Johannesburg - With BMW’s X-badged “sports activity vehicles” now accounting for over 37% of BMW’s global sales tally, the 3-Series is not quite the core model it once was. Fittingly, even our export-focused local assembly plant operation in Rosslyn has had to switch to X3 production, so high is the demand for BMW’s that peer above traffic.

And yet the all-new G20 3-Series that you see here is proof that BMW is still willing to put the best of what it has into the previously-compact sedan line-up.

Unlike the new 1-Series, the 3 retains its rear-wheel-drive layout, while shifting to the new CLAR platform, shared with the 5-Series and 7-Series and, in the process, it has become a whole lot more refined and technologically advanced, which we will get to in a moment.

First, let's size it up

While up to 55kg lighter than its predecessor, the G20 3-Series is a good 16mm wider and 85mm longer, and with an extra 41mm of that extra length having gone into the wheelbase, it is more spacious than before, with rear seat room now bordering on decent.

Just two engine variants are currently available in the form of a 330i and the 320d, but the range is set to expand later this year with 320i, M340i xDrive and 330d derivatives.

It was the 330i that BMW gave us to try out for a week, and it sports an improved version of the familiar 2-litre turbopetrol, now producing 190kW and 400Nm - which is 5kW and 50Nm more than before.

While the BMW enthusiast in you will still long for a silky and sonorous straight six, the latest four-pot motor is really quite likeable in most respects. Floor the pedal and it leaps through all eight gears smoothly and rapidly, and it should never leave you wanting much in the way of acceleration or overtaking ability.

Unlike in the previous model, you will notice a big difference in the engine characteristics when switching the drive mode to Sport, to the point where it could even get annoying - the Active Sound Design system using some acoustic fakery to liven up the engine note, and there’s even some throttle blipping - but stick to that mode for long enough and you start feeling like a GTI driver wearing a backward-turned cap. 

The car’s dynamic characteristics can be configured together or separately through an Individual mode, which is a good thing because you’ll want all the feeling you can get in the steering. As is the norm in this electric power steering era, you just don’t feel a connection with the road anymore, and even Sport mode does not bring enough fun factor in this regard.

However, despite its increased dimensions, the BMW 3-Series still feels incredibly agile and sure-footed through the bends and, all round, it has the feel-good factor that you get from a car that’s not too big or too small.

The suspension is a little firm (at least in our car’s case, with its optional M Sport package and 19-inch wheel upgrade), but the ride certainly wasn’t uncomfortable. Adaptive M suspension, with adjustable dampers, is available as a R15 400 option, although it wasn’t fitted to our test car.

Oh, and the 3-Series is quiet and refined on the open road, feeling ever more like a luxury car than its sportier predecessors.

Elegant outside and in

In design terms, few people are going to mistake the G20 for its predecessor. It’s bolder up front, with that big grille and chiselled headlights, but perhaps a bit too fussy in the detailing to qualify as truly pretty. The rear view, by contrast, is almost stunning in its simplicity.

Things are particularly elegant inside, where you’ll find an abundance of good-quality soft-touch surfaces, shiny but well executed alloy trimmings and the ultra-modern feel that comes with BMW’s latest digital instrument cluster. In terms of overall ambience, it’s a fairly big improvement over its predecessor.

Gadgets galore, but at a price

There’s no shortage of ways to interact with this car’s systems, as the central infotainment system can be controlled by screen touch, gesture, a traditional iDrive controller or by voice. The latter comes in the form of BMW’s “personal assistant”, which you can ask a range of questions, from destinations to music and car climate control, although it can be a bit of a “hit-and-miss” affair at times.

We could fill a book with all the gadgets available on this car and you need to be warned that a lot of the nice stuff is optional.

Our test car, for instance, was fitted with almost R230 000 worth of optional extras, inflating the price from the base of R649 000 to R881 515. The Live Cockpit Professional with the bigger 26cm screen, generation 7.0 operating system and digital instruments adds R24 400 to the tally and we’re only getting started. 

Find another R15 000 a piece for the 19-inch wheels and BMW Laserlights, R6500 for Parking Assistant Plus, R13 100 for electric seats and R47 400 for that M Sport Pack. Even the smaller things add up, like Gesture Control (R3650) and Apple CarPlay preparation (R4300). Although our car didn’t have it, you can opt for the semi-autonomous driver assistance system at R34 500, while Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go is an extra R17 500 and head-up display is yours for R17 000.

VERDICT

While it doesn’t feel as sporty as its predecessors, the 3-Series has made decent strides in the areas of refinement, luxury and technology. Ultimately, BMW’s much-revered sports sedan has grown up now, and some will love it for that while others might long for the way things used to be.

But be well-budgeted. Blame the rand and economics if you will, but we’re now at that place where a midrange BMW 3-Series, with all the nice bells and whistles, will cost you almost a million bucks. Ouch.

IOL Motoring