The new BMW 3 Series Sedan, Luxury Line (10/2011)

It’s risky business when a carmaker brings out an entirely new version of a car that’s as successful and so near motoring perfection as BMW’s 3 Series.

But, as you can see here, BMW hasn’t tampered too much with a winning formula and despite the carryover of nary a single component (barring two unchanged engines) the all-new Three that I drove in Spain at the international media launch still looks, feels and even smells a lot like SA’s fifth best-selling car.

This is the sixth-generation 3 Series, codenamed F30, replacing the E90 that will be sold in South Africa until next year. As usual with new models, the F30 is bigger in every dimension than its outgoing counterpart, and all the extra centimetres translate into more headroom, rear legroom and boot space.

Still, with the use of aluminium, the new 3 Series is about 45kg lighter than before.

When introduced in SA next March there will be three engines and four model lines to choose from. The new 320d gets the very same 135kW/380Nm two-litre turbodiesel that’s available in the current model, but will now be paired to BMW’s new eight-speed automatic transmission. Also carried over from the current Three will be the 225kW/400Nm turbocharged three-litre straight six which will again be badged the 335i, but an all-new turbopetrol to be known as the 328i makes 180kW and 350Nm from a turbo two-litre.

All new 3 Series models will get the ZF-sourced, single-clutch eight-speed automatic, but it can be specced as a quicker-changing Sports Auto with paddle shifters as an option. Six-speed manuals will be offered as standard.

At the bottom of the new range will be a stripped-down base model with cloth seats and hardly any fancy electronic gizmos, but moving up from there will be three new model lines known as Modern, Sport and Luxury.

Sport models get red anodised or gloss black interior trim pieces, specific Sport wheels, a kidney grille with fewer slats and an ignition key with red outlines among many other motorsport-inspired features. Modern specification is intended to feel warm and natural, with interiors executed in wood and satin aluminium, a white key and again there are specific wheel designs. The Luxury line features elegant chrome highlights and exaggerated stitching on sculpted seats with lots of leather seams. Later next year an M Sport package will be introduced.

I test drove the new 328i Sport and 320d Modern around Barcelona last week, and while there was never any doubt as to the newness of the new 3 Series, its familiarity is instantly recognisable. As mentioned, it’s bigger in every department but it’s impossible to tell by just looking at it, and from certain angles it looks just like the previous model. The materials around the cabin, although positioned in new ways, are identical to what we’ve known from the E90.

The 3 Series’ renowned rear-wheel drive driving characteristics also carry over, and the way the sedan handles is as balanced as ever. BMW’s German engineers told me that they’ve put special emphasis in small-bump absorption, but unless I could drive E90 and F30 back-to-back I’d never know. That said, the 328i I tested was fitted with huge (optional) 19-inch alloys and low-profile tyres, but it still felt very comfortable.

Perhaps the new Three’s most significant update is its Driving Experience Control switch that was first seen just months ago in the new 1 Series hatch. The button’s located next to the gear lever, and allows drivers to choose between Comfort, Sport, Sport +, and a fuel-saving Eco Pro mode. The settings change the car’s throttle sensitivity, gear-shift patterns, air-conditioning compresser draw and suspension stiffness if the car is specced with the optional adjustable system. In Eco Pro mode, a bonus kilometre reading is displayed in the instrument cluster.

There’s also a new full-colour head-up display on the windscreen, an optional iPhone cradle that syncs your phone and its music with BMW’s iDrive interface, a high-definition colour display now positioned on top of the dashboard instead of moulded into it, and a gimmicky new way to open the bootlid by swiping your foot underneath the bumper.

Pricing will become available when the new 3 Series arrives in SA in March. New 320i and 330d versions are also expected later next year, as well as a hybrid in 2013. Coupé and Touring station wagon body styles are in the works as well. - Star Motoring