If you had to compare the outgoing E90 3 Series to a school pupil it would be an over-achiever in both the sports and academic spheres, succeeding in making both nerds and jocks feel jealous.
As our launch correspondent Denis Droppa puts it: “Think of the new 3 Series, which was launched in South Africa this week, as promoted to captain of the school rugby team and president of the chess club.”
First up, the styling's been moulded into something more toned and athletic-looking. Evolution? Sure, but park the old and new side by side and the slightly longer and wider-tracked F30 (the factory designation for the new Three), with its stretched kidney grille that now merges with the widened headlamps, has a distinctly more dynamic facade.
And with three trim lines on offer: Modern, Luxury and Sport, the external and interior facades can be personalised to your liking.
The under-the-skin stuff is even more tangible and the 3 Series, which is built in BMW SA's Rosslyn plant near Pretoria, has grown up both in physical dimensions and refinement.
“Most notably, the ride quality is a smooth-sailing surprise, and even fitted with its contentious runflat tyres this German sedan wafts along with almost limo-like plushness,” Denis added.
“It's quiet and sophisticated too, in a manner akin to a 5 Series.”
But put the car into a high adrenalin situation and the famed “sheer driving pleasure” is still all there.
HITTING THE TRACK
All versions of the new Three come standard with a Driving Experience Control which, at the press of a button, gives you one of four settings - from ultra economy to ultra sport - which changes the responses of the steering, throttle, automatic gearshift and dynamic stability control accordingly.
At the media launch earlier this week, BMW SA set the media loose around Pretoria's Zwartkops circuit in the new 328i model. Lapping a racetrack is the best way to expose any dynamic shortcomings in a car but the rear-wheel drive car, which is up to 45kg lighter than its predecessor but 50% more torsionally rigid, didn't appear to have any, Denis enthused:
“With that typically BMW direct steering, 50/50 weight distribution and well-controlled body roll, there wasn't much that flustered the F30 in hard-turning, hard-braking attack mode. Adaptive Drive, a system that electrically stiffens and softens the dampers, is available as an option. So too M sport suspension with a firmer and lower ride.
PICK OF THE BUNCH
“The new four cylinder 2-litre TwinPower turbo engine in the 328i is a beaut, and this model's probably the pick of the range for its price/power/economy combination.
“Though some will miss the sound and feel of the normally-aspirated 3-litre six-cylinder of the previous 330i, the smaller force-fed motor has vigorous pulling power and low-rev tractability at all altitudes, combined with improved fuel consumption and a not-unpleasant sound.”
The 328i's key figures are 180kW and 350Nm (compared to 190kW and 310Nm for the old 330i), 0-100km/h in 5.9 seconds, an electronically governed 250km/h top speed, and a fuel-sipping town/freeway combined consumption of 6.4 litres per 100km.
Of course, the 335i is still available, shoved along by the familiar three-litre, six-cylinder TwinPower turbopetrol, which puts out 225kW at 5800rpm and 400Nm from 1200rpm, allowing a claimed 5.5-second 0-100 sprint.
At the other end of the scale, the 320i (on sale from May) uses a lower-output version of the 328i's turbo-four, but it still pushes a very credible 135kW at 5000rpm and 270Nm from 1250rpm. If we take BMW's word, it'll run to 100 in just 7.3 seconds and sip 5.9 l/100km on the combined cycle.
4.5 LITRES PER 100KM
Even more economical is the 320d, which offers 135kW at 4000rpm, 308Nm from 1750, a 7.5-second 0-100 and 4.5 l/100km average consumption. In fact, BMW claims some decent fuel consumption reductions across the entire range, thanks not only to engine technology but also to features like the standard idle-stop system.
Also notable is that an eight-speed automatic transmission is standard on the 335i and optional on all other models - which come standard with a six-speed manual 'box.
ALL THE TOYS
If the driving experience is not enough to sway your vote then perhaps the more spacious and gadget-packed interior will.
As long as you're willing to stretch your budget on the options list the new Three comes bristling with driver assistance technology and mobility systems.
Highlights include a latest-generation full-colour Head-Up Display, Surround View with Side View and Top View, Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go function, a lane-change assistance system and special apps such as “BMW Connected” - for using social networks.
As for standard kit, the 3 Series does not fare too badly - with Dakota leather seats, automatic dual-zone climate control, cruise control with brake function, iDrive with 6.5-inch colour display, keyless engine start, automatic lights and windscreen wipers and a multifunction leather-covered steering wheel standard across the range.
320i - R363 052
320i AT - R380 539
320i SAT* - R387 639
320d - R390 500
320d AT - R408 500
320d SAT* - R415 600
328i - R440 979
328i AT - R458 808
328i SAT* - R465 908
335i SAT* - R543 000
*SAT = Sports Automatic Transmission