First impressions? In this configuration, a Giulia probably remains a more compact and lighter-feeling, marginally more incisive and naturally agile saloon. But then, modern BMWs are relatively complicated, more ‘specification-sensitive’ cars than most of their executive rivals; and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that, in just the right mechanical trim, this car could dive and swivel left and right just as keenly as its Italian challenger.
It might even entertain better ultimately, given Alfa’s refusal to supply a Giulia with fully switchable electronic aids below the £60k Quadrifoglio level — something that Van As, with whom I drove, couldn’t resist commenting on. “The amount of money that’s gone into the Giulia’s suspension is very impressive,” he said. “It’s a great-handling car — though I’d have tuned it differently. But why spend all that money and then not include a proper ‘off’ button for the stability control? That’s crazy to me. It’s a waste.”
Although the interior of our 3 Series prototype was covered with disguise almost as thoroughly as its exterior, it was possible to note a few themes about the new cabin. For one, it’ll have some surprisingly flashy, ritzy material touches — no doubt in response to the public’s apparent appetite for the more lavish/chintzy (delete according to personal taste) C-Class. There’s certainly more glossy chrome-effect plastic to be found around the air vents than there is in the current 3 Series.
Lower down the centre console, it seems as if BMW’s had a rethink on how it presents the car’s drive mode buttons, preferring a row of discreet Comfort, Sport, Eco and DSC Off keys to the old rocker switch of the current car. And up ahead, our prototype had a proper digital instrument screen unlike that of its larger BMW contemporaries, because it doesn’t feature fixed chrome bezels. Although we didn’t have the time to fully explore its modes, that fact alone should greatly add to its flexibility and the number of ways in which the display can be configured.
Only certain drive modes were available to try on our test drive, and on a passively suspended 330i M Sport on 19in rims — especially one described in the ‘firmed-up’ terms we’ve already detailed — experience teaches you to have realistic expectations of the car’s Comfort setting. But the new 3 Series rides with a surprisingly settled suppleness and dexterity for something of an explicitly sporting brief.
It does feel a little bit firm at low speeds, and slightly busy over smaller ruts and bumps taken at speed. But it certainly has suspension seemingly capable of working hard within the wheel housings without ruining the level poise of the body until it really needs to. Plenty of Tarmac imperfections are therefore heard but not really felt too much from the driver’s seat — and despite the progressive settings of both spring and damper, the car’s ride frequency feels honest and predictable as the bumps get bigger. The suspension’s outright ability to absorb punishment without running out of travel, meanwhile, is quite remarkable — up there with a really well-sorted hot hatchback.
After a switch to Sport+ mode (the only other available to test), the 330i’s steering gets meatier and a touch more precise just off centre, without risking the over-assisted pace of the Giulia’s rack or even the initial directness of the XE’s. “At big autobahn speeds, those cars just don’t seem stable enough to me,” said Van As. He explained that BMW always tries to cater for the customer who wants to relax a little at 200kph (125mph); maybe even take one hand off the wheel for a moment when he needs to.