1 November 2004

BMW’s recent dare-to-be-different design has taken leave on next year’s 3-series. Pictured here officially for the first time, the crucial new compact executive saloon eschews the extravagant look established on Munich’s 1-, 5-, 6- and 7-series models for a more timeless appearance. Set to star at next year’s Geneva Motor Show shortly before going on sale in the UK next April, the fifth-generation 3-series, codenamed E90, represents a major shift in BMW’s model hierarchy. No longer the entry-level model in the German car-maker’s line-up – a position it has occupied for 29 years – the four-door saloon takes on a new role. With it come myriad changes, all aimed at moving it upmarket. Larger in every dimension, the new 3-series also receives more powerful petrol and diesel engines and a new rear-wheel-drive platform shared with the 1-series, along with aluminium-intensive suspension, hi-tech multiplex electrics and a long list of advanced features, including iDrive.

One look will be enough to convince you that this car represents the least extreme iteration of BMW’s present generation of styling created under design boss Chris Bangle. The front end, dominated by a new interpretation of the classic kidney grille and round headlamps under clear glass lenses, is pure BMW, as is the prominent swage line running down the sides and the distinctive ‘Hofmeister kink’ incorporated in the base of the C-pillars.

But instead of the radical surfacing treatment and controversial detailing found on other recent models, the new 3-series boasts an altogether less jarring exterior design with more conventional cues than any of its mainstream siblings. The rear end is also far less radical than what we’ve seen from BMW of late. As is typical of all BMWs, the front overhang is extremely short at just 755mm because the longitudinally mounted engine and gearbox combinations sit well back in the engine bay to help achieve the best possible weight distribution.

The reason for the more harmonious approach is simple: new models don’t come any more important for BMW than this. Despite increased competition on all fronts, the 3-series remains the cornerstone of its business, accounting for a whopping 57 per cent of global sales last year, with 528,258 units sold worldwide. BMW knows that it cannot afford to be too extreme with the look of this car, otherwise it risks sending buyers elsewhere. With the 1-series now firmly established at the base of its line-up, BMW has seized the opportunity to take the 3-series up in size. At 4520mm in length, 1817mm in width and 1424mm in height, the new car is 49mm longer, 78mm wider and 9mm higher than before. The increased dimensions now make it just 6mm shorter (but 89mm wider) than its arch executive-class rival, the Mercedes-Benz C-class. An extended wheelbase, up 35mm to 2760mm, is designed to answer criticism of the outgoing model’s cramped rear quarters. The extended wheelbase and widened tracks have liberated greater interior space in a move BMW claims will see the 3-series more closely challenge rivals like the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-class for overall versatility – something today’s model cannot do. A higher rear end and longer rear overhang also contribute to a 20-litre improvement in boot space, increasing it to 460 litres.‘It offers nearly as much interior space and luggage capacity as the old 5-series,’ says BMW’s development boss Burkhard Goeschel.

Four engines will be offered – a 150bhp 2.0-litre four in the 320i, a 218bhp 2.5-litre six in the 325i and a 258bhp 3.0-litre six in the 330i, as well as a 163bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel four in the 320d. All are mounted longitudinally under the new car’s long contoured bonnet, and all come with a standard six-speed manual Getrag ’box.

A six-speed auto from ZF with a Steptronic push/pull function and an SMG sequential unit with buttons on the steering wheel will be optional. Also under development is a dual-clutch gearbox, though it isn’t planned to appear until 2006. With an added 27bhp and 221lb ft of torque at 2500rpm – some 500rpm lower than before – the new 330i outguns today’s 3-series flagship, completing the 0-62mph dash in a claimed 6.3sec for a gain of 0.2sec. Top speed remains pegged at 155mph, though combined fuel consumption is 2.2mpg better thanks to a broader spread of gear ratios, longer final drive and improved aerodynamics at an impressive 33.2mpg. In line with recent developments at BMW, the 330i’s engine now has a lightweight magnesium block that shaves 10kg off its weight compared with the older aluminium block unit. A similar arrangement will also be incorporated on the upgraded 2.5-litre six that will make its debut in the 325i before appearing in other models throughout 2005. The new line-up will expand to include a 330d with a 218bhp 3.0-litre turbodiesel six in September next year. Also in the works is a storming 335d using BMW’s extraordinary 268bhp twin-turbo 3.0-litre turbodiesel six.

The big news, however, is the return of turbocharging for its petrol engines. In a bid to go one better than the executive-class competition, BMW is planning to introduce a 340bhp turbocharged 3.0-litre six in a sporting 330 Ti model.

A gutsy new 400bhp 4.0-litre V8 engine from BMW’s M-division will crown the line-up in March 2006 as an eagerly anticipated follow-up to today’s M3. BMW is also developing a limited number of four-wheel-drive 3-series models using the electronically controlled xDrive system featured in the X3.

BMW knew that if it was to successfully apply its ‘sheer driving pleasure’ tag to the new 3-series it would need to elevate its dynamics beyond those of its much-lauded predecessor. The result is a new lightweight chassis, shared to a large extent with the 1-series. MacPherson struts remain up front, but they are now made from aluminium for an even keener response. The rear end adopts a complex five-link arrangement in place of today’s well-proven four-link system, although it is still made from steel for durability. Along with the standard suspension, there’s an optional sport set-up that lowers ride height by 15mm and adds firmer springs and dampers. BMW’s Dynamic Drive system (which automatically counters body roll) will not be available on the new Three due to its weight and cost.

Track measurements have increased by 20mm up front and 28mm at the rear to provide a much larger footprint and, so its maker claims, improved high-speed stability. Careful attention has also been paid to weight distribution, which is said to be a perfect 50:50 front-to-rear. This is achieved in part by placing the battery low down in the floor of the boot and replacing the spare wheel with a puncture repair kit. Yes, this is another BMW developed around run-flat tyres. The standard 320i, 325i and 320d ride on 16in wheels shod with 205/55 tyres, while the 330i gets 17in rims wrapped in 225/45 rubber. The steering has also had a radical overhaul. Along with a standard speed-sensitive rack and pinion system, BMW offers its controversial AFS (active front steer) arrangement developed in co-operation with German specialist ZF as an option on the 325i and 330i. It constantly alters the steering ratio and level of assistance. At low speed only small inputs are needed, but as the driver increases the pace greater movements of the wheel are required. It is also linked to the sensors of the standard DSC (dynamic stability control) system.

Unlike the 5-series, which features an aluminium load-bearing structure in front of the windscreen, the 3-series retains steel construction throughout. ‘There were some thoughts about using aluminium but the costs are too high,’ said Goeschel. Some notable developments, including a new crossmember positioned in the load-bearing structure, are claimed to increase stiffness by as much as 25 per cent. BMW has not divulged weight figures just yet, but Autocar can confirm the 330i tips the scales at 1450kg, just 20kg above its predecessor despite its increased dimensions and added standard equipment. The increased body stiffness is allied to a comprehensive safety package that BMW says will allow the 3-series to claim a best-in-class five-star Euro NCAP rating. The new car has also been developed to meet demanding new side crash and high-speed rear impact requirements set to take force in the US next year. Among the safety features are two-stage airbags for the driver and passenger, thorax airbags on the outer side of the seat backs and curtain airbags. The more upmarket six-cylinder models come with a number of enhancements that will be incorporated on other DSC-equipped BMW models early next year. ‘Start Off’ preventes the car from rolling back on hills. ‘Soft Stop’ is claimed to reduce diving under heavy braking. With ‘Dry Braking’ the calipers are lightly applied to the discs to clear water in wet conditions. The new 3-series’ interior leans heavily toward that in the 5-series. The look is modern but lacks the driver-centric appeal of past 3-series models. Two distinctly different layouts are on offer. On models equipped with BMW’s optional iDrive system the dashboard has two different cowlings – one for the instruments and the other for a wide-screen monitor, while the switchgear is minimised with functions concentrated within a rotary dial between the front seats. More basic models without iDrive receive just the single cowling and revert to more traditional switchgear.

The overall ambience, choice of materials and perceived quality is similar to the larger 5-series’. Surfaces are finished in soft-touch, slush-moulded plastic with buyers offered the choice between a series of trims dependent on engine specification. Neat touches abound; there’s automatic air-con with individual temperature control, a multi-function steering wheel, an electronic key that operates with a start-stop button (like that found on the 1-series) and twin cup-holders above the glovebox. Options include active cruise control, bi-xenon headlamps with or without the adaptive function that sees them adjust in tandem with the front wheels, keyless entry, the choice of two sat-nav systems and a series of DVD-based infotainment systems, the top version of which uses ProLogic7 surround sound.

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