sedans - quite literally, and yet maintains a taut, compact proportion to exemplify and justify the segment it belongs to.
The new 3 Series Model Line
The sports sedan has a more pronounced hood with key lines that imply power. There are definite character lines in its flanks and sides, and the rounded top of the boot lid, tapering off to the sides is a nice touch. The car gets LED lights as standard, but you can also opt for Laser Lights at the top end. The twin rings are now completely unwound but the 4-eyed look persists, as does the kidney grille - that has grown tremendously - almost snarling now! Weirdly the LED DRL on the 320d was shorter than the much nicer one on the 330i. Can't fathom why that is. Laser lights are optional.
The bumper gets a defining character at the two ends, which will be the characteristic signature of the 3 Series over other BMW sedans according to the design team. Having said that you get various styling elements depending on which trim you buy (Luxury/Sport line). And the M-Sport gets a different bumper altogether - that's more pronounced, muscular and has black fog lamp housings and at the rear, a black diffuser to offset the M-Sport elements and twin tailpipes. Strangely though while the Sport Line gets a black finish for the kidney grille, the M-Sport has chrome! The 3 Series has a 136 mm ground clearance - but I have to say - visually, the car rides really low. We have been promised an added 15 mm for India, but I would still worry about the low ride.
The cabin of the new 3 Series is vastly new and in part improved. BMW says the idea was to be cockpit like (yes we have heard that before) and orient everything more towards the driver. The virtual cluster sees massive changes, including a tacho that goes counter clockwise for aesthetic symmetry and to keep the centre free for ample navigation or other displays. Being virtual, it changes colours and animation - depending on Sport/Sport Plus, Eco Pro, or Comfort drive modes. There is also a new effective, comprehensive and easy to read head-up display that has grown in size, but not distractingly so. The steering has a new shape and overall the emphasis was to make the dash and instruments along with the steering and central console more driver oriented - more cockpit like too. The new iDrive 7.0 comes with a large 12.3-inch screen and has the new interface that we also saw on the latest X5 just a few weeks ago. It's got more features, is more intuitive and offers better connectivity options.
A More Digital and Connected 3 Series
It also offers a new digital assistant. Yup - looks like everyone is doing these now. So say "Hi/Hey BMW" and the assistant will respond to help you with various features or help of any kind. Yes it's like the "Hi Mercedes" feature I just saw on the new Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, but BMW has tried to make it more conversational, intuitive, intelligent and also lets you change the name. So I promptly tried changing the name in my test car to Jewel. I was told it's not a great option since it has too few syllables. This went on through names like Bernadette, Helga, Boris, Helmut, until finally the only name that seemed to work? 'Sakhu-bai!'! Yes I know! And so no more discussion on this please! While it takes a while to get used to it, there are a few clear advantages. First, you don't have to say 'Hey BMW' (or Sakhu-bai for that matter) and then wait for a response before making your request. So basically you can do it in one go. (BMW- 1 : Alexa/Siri/Mercedes- 0). You can also ask it to navigate you somewhere, like a pre-saved 'home' address, or find you a mall or coffee shop (yes I asked for the nearest Starbucks, and found 3!), or the remaining time or distance on your journey, should you be using navigation.
It can also do more interesting things. You can ask it how much fuel you have left (or driving range), the tyre pressure situation for all tyres, engine oil levels, etc. So basically any car status related information. And then you can also tell the car you're feeling warm or cold, and it will ask you what temperature you would like to set. It will do that just for the driver or passenger area depending on who asked! It will also start seat/steering warming, look for music or call someone on your connected phone. And it will work with Siri through Apple CarPlay too. But here's the kicker. Like the X5, the 3 Series also offers two themed comfort programmes - and if you say "Hey BMW I feel tired", it will activate the 'Vitality' programme. Say you're stressed and you will get the 'Relax' programme. Each comes with its own music, AC fan and temperature settings, and ambient light + wallpaper on the screen. Interesting, and somewhat like the themed programmes Mercedes-Benz now offers too.
But all this - while very exciting is sadly academic to you and me - because these features, along with the assistant are only available through BMW Connected Drive. And according to the head of the programme for the 3 Series, it won't be offered on the India spec for starters. Well boo hoo! I just wasted three paragraphs telling you all about it. Coz I tried it, got excited, and then was told I can't have it. So well, I guess I took you down the same path! You will get the rest though, including navigation and smartphone connectivity, so do not despair. The car also adds an app based control (unlike the fancy smart key on the 5 or 7 Series) to open or lock the car and access its on board stats. iDrive gesture control is of course standard.
On to the cars I drove now. Auto Today's Yogendra Pratap and I decided to take two engine types, and swap them between us, so we got enough time on both. So we had the same exact cars with us for 2 whole days. The 320d available to us was the Mineral White with Sport Line trim, and 18-inch wheels, while the 330i was in a new Portimao Blue shade, with M-Sport trim and 19 inchers. You can get the Luxury Line too remember, and in Europe or the US, also have 20 or 21-inch wheels too. The Portimao Blue (apt since we were testing in Portugal's Algarve region, where Portimao is) replaces the Estoril Blue. Both names that belong to Portuguese towns and corresponding tracks! And yes before you can ask I did have the chance to drive the new 3 Series at the Portimao track!
Testing the 330i Petrol Sedan
The 330i has a 2 litre, 253 bhp, engine that has 400 Nm of peak torque. It is mated to an 8-Speed Steptronic transmission. There is a lower spec 320i variant with a180 bhp/300 Nm petrol motor, and the range topping 340i with 367 bhp and 500 Nm. Neither of those (nor the 330e plug-in hybrid that gets to Europe/USA in summer 2019) will come to India, so let's focus on the 330i - the variant I began my drive with (not just because it was blue - that was a mere coincidence I promise!) The petrol is punchy, responsive, and reasonably quick. It maintains the sporty character you expect from a 3 Series, but does not dazzle you in any way. The gearbox is very quick though, and changes are especially more fun in Sport or Sport Plus with the transmission pushed into S (sport) mode too, and using the paddle shift makes it even better. But there is a very obvious sense that the car has grown - and when you're driving you are constantly aware of that. In the Indian context that may not be a bad thing, but as global 3 Series benchmarks go, that's a negative for me.
Ride quality, steering and handling are spot on though - as you would expect from a 3er. And if anything I think, ride quality is better than the last car. Throw in the slightly better leg and knee room at the rear, and the new 3 will be a better chauffeur driven sedan now than before, for sure. In Sport or Sport Plus is where the car comes alive. Most of you may prefer the comfort mode though. Having said that there is no adaptive or air suspension on this car and so while Sport/Sport Plus changes throttle, steering and engine behaviour, it doesn't make the ride any stiffer or harder. Not a bad thing to be honest. The Sport drive mode has a new feature - it lets you drive in Sport, Sport Plus or Sport Individual. This is cool, because it will let you keep the throttle or engine to be in Sport Plus, and say the steering to be in Comfort. So, you get the exhilaration but avoid the fatigue of a harder steering. That's a nice touch methinks!
Next we Drive the 320d Diesel
The 320d gets the 2 litre, 186 bhp, 400 Nm motor. There is a lower variant - the 318d with 147 bhp and 320 Nm, and the top end diesel 330d with 260 bhp and 580 Nm or peak torque. But neither of those will come to us. So let's get back to the 320d shall we? This is the model that has formed the backbone of sales for the 3 Series in India (and well in Europe too in the past), and so it's fitting that it will come back to our market. It is ample, does the job, but is not dynamically thrilling in any way. The car is also not electric in its response, nor is it sporty like the 320d from the E90 5th gen car. Having first driven the 330i I was willing to accept that maybe it's the comparison that was throwing me. But I spent all afternoon trying to push the car hard, and was still left a touch underwhelmed. The great things are the handling and the very precise steering, which almost get enhanced in some ways on the diesel. And also tried out the car's semi-autonomous and driver aid features like the auto lane keeping and the limited self-drive. They work well enough though I still feel Volvo has got this down with its Pilot Assist over the three Germans.
The time spent with the new 3 Series on the winding, rolling and sometimes narrow roads of the Algarve region was still very fun - and also comprehensive. We also got an inadvertent chance to drive both cars through some broken and non-existent roads. It held itself very well, and still offered great ride and composure, despite the relatively lower profile tyres and lower ride. I was the less worried about its prospects in India as a result.
The Track Monster: M340i xDrive
It's almost strange that we were at a 3 Series event and the big focus of the discussion from the company had also been on the tech on board, rather than the car's dynamics. Thankfully that changed the following day when I got to the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve - or the Portimao Circuit. It's a brilliant track and I have had the chance to navigate its quick corners and blind elevation changes before, so was raring to go. Awaiting me there was that awesome new BMW M340i xDrive sedan. It packs a brand new straight-six belting out 367 bhp - that's nearly 50 horses more than the most powerful version of the previous F30 (6th gen) sedan. It also gets 50 Nm more peak torque at 500 Nm and does 0-100 kmph in 4.4 seconds. That's half a second faster than the last car!
First off, let me tell you this engine also sounds great! It is enhanced by the M Sport exhaust unit. And yes you get it to pop and crackle in Sport Plus mode. Shorter, sharper gear changes on the 8-Speed Steptronic make the drive fun, as does the new updated xDrive system. Power distribution between the front and rear axles is variable and you get terrific traction as a result. The car maintains a rear-wheel bias so you don't lose the essence of the 3 Series. The M Sport differential is electronically controlled, and gives you superb agility. The way the M340i travels out of a corner is inspiring for a 4-door. The standard M Sport suspension is good, but the Adaptive M suspension with electronically controlled dampers takes things to a whole other level. The car sits lower by 10 mm, gets a new lift-related damper control function. It also has the new Variable Sport Steering which is just fantastic, and gives you perfect feedback as you're pushing the car into a sharp corner throwing it sideways.
The M sport brakes (with the blue painted M logo callipers) also do a fine job. I had the chance to experience the new car at high triple digit speeds, with the electronics switched on. Then also had several goes with them off, and the car is happy to let itself be oversteered a touch, and flip its tail out into a nice steady drift. The 19 inch mixed tyres are optional, though the standard package includes 18 inch mixed size tyres.
As you can see by my exhaustive descriptions of the experience and the equipment, the M340i xDrive is the variant to get. But as I warned you at the top, it ain't coming to us. Not at the outset anyway. Sigh... that's too bad! It also looks the part with some distinct styling changes. There is the very sharp mesh grille with almost a claw-like pattern that's almost Black Panther inspired. Then there is the body coloured rear spoiler and trapezoidal exhaust pipes, unique air intake struts and contrast coloured exterior rear view mirrors. The interior is way sporty, finished in black, with a M340i badge on the instrument cluster. Tearing down the track my only question was - if they had already pushed this M Sport variant to such a dynamic and exhilarating level, what are they going to possibly down with the next generation M3/M4 when they arrive? Phew! The new gen car is claimed as the most aerodynamic in its class, and I now believe that for sure!
The new 3 Series also has a reversing assistant, like we saw on the new X5. What it does is, it always keeps the last 50 metres you drove in its memory. This allows the car to simply reverse in exactly the same path. So imagine a narrow street or a tricky parking spot you go into nose-first. Getting out can be a pain, and so you turn on the reversing assistant and the car will do it for you. All you have to do is regulate the speed with the brakes, and the car takes care of the steering and keeps a lookout for any obstructions with the multiple sensors on board. Better head up display and collision warnings are also a great addition.
I went in expecting a lot from the G20 3 Series, and I have left satisfied. The car is engineered to a new level, offers a lot more to a potential buyer, and maintains BMW's promise of a sports sedan that energises you. Could it have been sharper? Had I only driven the 320d, my answer would have been an emphatic yes. But after driving the M340i I am very convinced this is all set to become the segment benchmark again. And yes, I cannot wait for it to arrive in India. Considering BMW has begun taking bookings at the dealer level - a story we exclusively reported to you on carandbike, I guess that the launch isn't as far away as we think.