Faro, Portugal - With an initial choice of two arriving on our shores in March, and now in its seventh generation, the BMW 3 Series remains the manufacturer’s most important car.
And with more than 15.5 million sold since its introduction it’s easy to see why.
First to hit the showrooms locally will be the 320d diesel and the 330i petrol which we got to drive at the recent world launch in Portugal.
This new 3 Series has been five years in the making and was designed from scratch including body, chassis, engines, drivetrains, interior and in this latest model, enough electronic and digital additions to make your head spin.
New generation cars, particularly on the higher end of the scale, are not just about the look, feel and performance, but connectivity is increasingly starting to play an important role in buying decisions.
And as such BMW says this is the most intelligent car ever built with the BMW Operating System 7.0. As the owner you can now personalise the incorporated systems to almost any setting your heart desires making the car an extension of yourself, home and office.
Making its debut is the BMW personal assistant which responds to ‘Hey, BMW’ followed by it asking how it can help you. The difference between this system and others is that you can give it a name. So for example you can ask it to lower or increase temperature, call your favourite restaurant, look for a place to stop for coffee or ask it about any of the systems on the car you might need access to.
Apart from voice control there’s the iDrive, the 26cm touch screen, buttons on the steering wheel and gesture control.
Visually the new 3 Series draws on its sporty heritage with distinctive lines and contoured surfaces, the ‘lip’ running down the side, however, takes some getting used to.
It’s 76mm longer than its predecessor, 16mm wider but only 1mm taller while the wheelbase is 41mm longer and the rear and front track widths have increased as well. A far cry from the the original ‘box’ 3 Series to be sure.
Full LED headlights come as standard, while LED headlights with extended features and adaptive lights with BMW’s laser lights come as an option.
We often take interior design for granted and focus mainly on what we see from the outside because it’s so obvious, but listening to the presentation setting out the interior features and the reasoning behind certain design placements and surface choices gives a whole new meaning to attention to detail.
Like the decision to only slightly move the door handles and elbow rest to give it a smoother more linear look.
Most owners climb in and take very little notice unless it’s an obvious irritation, but that’s the kind of detail people are prepared to pay for and clearly visible when you get inside the new 3 Series.
Engine-wise the engineers have been hard at work as well and have done more than just a tweak.
The 320d pushes out 140kW and 400Nm thanks to the BMW TwinPower turbo technology that includes multi-stage turbocharging with a small high pressure turbo for low speeds and a secondary low pressure turbo as you increase speed, which to a large degree cancels any turbo lag.
It was very evident while driving along city roads, highways and mountain passes in and around the Algarve region. It’s got a delightful punch both in acceleration from standing as well as passing slower cars on the highway and on twisty passes.
Powered by an improved version of BMW’s 2-litre turbopetrol engine, now good for 190kW and 400Nm, which is a 5kW and 50Nm improvement over its predecessor.
The 330i engine has also received some magic dust.
The clevers have optimised the twin turbo system, injection system and a handful of other tweaks including a new fuel pump generating 350 bar compared to the previous 200 bar.
It’s deceptively fast and free revving and we had to be careful not to catch the eye of the local constabulary, aided though by the adaptive cruise control.
We eventually managed to switch off the lane assist as we drove in to the mountains, giving us some time to play, and as my driving partner commented, in Sport Mode “it’s proper”. My only comment on a personal level though was that I would have preferred more grunt and growl from the tailpipes.
The electronic rev counter moves from right to left which was designed like that to allow more space between it and the speedometer for larger and clearer graphics and driver information.
Both cars are mated to the eight speed Auto Steptronic gearbox which has had some of the ratios slightly altered providing a smooth gearchange throughout the range and at all speeds.
But being a sports sedan with a proud history of being well balanced and ultimately a driver’s car, has that changed at all?
Fear not, it remains an absolute pleasure to drive and in fact prefers the corners even more with direct steering and welcome feedback on all road surfaces.
That’s thanks again to its clever engineering that has placed an extra piston in the damper. Continuously variable control allows them to adjust the firmness according to changing spring travel. Clever people those German engineers.
What this equates to is brilliant ride quality under any circumstances particularly at speed and in corners. There is very little body roll and even heading into a corner under heavy braking and then exiting again it’s the proverbial dog poo on a blanket as we found out while trying to figure out why the Portuguese authorities don’t have road signs that indicate the severity of the bend ahead.
It did however give us a good indication of how much fun you’ll have in the twisties when you get behind the chunky multi function steering wheel, also aided no doubt by the fact that it’s up to 55kg lighter than the previous model.
And if you’re not thrashing it and have the family in tow, there’s 480 litres of boot space as well as a the standard 40:20:40 split rear folding back seat.
While most of our time was spent in the 320d and the 330i, we did manage to do a couple of hot laps at the Portimao Circuit in the M340i xDrive (a disguised prototype as shown above) fitted with all the nice go-fast optional kit and powered by turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six engine producing 281kW and 500Nm of torque. Unhindered by traffic and chasing a professional BMW racing driver really gives you an opportunity to fully appreciate the driving dynamics of the car and this one has all the exhaust grunt and roar you could wish for.
Even in Sport+ mode it’s easy to drive and pretty forgiving if you get a bit out of shape.
Safety-wise as expected there’s no skimping on what you get including Lane Departure Warning, Collision and Pedestrian Warning with City Braking function, and the latest version also alerts the driver when a cyclist is detected.
Options include Active Stop&Go Cruise Control and the BMW Driving Assistant with Lane Change Warning, Rear Collision Prevention and Cross- Traffic Alert.
The new BMW 3 Series is certainly shaping up to be the best yet and there’s no doubt that South Africans will again be lining up to get behind the wheel.
It will be interesting to see how it shapes up against its German and European competition next year.