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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - range

Our Opinion

We like
Superb dynamic chassis, strong engine range, sharp entry price, manual as no-cost option
Room for improvement
Jury still out on 318i, fidgety ride over surface imperfections, unnecessary variable steering

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BMW logo8 Oct 2015

By DANIEL GARDNER

UNLESS you get really up close and personal with the 2015 3 Series, you may find it hard to spot the differences that accompany the lifetime cycle interface (BMW speak for a facelift), so allow us to help out.

At the front end the headlights are now all LED with clever adaptive function for the 340i flagship, which puts a black spot over oncoming or leading vehicles to maximise visibility without offending other road users.

The change is subtle but the new lights do look very sharp and freshen the 3 Series' nose in an effective but not immediately noticable way.

The more sporty M Sport package-equipped cars have fewer changes with the large-vent bumper remaining unchanged in the update, but Sport Line and Luxury line have a new look and LED fog-lights for posher spec cars.

At the other end the rear bumper has also been fettled and supports new-look tail-lights that are more bulging in appearance and all LED like the front end.

Inside, it is much the same affair with only some new aluminium-look trims to signal a change by day, and moody ambient lighting by night.

Generally the update appearance is subtle, but as the old fable goes if it ain't broke...

The big news with the updated 3 Series is its range of new engines with none more interesting and intriguing than the segment-first 1.5-litre three-cylinder as fitted under the bonnet of the returning 318i, but unfortunately one was not available for sampling at the local launch this week.

At $54,900 before on-road costs, the 318i has a razor-sharp asking price so keep an eye on GoAuto for our first impressions when the entry-level 3 Series arrives in our garage.

Instead we focused on the 330i, 340i and updated $63,800 320d, in which we started our 500km road trip from Byron Bay to Armidale in New South Wales.

Firing up the 140kW/400Nm four-banger and gently accelerating off was a surprisingly quiet process. Only when revved out to the governor does the 2.0-litre diesel produce the expected soundtrack, and when kept in the useful low-down torque band, the motor was surprisingly muted.

Even more surprising was the genuinely likable exhaust note. Diesels are not commonly known for their sporty report, but the 320d has a noticable bassy tone that we found satisfying.

With a meaty 400Nm from just 2.0-litres, the 320d has good performance. The intuitive eight-speed transmission kept the revs just where we needed them for swift acceleration and, at times, fuel consumption not far off the quoted 4.4 litres per 100 kilometres.

Our diesel wore the sportier of the three costumes BMW offers for the new 3 Series and optional sports seats with adjustable side bolsters. For front occupants with a more slender frame, the adjustment was very welcome, especially when pressing on through twisty bits.

The 320d might not be marketed as the raciest of the four-engine line-up, which may be why we were so surprised by its capability in a more driver-centric environment.

Our test car had 18-inch wheels and the optional adaptive M suspension which combined to offer excellent ride quality in any of the switchable modes.

In faster corners the chassis was solid and stable, resisting any perceptible roll and returning tons of grip and confidence. For the update, the electric power steering has also been adjusted and we feel the changes are a big improvement in standard trim.

When pushed to the limit in tighter corners, the 320d washed out in a controlled manner with no preference to under or oversteer and we liked the traction control's late intervention. The 3 Series' mechanical grip is enormous and abundant during very enthusiastic driving.

Next, we hopped into the flagship of the range and the 3.0-litre turbo 340i, which had been born as the Luxury Line version.

We didn't warm to the glossy wood veneers but there are a wide range of alternative interior customisation options and the quality was typically BMW.

Seats were standard fare.

Since the incredible N54 engine came along, we have loved BMW's turbo sixes and the B58 is no exception. Its exceptional torque is highly addictive and we found ourselves accelerating almost too aggressively by compensating for non-existent turbo lag.

Despite the low-down and instant grunt, the six-cylinder is very happy to rev and flicking the gear lever into the manual position was huge fun, with viciously quick gear changes and useful power no matter where the tachometer happened to fall.

BMW's engineers have managed to situate the engine far back in the chassis, but it is possible to sense the longer engine's weight when throwing the 340i through tighter turns and we had the front tyres complaining on more than one occasion.

Poor surfaces also caused a few problems for the car and upset the otherwise predictable manner. On perfect roads however, the 340i is unstoppable, settling into high-speed bends with impressive pace and rock-solid stability.

With 240kW and 450Nm on tap, the traction control light flashes with unfaltering regularity, even in higher gears, a straight line and dry conditions, leading us to believe the 340i may be producing a little more grunt than it says on the packet.

Traction control intervention was unobtrusive and only when pushed unfairly hard would the computers wind the taps off to a greater degree.

Sadly, our test car lacked the fantastic optional sports seats and we found ourselves slipping around in corners, which prevented full involvement in the otherwise engaging experience.

The only other element that detracted form a perfect score was the Variable Sport Steering, which was too light and wandery around the dead ahead position and removed weight and feel in corners. The standard steering is superb so we are disappointed BMW felt it needed the $400 extra.

Like Goldilocks' perfect porridge, our third test car was neither too hot or too cold. The 330i is just right.

Acceleration from the 2.0-litre turbo is not as colossal as the six-pot but with 100km/h coming up in just 5.8 seconds the mid-range 3 Series is no slouch.

Fizzy performance is accompanied by an unusual but not unlikable sound.

Our car wore the $1840 Estoril Blue paint and purposeful M Sport pack, which adds the most purposeful looking bodykit, a sharp interior with black roof lining and a sensational steering wheel that is fat and beautifully styled.

Running on 19-inch wheels and run-flat tyres, the 330i compromised on ride quality compared with our first test car but not intolerably so. We could live with the harder ride for the look of the big rims but others might not.

Road noise and vibration also increased irrespective of which adaptive suspension setting had been selected, but we could forgive the 330i some sins for its outstanding road holding.

With a lighter four-cylinder up front, handling was sharper and the overall poise felt more neutral and balanced. We would have loved to sample the same car minus the superfluous variable steering.

BMW's options list can be a minefield but, for the new 3 Series, we found the extras to be not excessively priced. If you need some guidance though, here is the way we would negotiate it.

Avoid the variable steering, say yes to the excellent sports seats and adaptive suspension, and don't be afraid to go for a standard colour because the 3 Series would look good wearing a sack – especially in elegant Touring (wagon) guise.

If you are after a savagely quick straight-line mile muncher go for the 340i, if carving corners all day is your thing then you'll love the 330i and if you want a good balance of fun and frugality, the diesel is hard to beat.

While other brands claim to be as driver-focused as BMW, none offer their entire mid-sized range with a manual gearbox for no extra cost. Say what you like, but we regard that as a commitment to purist driving enthusiasts.

Until we get behind the wheel of the forthcoming Audi A4, we must reserve judgment as to where the 3 Series sits in the prestige mid-sized hierarchy, but we confidently say that the wagon version is still one of the leaders. Although we were mightily impressed with the excellent new Jag XE.

Why don't Australians buy wagons? If you are thinking of jumping into a BMW X3 or any mid-sized crossover for that matter, we urge you to consider the 3 Series wagon. It has almost the same space, a better on-road manner, prettier looks and bags more street cred.

Dressed up in shimmering Estoril Blue and muscular M Sport package, the 330i Touring is one of the most versatile vehicles on the market.

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