Eager performance and handling
With the Lexus IS250 threatening to knock BMW’s 3 Series off its perch, it seemed time to take a fresh look at the German car. Sadly, not with a two-way comparison – a chance would be a fine thing – but by reviewing my time with the current 3-Series.
Firstly, I must say that I’m a qualified fan of BMW’s controversial styling. It’s strong and dynamic, and whatever else you might say about it, it does mean BMWs aren’t wallflowers. Pre-Chris Bangle (BMW’s American-born styling chief) they were increasingly boring to look at – and survival of the species meant that wasn’t a good idea. Mercedes had cornered the boring old man persona, and it wasn’t in BMW’s favour to do the same. Mind you, Bangle’s complicated interplay of curves and angles works best on cars that are meant to be radical. Like the Z4, which looks like a cubist painting of a car when at rest, but comes alive when moving as light flickers and slides over those complex flanks. A convertible is already a statement – making it a radical one isn’t too great a step. It could be too great a step with the aspirational brand’s equivalent of a bread-and-butter car though, hence the slightly toned down styling of the 1 Series, and even more so for the 3 – a car that’s such a BMW staple it has sometimes even outsold Ford’s Mondeo in Britain, where it makes up 65 percent of BMW sales. This is a bigger, more powerful yet more fuel efficient 3-Series than its predecessor, an evolution wrought by small changes made to almost every component.
My test car was the 330i, powered by an inline six that offers more power, and uses less fuel, than the earlier equivalent. The car’s 190kW of power and 300Nm of peak torque should take it from zero to 100km/h in 6.6 seconds, not bad for a sensible sedan, especially one with an automatic gearbox. That’s because this is a sensible sedan with some interesting technology hidden beneath its skin. Take the powerplant’s metal itself, the stuff that’s the key to a stringent weight loss regimen. Using magnesium alloy should make for rampant corrosion, but BMW first cast the aluminium insert to carry the fluids, then cast the magnesium alloy around it, linked to the aluminium by integrated ribs. Clever stuff, and just a hint at the work that went into creating a smooth, sophisticated performer with some very unsophisticated shove on offer. For that torque figure’s available pretty much anywhere from the nominal peak at 2500 to about 4000rpm, just as power’s ramping up.
Our car had a six-speed auto transmission, which was smooth and responsive – unlike the ride quality, which suffered from the 18-inch alloys and their run-flat tyres. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard, and might be more comfy if not as full of themselves as the bigger hoops. Also full of themselves were the sports seats and sports suspension fitted to the test car – pity I couldn’t sample the normal suspension, as I understand the car’s handling is not too shabby as standard. The suspension uses a double pivot, spring strut axle arrangement up front, for the first time on a 3-Series, and a multi-link rear.
It’s an incredibly capable set-up that lets you make the most of the almost 50/50 front/rear weight balance, and of the power on offer. It means you almost never need the small army of electronic aids which include a dynamic stability control system which keeps your brake pads dry, primes those brakes and all but dances the light fandango. If BMW 3-Series drivers want to hurry up they most certainly can, and will enjoy it into the bargain.
This engine will do the job as quietly and efficiently as the stereotypical Germanic efficiency would lead you to expect, but plant your boot and the inline six positively howls with eagerness. However, there is a wrinkle in the drive experience. I believe BMW’s eager engineers have gone just a little too far in their search for perfection. For they’ve fitted Active Steering. I’m struggling to be objective here – I’d like to say it’s awful, but perhaps I’m biased. The theory is that it varies steering ratio according to road speed, which sounds fair enough. But in practice you can never quite predict how it will respond, and on a road that hurls open sweepers and tight, switchback bends at you in quick succession, as does the road to my home, the effect is almost schizophrenic. Perhaps I’d get used to it with time.
Meanwhile, other quibbles are few. The interior design is smart, but a little less individual than before. BMW does offer integrated SatNav – the only such system in New Zealand – but I can’t tell you how well it works, for the test car didn’t have the CD required to work it. The rear cabin doesn’t offer the legroom I’d expected, but the boot’s quite spacious as, with the run-flat tyres, there’s no need for a spare. At $105,900 for the SE auto, before ticking option boxes, the 330i is not cheap. There are more affordable versions – the 2.0-litre that shares its engine with the 1 Series; the 2.0-litre common rail diesel; and the 330d diesel. But it’s this car, with its eager engine and unflappable road manners, that’s deservedly the flagship, and which makes up the bulk of 3-Series sales.