‘The basic form of the 3-series is long-established,’ said recently promoted design director Chris Bangle. ‘It’s the proportions that are important; we have worked hard at getting them right. We want to make a new statement.’
The new 3-series and its closely related 1-series sibling are to be built in high volumes– insiders talk of combined numbers as high as 750,000 by 2007. Because of this, the new Three’s floorpan and inner body structure will be predominantly made of steel. The hybrid construction technique pioneered on the 5- and 6-series might have helped the weight balance by using aluminium for the load-bearing structure forward of the windscreen, but this was considered too complex and costly for large-scale production on volume cars like the new 1- and 3-series.
Instead, the new Three uses a variety of high-tensile steels and so-called tailored blanks (sheets of steel in varying thicknesses) to help keep weight down while also increasing rigidity.
No figures are yet available, but the BMW will be bigger in every dimension. This is partly to distance it from the 1-series, allowing the 3-series to move half a class upmarket – in both size and price.
Another innovation is the new car’s electronics network. Lighter and more stable than the technology employed today, it makes updating and reprogramming systems software – such as the engine management – easier, and allows BMW to introduce new features without the need for costly re-engineering of the electrical hardware.
New Expanded Family
The 3-series is hailed by many as the best example of a car maker spinning off different bodystyles from one model. BMW successfully sold distinct saloon, estate, hatchback, cabriolet and coupé bodystyles from today’s Three, and it intends to repeat the exercise next time around. Already confirmed are the saloon (E90) and Touring estate (E91), together with a sportier coupé (E92) and a cabriolet (E93), which will be called 4-series. In future, all BMW saloons and hatchbacks will have odd numbers (1-, 3-, 5- and 7-series); sporty two-door models will have even numbers.
The coupé and convertible 4-series will follow the formula already established, with slick two-door styling that is subtly distinguished from the 3-series saloon and a canvas roof for the open-top model. The Touring will continue to be a lifestyle estate, with the emphasis on sporty looks rather than outright luggage capacity. It is likely to get a pop-up rear window to make loading easier.
Suspension & Steering
The 3-series has traditionally trumped its rivals with fine handling, so the heat is on BMW to get the dynamics right again. The starting point is a new rear-drive platform, key parts of which are shared with the latest 1-series.
It gets a longer wheelbase and wider tracks than the structure underpinning today’s 3-series, which gives the new car a slightly larger footprint. As with all BMWs, a great deal of attention has been paid to achieving an optimal 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution: the engine is longitudinally mounted a long way back in the engine bay, the battery under the boot floor.
Such natural balance, says BMW research and development boss Burkhard Goeschel, is the key to providing typically agile BMW handling – a trait the new 3-series badly needs to counter the recently facelifted Mercedes C-class and a heavily reworked version of the Audi A4 due out later this year.Other developments include a revised MacPherson strut front suspension with an aluminium subframe and other lightweight components that will enhance the car’s already keen responses. At the rear, a complex five-link trapezoidal set-up made primarily of steel replaces the old four-link arrangement.
All models should receive switchable stability control (DSC), electronic differential locks (EBD) and brake control (DBC) as standard, but BMW pledges that such electronic assistants will operate in the background and won’t damage the driving experience.
Like other recent models developed in Munich, the new 3-series will be shod exclusively with run-flat tyres: 16-inch on four-cylinder models, 17-inch on more powerful six-cylinder versions. BMW is working with tyre partners to ensure that the bobbly ride of early run-flat tyres is eliminated.
Despite the recent trend towards electrically assisted power steering, the BMWvolume-seller is almost certain to retain hydraulic assistance in the interests of feel and precision. As on the 5-series, Active Steering will be offered as an option – a system that alters the lock-to-lock ratio dependent upon the speed you’re travelling.
The roll-reducing Dynamic Drive system is unlikely to make its way into the 3-series, owing to its cost and weight. BMW has not yet decided whether to offer four-wheel-drive versions of the new Three. Demand in countries such as Austria and Switzerland has traditionally kept the model afloat, but the future of cars like the 325iX seems ever more uncertain now that BMW also sells the X3 and X5.
Engine & Transmission
One of the secrets of the 3-series’ success through the years has been its ability to cater to a large cross section of buyers, largely by offering a wide range of engine options. This strategy will continue in the future, with nine petrol and diesel powerplants underpinning the new line-up.
Kicking off proceedings will be the same British-built 1.8-litre petrol engine used in the existing 3-series range. Despite the arrival of the 1-series, the popularity of the entry-level four-cylinder 3-series model – the fleet favourite badged 316i – means it will continue to play an important role, according to sources within BMW.
It will be joined over time by a trio of lightweight in-line six-cylinder units from BMW’s advanced NG6 line-up. They will continue in 2.2-, 2.5- and 3.0-litre guises, featuring the German car maker’s ingenious Valvetronic technology and a magnesium block.
All will figure modest power and efficiency gains over the current engines. The 330i, for instance, will deliver 12 per cent more power than the current engine at 255bhp – along with 221lb ft of torque.
Booming diesel sales across Europe mean the new car will be offered with five new or upgraded oil-burners – all using the latest variable-vane turbocharging and second-generation common-rail technology. Sizes include 1.8- and 2.0-litre fours, plus 2.5- and 3.0-litre in-line sixes. The top turbodiesel will be a new 335d model running BMW’s excellent twin-turbo 3.0-litre. With 268bhp and a colossal 413lb ft of torque, the advanced common-rail unit promises performance to match even the most powerful petrol variants of the new 3-series. Munich insiders hint at 0-60mph in ‘around 6.0sec’, thumping in-gear acceleration and a top speed of 155mph.
Transmission choices will include six-speed manual, with both traditional and clutchless sequential shifting versions, and an optional six-speed automatic.Also planned, although not due until late 2006, is a new gearbox to respond to theefficient dual-clutch gearbox (DSG) now offered by Audi. Developed in co-operation with German transmission specialist ZF, it is claimed to offer drivers interruption-free shifting in both manual and automatic modes, thanks to a highly resilient clutch offering split-second engagement of new ratios. Expect it to appear first on the 330i before it trickles into other models. A plan to equip the new car with a turbocharged version of BMW’s new 3.0-litre petrol six has, say highly placed sources, been put on hold. The engine is designed to close the gap between the 255bhp 3.0-litre six and a 400bhp 4.0-litre V8 earmarked for the next-generation M3, due out in 2006, and it has been developed to an advanced stage, but is not yet considered durable enough for production.
Interior & Equipment
As with the exterior styling, the 3-series’ cabin design is more conservative than of late, so as not to offend buyers of this most mainstream of BMWs. Expect a mix of 1- and 5-series themes, with uncluttered lines and logical ergonomics. A simplified version of iDrive will, however, be offered on models with optional sat-nav. Standard equipment will be relatively stingy on lower models, but with more generous spec on more expensive models. Even so, most Threes should come with with air-con, electric windows and a full suite of airbags. BMW is confident of a five-star Euro NCAP crash-test rating.
Marketing & Production
In combination with the 1-series, the new 3-series is set to account for well over 50 per cent of total BMW production by 2006. At first, the new model will be produced in Regensburg, Germany, starting this time next year, though there are also plans to build it in a new factory under construction in Leipzig as well as BMW’s South African plant.
The 3-series saloon is widely expected to make its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in March, with UK sales starting six months later. Prices are likely to creep up to create a gap from the 1-series; our best estimate is a starting price of just under £20,000 for the base model.
However, as is usual with BMW, expect the top-end models to arrive first. The Touring estate should arrive soon after the saloon, while the 4-series two-door twins aren’t due before 2006. With their new names and fresh looks, they should open a new chapter in the 3-series success story.