What is it?
What’s most encouraging of all about this new, sixth-generation BMW 3-series is that, despite its very obvious eco credentials and its numerous technical innovations – which range from a dizzying new eight-speed, paddle-shift gearbox to an intriguing new ‘Eco Pro’ driver control system – it’s still just a good-looking saloon that drives rather beautifully at heart.To the naked eye the new saloon may seem like business as usual, featuring a slick and elegant new style that looks both familiar yet more thrusting, all at the same, but beneath its new suit the F30 3-series is dazzlingly different from and, says BMW, infinitely superior to the car it replaces in every single area you can imagine. It’s more comfortable and more capable dynamically than before; better at pretty much everything it does, in other words.In its entirety, the new range will span from the entry-level 316d at £24,880 to the 335i Luxury at £37,025. Later next year will come an even more of-the-moment Hybrid Active 3 model touting 335bhp/46mpg, and beyond that will follow a four wheel-drive model plus the usual estate, convertible and various M versions.
What is it like?
I drove both the 320d and 328i at the launch, both of which were only available in Sport trim with the new paddle-shift gearbox and top-spec chassis and steering systems fitted (optional adaptive dampers and sport specification servotronic steering, in other words, all of which combined with the gearbox would add just under £6k to the price).The first thing you become aware of when driving either car is that there’s an incredible lack of inertia when on the move. The new 3-series feels quite amazingly light on its feet, the 328i especially, and to begin with this can make it seem ever so slightly insubstantial as a result.The steering of the 328i is so light and fingertip easy, the accelerator so delicate underfoot, the gearbox so smooth in its machinations, you almost feel like a passenger in the car as it wafts gracefully from one destination to the next. The four cylinder engine purrs gently in its low to mid ranges, providing more thrust that you thought possible from such a small petrol engine when installed in a car as big, relatively speaking, as this.Select Sport and it instantly feels even more alive, not just beneath your backside and feet but at the tips of your fingers as well. And if you’re feeling truly in the mood there’s a Sport+ setting available in this model as well, which brings yet crisper responses from the steering, gearbox and throttle, and turns the traction control to a fruitier setting for good measure.It sounds an awful lot more complex and, no doubt, rather less intuitive than might be deemed desirable in a car that was once praised for its purity of purpose – but in practice it’s nothing of the sort. After half an hour, most drivers will be well used to what does what; and after half a day they’ll be amazed by the ability to fine tune the car into whatever mood, or whatever road, they mind find themselves on.The next day I drove the pick-of-the-range 320d and found it to be more of the same but better than the 328i, if anything, where it counts. It’ll also be BMW’s better-selling model, especially in the UK.It may not be as fast on paper – with a 0-62mph time of 7.6sec versus 5.9sec – but unless you’re really going for it in the 328i, the 320d feels the brawnier of the two on the road.It has even more low to mid-range punch, emits a similarly unentertaining noise and to all other intents and purposes feels like the same car. Same fantastic range of chassis set-ups, same light but lovely steering, same superb optional eight-speed gearbox; same ability to switch from smooth motorway cruiser to crisp B-road bruiser, and pretty much anything in between, all at the flick of a button. Oh yes, except the 320d will do 64mpg on the combined cycle and has a range of over 800 miles.
Should I buy one?
If Superman drove a car, in fact, he’d probably drive a new BMW 320d. And the rest of us would be more than happy with any other member of the range. Because be in no doubt, a new world leader has arrived – and it may take a while for the others to catch up.
BMW 320d Sport
7.6sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 64.2mpg (combined); CO2 119g/km; Kerb weight 1495kg; Engine layout 4 cyls in line, 1995cc, turbodiesel; Installation front, longitudinal, RWD; Power 181bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 280lb ft at 1750-2750rpm; Power to weight 121bhp per tonne; Gearbox 6-spd manual (eight-speed auto on test car)