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BMW’s 3 Series finally returns to dynamic form in perfectly balanced G20 330i sedan
20 May 2019
YOU’VE got to think that BMW channeled its inner Arnold Schwarzenegger when it released the previous-generation, F30 3 Series mid-size car in 2012.
By this point, the German brand’s most revered model had lost a lot of its mojo. Once the Ultimate Driving Machine, it didn’t rise to the same dynamic heights.
However, with the new-generation, G20 3 Series now in showrooms with a renewed focus on driving pleasure, it could represent a much-needed return to form.
So, after seven long years, has BMW delivered on its ‘I’ll be back’ promise? We put the 3 Series to test in value-packed 330i sedan form to find out.
Price and equipment
Priced from $70,900 plus on-road costs, the 330i is great value for a premium mid-size sedan, especially considering the previously optional M Sport Package is now standard, which improves upon its already smart and sporty exterior. It looks much better than we imagined in the metal. The press images really do it no justice.
Equipment includes bi-colour Jet Black 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in a mixed set of Bridgestone run-flat tyres (front: 225/40, rear: 255/35), M Sport brake discs with blue four-piston front and floating single-piston rear callipers, sports suspension with adaptive dampers, a sports bodykit, LED foglights and tail-lights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, power-folding side mirrors with heating, and high-gloss Shadow Line exterior trim.
Inside, a 10.25-inch touchscreen BMW OS 7.0 infotainment system, always-on natural voice control, satellite navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay support, Bluetooth connectivity, DAB+ digital radio, a 10-speaker sound system, a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, a windshield-projected head-up display, wireless smartphone charging, keyless entry and start with smartphone support, three-zone climate control, power-adjustable front sports seats with driver memory functionality, a sports steering wheel with paddle-shifters, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Vernasca leather upholstery with blue stitching, an anthracite roofliner and Aluminium Tetragon trim feature.
Our test car is finished with Portimao Blue metallic paintwork, which is a $2000 option, while a sunroof ($2900), interior ambient lighting ($700) and a Sensatec dashboard with blue stitching ($900) are also fitted. As such, the price as tested is $77,400.
The 3 Series has taken a big step forward inside, with the brand’s latest design language proliferating to good effect. Simply put, everything looks beautiful.
Better yet, the soft-touch dashboard and door shoulders feel suitably premium, even if the uncharacteristically firm door armrests do not.
Vernasca leather upholstery trims the seats and door inserts nicely, with the predominately black cabin’s cow hide contrasted with blue stitching that matches our test car’s paintwork.
However, attention is immediately drawn to the 10.25-inch central touchscreen and 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, both of which are powered by the new BMW OS 7.0 infotainment system that features always-on natural voice control as an input method.
The former pushes the brand further ahead in the infotainment game with its clean, crisp graphics and logical layout, although the latter still finds itself a step behind Audi’s leading effort, especially with its information overload and backwards tachometer.
The ergonomics are brilliant, with physical climate controls easily within reach below the central touchscreen, while the centre console’s rotary dial is surrounded by infotainment shortcuts with driving modes and key vehicle functions located below and to the right.
This is all very well and good, but the best part is the 3 Series’ superb sportscar-like driving position, with the supportive front sports seats able to be positioned nice and low, while the thick-rimmed sports steering feels great in hand.
Measuring in at 4709mm long, 1827mm wide, 1435mm tall and with a 2851mm wheelbase, the 3 Series is now larger than the E39 5 Series! This is great news, in particular, for rear passengers.
About four inches (!!) of legroom is available behind our 184cm driving position, while there’s also more than an inch of headroom. Toe-room is limited, however, if you have the front pews set to their lowest position.
The second row is wide enough to accommodate three adults on shorter journeys and is perfect for a trio of children on long-distance trips. Either way, a pair of future-proof USB-C ports are available. But don’t worry, there’s an extra one hiding in the central storage bin.
Cargo capacity is 480L with the 40/20/40 split-fold rear bench upright, but extra storage space can be created by stowing it. Annoyingly, the high sill reduces the boot aperture, making it that little bit hard to load bulkier items.
Engine and transmission
The 330i is motivated by a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder engine that produces 190kW of power from 5000 to 6500rpm and 400Nm of torque from 1550 to 4400rpm.
This, of course, is a carry-over unit, albeit with a 5kW/50Nm bump. Better than ever? You bet. Simply put, it is one of the best engines in BMW’s line-up.
Output delivery is deliciously creamy despite some initial turbo lag off the line, but it almost doesn’t matter as maximum torque kicks in just above idle and holds on strong throughout the mid-range. This is a tremendously flexible unit.
Better yet, momentum is quickly built towards peak power, which carries on until a fleeting moment before the redline.
BMW claims the 1433kg 330i can sprint from standstill to 100km/h in 5.8 seconds while on the way to its electronically limited top speed of 250km/h. We have found no reason to deny this claim. In fact, we’d suggest it feels even quicker.
All of this is accompanied by one of the most pleasing exhaust notes on a BMW that hasn’t visited its M skunkworks. The bassy tone is brilliantly matched to subtle crackles and pops on downshifts.
A very familiar ZF-sourced eight-speed torque-convertor automatic transmission exclusively sends drive to the 330i’s rear wheels, making a great combination even better.
Gear changes are stereotypically quick and smooth, although it does love to hunt when acceleration is leisurely, which for most vehicles is a problem, but the 330i’s wide torque band makes it achievable.
Conversely, the transmission is very responsive to kick downs when heavy applications of the throttle occur, but given it has eight ratios to work with, they can take a little too long to occur as multiple downshifts are often required.
Flick the automatic to Sport and the shift points become appreciably higher, catering towards more spirited driving. Nonetheless, it’s smart enough to grab a gear or two when cruising, but it can take a moment to work out when the fun is over.
The transmission’s Manual mode does it exactly what it should, and we don’t even mind the fact that it automatically upshifts when you hit the redline. Below that, you can do whatever you want via the steering wheel’s paddle-shifters.
Claimed fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions on the combined cycle test are 6.4 litres per 100 kilometres and 147 grams per kilometre respectively.
During our week with the 330i, we are averaging 8.6L/100km over 395km of driving heavily skewed towards urban runs over highway stints. Plus, we may or may not have driven it a little hard, so it’s not a bad real-world result.
Ride and handling
The 330i’s suspension set-up consists of MacPherson-strut front and multi-link rear axles with adaptive dampers, while the M Sport Package’s sports tune lowers its ride height by 10mm.
BMW’s sports tune typically adds a firm edge to their suspensions, and the story is no different here. That being said, this is one of its most comfortable iterations.
The soft front end soaks up the initial contact with bumps, while the firm rear end can often follow up with a crunch, but not the type that will send you to a chiropractor.
In any event, uneven surfaces are dealt with aplomb as the 330i maintains composure and resists the temptation to punish its occupants, although its low-profile rubber has a tendency to catch sharper edges.
Switching between the Comfort and Sport driving modes reveals the impact that the adaptive dampers have, with the former offering a great balance for everyday driving, while the latter is noticeably firmer but not totally unsavoury.
At last, BMW has nailed electromechanical power steering, with its razor-sharp turn-in in any scenario signalling a return to form. It is so direct that you really feel like you are driving a sportscar and not an unpopular mid-size sedan.
Feedback is also fantastic, teaming with a wonderfully communicative chassis to keep the driver across the front wheels and body’s movements.
Unsurprisingly, the speed-sensitive steering is well-weighted in the Comfort driving mode, managing to be light enough for easy low-speed manoeuvrability and heavy enough for high-speed stability.
Engage the Sport driving mode instead and extra meatiness is added. Arguably, it’s too hefty for some, but we appreciate the amount of effort it requires.
The 3 Series has also soared to new dynamic heights, exhibiting excellent body control around corners, even when it’s being punted at speed – a scenario where body roll and pitch usually exert their influence.
With its perfect front-to-rear weight distribution, the 330i corners with absolute confidence, and its playful chassis even invites oversteer when induced.
However, the aforementioned M Sport brakes – in combination with the regenerative braking system – are quite grabby when coasting to a standstill. Careful management is required to ensure a smooth stop.
Unlike the upcoming M340i and M3, the 330i is a vehicle you can explore the limits of on public roads, making for a thoroughly entertaining – and well-balanced – drive.
Safety and servicing
Neither the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) or its European counterpart are yet to issue the G20 3 Series with a safety rating.
Advanced driver-assist systems in the 330i extend to autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep and steering assist, active blind-spot monitoring, front and rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control with stop and go functionality, a manual speed limiter, high-beam assist, speed limit recognition, park and reversing assist, surround-view cameras, front and rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring and hill-start assist.
Other safety equipment includes eight airbags, anti-lock braking system (ABS), brake assist, electronic stability control (ESC) and traction control system (TCS).
As with all BMW models, the 330i comes with a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and three years of roadside assistance.
Service intervals are every 12 months of 15,000km, whichever comes first. Capped-price servicing packages covering the first five visits start from $1565.
We compared BMW to Arnold Schwarzenegger before, but maybe Slim Shady would be a better comparison? Either way, guess who’s back? The 3 Series is – at long last. Hooray!
Make no mistake, this is a true return to form. Just when you thought SUVs were going to build momentum unopposed, the 330i gives us reason to believe in mid-size sedans again.
All of the negatives above are just us nit-picking. After a generation’s break, the 3 Series has got its class honours back, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be letting go of them anytime soon.
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Model release date: 1 March 2019
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