I’ve owned two BMW 328i models, both from the E36 “dolphin shape” era, one sedan and one cabriolet.
So it was with a certain amount of glee that I took possession of the keys to the latest 3 Series to wear this badge, but boy how times have changed.
For starters, that badge actually means very little. Forget the dolphin days of a 2.8-litre with the purr of a straight six; 328i buyers now get a new four-pot 2-litre turbo engine making an impressive 180kW and 350Nm. Which to put into context is 10kW short of the 190kW in the previous-generation (E90) 330i, but 40Nm stronger – making it still quite a serious badge. It’s also the first Three to get an F codename – the factory designation is the F30.
Being the first new Three to come my way, I was anxious to see whether my perceptions that the car still looked basically the same were founded. From the back, I’d say pretty much yes, but the front – with that stretched kidney grille and those widened headlamps – is tweaked enough to give the newcomer its own identity.
It’s bold and pretty in an Angelina Jolie kinda way.
And as one would expect, the sixth-generation model is the biggest yet, with additional centimetres here and there leading to more head and legroom, and more lugging space in the boot. But with the use of aluminium in the body it’s around 45kg lighter than before.
The real aesthetic changes seem to lie on the inside, and let me tell you, things have gotten rather larney. In fact, you get the feeling that the new Three is more a baby Five. Dials, colours and lighting are largely the same as before, but the dashboard has become swoopier and like most bigger Beemers the high-def colour display now sits elegantly above the centre of the dashboard.
Our car also had the new full colour (optional) heads-up display, which drove me crazy as I’m used to just a button to activate or deactivate it. In this car you have to go into the iDrive system and find it under Settings, but it does at least let you choose the info you want displayed.
The range is available in three spec levels – Modern, Luxury and Sport - and we had the Luxury, which had seats with almost no side bolstering on the bottom half, and felt like sitting on a padded bench.
And Beemer, why do you still have that little dial on the centre airvent with red and blue markings for hot and cold; surely your high-tech climate-control system handles all this? I do appreciate the car retaining a real handbrake though. These newer button-operated electric ones don’t float my boat. An interesting novelty is the ability to open the bootlid by swiping your foot underneath the bumper, but this seemed to work intermittently.
Under the skin is where the real developments lie
The first is probably the new engine in the 328i, the second is the Germans throwing in the eight-speed torque-convertor gearbox from the Five (and other models). Now eight gears sounds like low consumption and low rev heaven - and in that regard it is (2000rpm at 120km/h in eighth) – but in Eco and Comfort driving modes that poor little gearbox does everything in its power to get to the higher gears as quickly as it can.
From the pilot’s seat it’s all smooth and harmonious, though. Thankfully the software is well in tune with your right foot and grabs just about the right gear with your throttle inputs, and the 11l/100km seemed reasonable for the performance.
Now about those driving modes. Like in bigger Beemers there’s a switch next to the gearlever allowing you to move between Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes – which tweaks the steering, throttle, gearshifts and dynamic-stability control accordingly. And it really is no gimmick. Comfort (with the optional Adaptive Drive which also alters suspension stifness) tends to get you a little car sick with its bouncy-soft ride, extra-soft steering feedback, and gearbox-sprint to 8th gear.
Eco pro dulls throttle inputs completely, flat-out refusing to grab lower gears unless you threaten its family, and even then forcing higher gears as soon as it’s possible. Should you have switched off the Stop/Start system, Eco pro will reactivate it for you. The Eco mode is interesting though in that it will show you on the dashboard the mileage you’ve gained with your driving, will give you tips on saving fuel as you drive, and through the iDrive will show consumption patterns.
Sport is your happy place then
But I noticed the gearbox needs a dose of Ritalin here as it tends to sometimes hold too low a gear. Sport really works in terms of the harder steering and more-awake throttle. Sport+ deactivates the traction control, puts everything on high alert, and is the full-on action setting. And an interesting feature, which will work in any mode but is most fun in the hardcore settings, is the Sport setting within vehicle info on the iDrive. It pops up two big electronic dials for power and torque and is fun to watch when booting it.
Thankfully though all the toys and design tweaks have not resulted in a softer DNA. The car is every bit as dynamic as those before it, especially in the harder settings. The new engine is a pearler, with no power holes and solid urge through those rear wheels as our hot hatch-threatening 6.5 second 0-100km/h test time proved (Beemer claims 5.9 at sea level). And the ride quality is exemplary, even with contentious runflat tyres fitted. In this regard it’s a big step forward from the previous-generation, feeling at times more like a Five than a Three.
The new Three is a worthy successor and still feels like a well-balanced driver’s tool, and though the R458 809 price tag sounds high, there’s lots of value here. I reckon the ’ol dolphin would be proud.
Follow me on Twitter: @mineshbhagaloo
BMW 328i AT (180kW) - R440 980
Audi A4 2.0T quattro (155kW) - R456 500
Chevrolet Lumina SSV AT (270kW) - R467 400
Lexus IS250 E (153kW) - R380 000
Mercedes C250 Elegance (150kW) - R482 500
VW CC 3.6 V6 4Motion (220kW) - R469 405
Volvo S60 T5 Essential (177kW) - R390 200