BMW's Ultimate Driving Machine is back
FEW cars hit the market with such great expectations as a new 3 Series. It made BMW's reputation as "The Ultimate Driving Machine" and has long been the sedan that other manufacturers, and road testers, use as a comparative benchmark.
BMW lost the plot with the 3 during the mid-noughties as it took the car into the digitally controlled age, in the process dissolving its defining, intimate connection between driver, car and road.
Its engineers also had great difficulty making the suspension work properly with run-flat tyres. It was a mess on our goat track-grade country roads.
At the same time, Mercedes lifted its game with the C-Class and in 2010 took best car honours.
So this new seventh-generation 3 Series is on a mission, as stated by BMW, to regain that Ultimate Driving Machine feeling.
It all starts with the platform, the base body structure. The new 3 Series is larger, lighter and considerably stronger than its predecessor. It rolls on new suspension with stiffer springs and continuously variable dampers, designed to deliver greater control over wheel movement and a compliant ride with run-flats.
Wider tracks at both axles are intended to improve stability and responsiveness. BMW's holy grail 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution is a given.
Prices start at $67,900 for the 320d, which runs a 140kW/400Nm 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel, matched with a standard eight-speed automatic. Unlike Audi, BMW obviously believes diesel isn't dead. Yet.
The 330i we're in today is $70,900. Up front is a 2.0-litre turbo (190kW/400Nm) that launches its lithe 1433kg from rest to 100km/h in a claimed 5.8 seconds.
You can, of course, go troppo on the options list and pay for the dealer's kids' private school fees - but, unusually for a premium German car, the 330i shapes up as a no-options-required performance drive straight out of the box.
Standard are the eight-speeder with sportier shift mapping, adaptive M suspension with adjustable dampers and 10mm lower ride height and M Sport brakes. The 19-inch M alloys are shod with mixed-size Pirelli PZero tyres - 225/40 front, 255/35 rear.
If you feel the need to spend more money, tick the $2600 M Sport locking rear diff option.
Adaptive, swivelling LED headlights are also included.
It's seriously deluxe in the 330i's cabin, with beautiful Vernasca leather-upholstered, power-adjustable sports seats, dark roof lining, textured aluminium trim, an all-digital, configurable 12.3-inch instrument panel, the latest version of BMW's iDrive infotainment, head-up display, wireless phone charging and smartphone-activated locking and unlocking.
The ride harshness of previous iterations on run-flat tyres has been banished.
Comfort setting in the new model is exactly that, with much improved absorbency at low speeds. Sport works well on the open road, with a firmer though still exceptionally compliant ride quality.
BMW owners will immediately feel at home in the signature twin cockpit, with sporty driving position and firm, supportive seating. It's the best in the business.
Rear passengers will be happier with lots more legroom. In this regard it feels almost a big as a 5 Series.
BMW still has no autonomous emergency braking on the base 320d. Unbelievable. It is standard on the 330i (and extends to detecting potential T-bone collisions at intersections), along with adaptive cruise, semi-autonomous steering/lane keeping and surround cameras.
Mission accomplished. The new 330i is an immensely capable, satisfying drive.
Most importantly, it talks to you as a BMW sports sedan should, with natural, unfiltered feedback rather than digitally simulated sensations.
At all times the car responds precisely and predictably to your inputs. It feels light, tight and easily controllable, even as its dynamic limits - which far exceed legal ones - are approached in Sport and Sport+ modes, which firm up the suspension and add weight to the steering.
If the Pirellis let go mid-corner, you have obviously made several grave errors of judgment.
The steering in particular is a highlight. Sharp, tactile and intuitive, more than any other aspect of the car it shows that BMW has rediscovered the 3's driver-first focus.
With peak torque available from 1550rpm, the 2.0-litre turbo launches strongly, with zero lag. An urgent, muscular delivery begins in the lower mid-range and builds in potency en route to a sparkling 7000rpm.
The eight-speeder shifts as quickly as a dual-clutch transmission, with impeccable smoothness. Paddle-shifters are standard.
In Eco and Comfort modes, the 2.0-litre also returns great fuel economy for such a powerful engine. It will do 5L on the highway at a steady 100km/h and single figures in town, assisted by automatic stop-start.
I'd rather eat worms than drive an SUV. This is a real car. Even better, it's a real 3 Series.
I like the fact that the price isn't just a deposit on a long and expensive options list. In standard form, the 330i is great value as standard.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce from $72,900
The 330i's closest rival as a genuine sports sedan, with a 206kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo/eight-speed auto/rear-drive. A beautiful thing to drive but Alfa's quality and reliability baggage hurt it. 0-100km/h in 5.7 seconds.
Mercedes C300 from$71,800
Less cabin and boot space than the BMW. Runs a 190kW/370Nm 2.0-litre turbo/nine-speed automatic. 0-100km/h in 5.9 seconds. Beautiful interior design and superior infotainment but the ride on the current C-Class is a bit sharp and fussy.
The Ultimate Driving Machine is back. If I didn't drive other people's cars for a living, I could be very happy with one of these. Car of the Year material.
BMW 330i vitals
Warranty/servicing: 3 years; $1565 for 5 years/80,000km
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 190kW/400Nm
Safety: Not yet ANCAP tested, 8 airbags, AEB (only on 330i), lane keeping, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and braking, adaptive cruise