20 August 2004

It is one of the strangest unveilings of recent times: an innocuous-looking computer file attachment that opens to spill the beans on the all-new BMW 3-series – nearly a year before the car goes on sale. The showroom brochure in Slovenian is complete with full photographs, measurements, options lists and even colour charts.

Autocar obtained the leaked document last week, confirming how accurate our recent 3-series scoop photographs were. The new Three is the most conservative of the recent Chris Bangle-designed BMWs, but retains the characteristic sculpted bonnet and angled swage lines running down the flank of the car.

It’s certainly not as controversial as the 5- or 7-series, probably because BMW cannot risk alienating the heartland of its customer base: 3-series sales account for 57 per cent of its annual production with more than half a million sold last year.

The leak sent shockwaves around Munich, but also sparked numerous conspiracy theories about its origin. BMW ordered an internal inquiry and has denied it was an official leak, claiming it could even be the result of industrial espionage.

Certainly, its early publication could cause headaches for BMW, which will sell the current-generation E46 3-series for a further eight months – an estimated 200,000 cars.‘A leak like this such a long way in advance of a model launch is highly unusual, and such detailed information on a new model can theoretically harm sales,’ warned Andrew Wright, market analyst for CSM Worldwide. ‘However, while sales of a Ford or Vauxhall could drop after such a leak, the 3-series is an immensely solid nameplate from a blue-chip manufacturer. People will still want the current 3-series – it’s a great car.’

The new Three, codenamed E90, is not expected on sale in the UK until early next summer. Sources in Germany insist that the leak won’t change the launch strategy for the car. It will still be unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2005, with Continental sales in April and right-hand-drive sales in May. A Touring estate is due later in 2005, and the usual coupé/cabriolet twins, expected to be badged 4-series, will follow in 2006.

Continuing the trend of most new cars, the new 3-series is bigger in every dimension than its predecessor. The leaked document contains the 3-series’ vital statistics: it measures 4520mm long (+49mm), 2013mm wide (+81mm) and 1424mm high (+9mm). By pushing the wheels out to the corners of the car, thanks to a 2760mm wheelbase (+35mm), BMW has managed to liberate more space for passengers and a 460-litre boot. Cabin pictures of the saloon suggest it will be roomier than today’s 3-series, which isn’t known for its interior space. Rear-seat passengers get twin air vents and power points.

Interior ambience is typical contemporary BMW, with a modern, more minimalist design and fewer switches than in today’s car, thanks to a simplified version of the iDrive multi-function controller that clusters many minor functions for the stereo, DVD sat-nav, climate control and phone in one switch. Base models without iDrive lose the centrally mounted second cowling for the iDrive monitor.

From the leaked pictures, interior quality appears to be up to the usual BMW standard, that is to say better than Mercedes and on a par with Audi. The dashboard of the brochure car uses a mix of soft-touch plastics and wood trim, but this won’t be standard on all models. Twin pop-out cupholders are fitted above the glovebox and the 1-series’ start-stop button makes another appearance.

The 3-series is one of those cars where the choice of options can make a huge difference to its visual appeal – and the new model won’t change that. Entry-level cars will come with 16in wheels, growing to 17in on the 330i, but buyers will be able to upgrade to 255/35 tyres on chunky 18in alloys. Optional sports suspension lowers the ride height by 15mm and the colour palette comprises three base colours and nine metallic paint finishes, with 11 upholstery colours.

Engine choice will be limited at launch to top-end powerplants. The brochure suggests that three petrol models will be available from the outset: the 320i with a 148bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder, plus 215bhp 2.5 and 255bhp 3.0-litre six-pots in the 325i and 330i. Only one diesel will be offered at first – the proven 161bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder 320d. It meets Euro4 emissions standards to dodge the UK’s three per cent company car tax surcharge. Six-speed manual gearboxes are standard on all models, but a six-speed auto with Steptronic manual nudge-shift will be optional.

BMW will continue its reputation for pioneering technology with a new magnesium-block engine on the new 2.5 straight six; it’s a smaller version of the 3.0-litre unveiled recently in the 630 Ci. All the petrol engines feature Double Vanos and Valvetronic variable valve timing, while the brake lights glow brighter the harder you press the pedal. Lightweight MacPherson strut front and a multi-link rear suspension is shared with the 1-series, whose rear-wheel-drive platform the 3-series also shares. The track is wider for a more planted stance and BMW claims a perfect 50:50 weight distribution.

If the details revealed in the brochure are anything to go by, the new 3-series looks set to repeat the success of the current car. It’s certainly got Autocar’s road testers chomping at the bit to do the first drive.

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