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Seventh-gen BMW 3 Series has another big growth spurt, but size seems no obstacle for an engaging driving experience

What is it?

In our current era of identity politics, when some of the most powerful men and women on the planet think they’re entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions, this is pretty small fry – and yet, as statements go, it's still a bit too revisionist for my liking.

“The BMW 3 Series has epitomized the concept of sporty driving pleasure in the global premium mid-size class for more than 40 years.” That claim is contained within the press release on Munich’s new seventh-generation Three; in fact, it’s the opening line. But it’s not true.

Similar lines of description were glibly repeated at the press launch of the ‘G20’ 3 Series a week or so ago, so prominently and so often that you almost questioned your instinct to query them. So when did the BMW 3 Series become ‘mid-size’? Hasn’t it spent most of its famous 40-year history being the world’s defining compact executive saloon? Wasn't the original version small enough that Munich didn't even consider it worthy of back doors?

Well, whatever. Apparently, by BMW’s own say so, it’s ‘mid-size’. It’s not clear when the shift happened exactly, although I’ve got a reasonable idea why. But what might it mean now, you may very well wonder, for the character of a car so many of us Brits have come to know better than that of almost any other German car in the world? That's what we're here to find out.

This latest ‘G20’ 3 Series is the first to tip-toe over the 4.7-metre mark on overall length – and, within its own particular executive saloon niche, only the current Audi A4 is longer. The three-inch growth spurt that the 3 Series has been through is actually the second significant one in as many big redesigns. The car now sits between BMW’s second- and third-generation 5 Series on overall length. Interestingly, though, it has put on more at-the-kerb centimetres over the past two major model overhauls than it did cummulatively over its first five full model generations. So if you're inclined just to shrug and say "ah well; modern cars are just bigger, aren't they?", consider that this one has grown more in the past seven years of its history than it did in the preceeding 36.

It’s partly the existence of the 1 Series that has freed BMW’s hand to add inches to what remains its biggest-selling model globally – but it’s mostly one critical, commercial reality: that China has, of late, become the biggest market in the world for this car, and now approaches three times the size and importance of the car’s next biggest single global market territory. China clearly wants the 3 Series big (let's not forget there's also a long-wheelbase version pretty much just for that market). And China quite evidently gets what it wants, even if that means buyers elsewhere in the world, so familiar with the just-so proportions of the ‘E30’ and ‘E46’, get a new car that looks, in profile, just a little bit as if a foot pump had been taken to its cabin. At least, it does to me.

Might that also be why the ‘G30’ has slightly more dressy, busy-looking body surfacing than the last Three, I wonder, as well as a bigger kidney grille that's right on the limit of appearing deliberately oversized? Does BMW’s market research suggest China will prefer the car like that? Now I’m being unkind as well as pedantic, and also generalising, I know – but I rather suspect so.

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3 Bmw 3 series 320d 2018 fd hero rear

What's it like?

Perhaps it was partly as a diversionary tactic, then, that BMW quickly directed the attention of gathered European road testers last week towards the equally wide-reaching transformation that the 3 Series has been though under the skin.

Having been switched onto the same ‘cluster architecture’ platform used by the rest of Munich’s longways-engined showroom range, the car is now made out of a mixture of aluminium and steel, and is up to 55kg lighter, model for model, than the old ‘F30’ was. The 'G20''s body-in-white is also 25 per cent more rigid.

Below that body structure, BMW’s chassis engineers were given permission to bring the 3 Series back towards its sporting roots in a dynamic sense; by adopting wider axle tracks, stiffer springs and suspension mountings, and more front axle camber for all versions of the car.

Their biggest single innovation, however, are the new ‘lift-related’ dampers fitted to all versions of the 3 Series as standard (which you can swap out for adaptive dampers at extra cost). These clever shocks use structures within their reservoirs to provide extra damping support at the extremes of wheel travel, allowing BMW to fine tune the car for a slightly more fluent ride over the smaller imperfections in the road that all suspension systems most commonly deal with. They work quite well; the car doesn’t feel tetchy or aggressively damped – although it’s certainly now plainly a firmer-riding prospect than the average German saloon. But we’ll come on to all that.

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Firstly, to the justification for adding so much bulk to the car: the new 3 Series' interior, which does indeed seem a more spacious, inviting and expensively hewn place than was the F30's. The car's driving position is low by default but generously adjustable, and is almost impossible to fault. The fascia materials both look and feel more rich and upmarket than those of its predecessor, with quite a lot more matt chrome garnish on display - but not so much that, unlike in some rivals, the ambience risks gaudiness.

There's been an evident effort made to tidy up the car's control consoles, and so buttons are grouped in neat little islands rather than being scattered about. The car's instrumentation and infotainment screens dominate proceedings at the cabin's upper level. I didn't go a bundle on BMW's stylised digital instrument design with its anti-clockwise rev-counter, and thought it was a shame the instrument screen doesn't offer the flexiblity to change the dials back to a more conventional, easily readable layout. 

There is a lot to like, however, about how usable the car's infotainment system is; how quickly you can perform routine functions like adjusting the climate control settings or audio system volume (because there are physical controls for both); and how slick and graphically appealing it's all been made to look.

The new 3 Series will launch next March with a range of five engines, ranging from 148bhp 318d turbo diesel up to 255bhp 330i turbo petrol – with both a range-topping M340i xDrive and a plug-in hybrid 330e coming along before the end of 2019. The big-selling four-cylinder diesel engines have seen the most under-bonnet change, switching from twin-scroll turbo induction to sequential twin-turbocharging; and it was the 320d we elected to test, whose headline power and torque outputs are exactly as the equivalent ‘F30’-gen 320d’s were (187bhp, 295lb ft). The engine’s alleged to have made decent strides on both fuel efficiency and throttle response, though – allowing this 3 Series to become rated at better than 60 to the gallon on the ‘NEDC combined’ fuel economy lab test but also (in eight-speed automatic form, at least) making it capable of getting to 62mph from rest in less than seven seconds.

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It’s hard to take issue with the performance of a car of such wide-ranging strength that it can do both of those things. If you were out to find fault with the 320d’s new four-pot diesel, you might observe that it’s still not the quietest or smoothest of its kind – remembering to note that four-pot diesels still aren’t particularly quiet or smooth. Just like the -20d motor in the ‘F30’, however, this one’s considerably more willing than most to spin beyond 3500rpm, allowing you to get very close to the 5000rpm redline before wishing the auto 'box had already shifted up. It does seem a little bit keener to respond to your right foot at low revs than the old ‘B47’ four-pot used to, although I’m still not sure you’d know this was a sequentially turbocharged engine if you hadn’t been told. There’s no detectable flat spot or sudden rush in the power delivery when the bigger turbo wakes up: just a really linear and usefully wide spread of torque.

So what of that suspension overhaul: does it deliver the dose of handling dynamism needed to cover for the new 3 Series' greater size and longer wheelbase? Pretty emphatically so, actually – even for a tester initially discouraged by the latter considerations.

The 320d doesn't need BMW’s familiar M Sport suspension modifications to handle really well, with a balance and precision that few of its rivals can touch. There is greater immediacy and incisiveness about its cornering manners than the ‘F30’ managed – although deliberately not quite as much as you might find in an Alfa Romeo Giulia. BMW was quite plainly keen to produce a steering rack with good on-centre stability, a clear sense of tactile load and with linear handling response as you add lock – all of which it has very successfully delivered.

The new 3 Series is therefore at once easy, enjoyable and really engaging to drive quickly. It’s also a car with an apparent though entirely palatable compromise on ride comfort, however. It rides quite firmly: not coarsely, harshly or awkwardly, but with a slight but recurrent sense of over-excitement over smaller lumps and bumps, and a businesslike vigour over bigger ones. Impatient might be the best word for it; fiddly, perhaps, at its worst. Over most surfaces I dare say it won’t bother the majority of 3 Series regulars one jot – though it’ll take a good drive on UK roads before we can declare that with any certainty.

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99 Bmw 3 series 320d 2018 fd matt saunders driving

Should I buy one?

And what if you're one of those regulars and you are bothered by that ride? Well, I'd be surprised because it's a long way from bothersome in my book. Still, it's possible.

There's always the 3 Series' optional adaptively damped suspension, on which we have yet to try it at all on the road, but which is quite likely to be able to make the car more comfortable-riding when you want it to be. Still, I imagine the newly sharpened cutting edge of the 3 Series’ handling appeal will be recompense enough for the vast majority of returning customers - especially given they’ll also be getting a car with a more rich, sophisticated and accommodating cabin than they’re used to here. One with some very impressive infotainment features, too, and with engines every bit as strong and relatively appealing as ever they have been.

They'll be getting a car, in other words, that looks more likely than any all-new 3 Series I've ever driven (fair enough, this is only my third) to make its rivals seem dull-handling, slow and one-dimensional when the opportunity for a back-to-back comparison presents. And, by the way, between the delicate-handling Alfa Alfa Romeo Giulia, the dynamically gifted Jaguar XE, the popular and luxurious Mercedes C-Class, the smart and refined Audi A4 and the all-new and promising Volvo S60, they're a much better bunch of rivals than I've even known any 3 Series to have - so that's quite a compliment.

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Whether they like it or not, those returning customers will also be getting a bigger 3 Series, of course. One, to these eyes at least, without the perfection of design proportion the BMW has shown in the past; but whose size seems to leave the driving experience entirely unencumbered. Bigger or not, 'revisionist' or otherwise, this car just keeps getting better where it's really expected to deliver: on the road.

BMW 3 Series 320d Sport auto specification

Where Faro, Portugal Price £36,700 On sale now (deliveries from March 2019) Engine 4cyls inline, 1995cc, twin-turbocharged diesel Power 187bhp at 4000rpm Torque 295lb ft at 1750-2500rpm Gearbox 8-spd automatic Kerb weight 1455kg Top speed 149mph 0-62mph 6.8sec Fuel economy 62.8mpg CO2 117g/km, 24% Rivals Mercedes C220d Sport, Alfa Romeo Giulia 2.2TD Speciale

11 Bmw 3 series 320d 2018 fd otr nose

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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Add a comment…
Krg1222 15 December 2018

Run flat or not?

The big issue with ride quality of e90 and to a lesser degree the F30 is standard fitment run flat tyres especially on the UKs shattered roads and colder temperatures. From what I can see the pictures show non run flat tyres, has BMW changed it’s mind on the G20?

Peter Cavellini 16 December 2018

What nonsense!

Krg1222 wrote:

The big issue with ride quality of e90 and to a lesser degree the F30 is standard fitment run flat tyres especially on the UKs shattered roads and colder temperatures. From what I can see the pictures show non run flat tyres, has BMW changed it’s mind on the G20?

. Run flats aren’t the problem, it’s the same for all non Winter Tyres, once the temperature goes below -7C the silicon becomes more rigid thus less grip, for the rest of the run flats are just like other Tyres, infact having driven on them for the last decade or so I’d say they’ve improved and if you get a puncture you can still drive at up to 50mph and get the drive replaced (yes, you can’t repair them) no at the roadside in Rain or worse, no dirty hands, ho irritated passengers, less stress.

centenary 13 December 2018

Oh dear, the usual trolls

Oh dear, the usual trolls spouting their usual dire nonesense. These pages really do need a moderator to wipe them out.

mondeoman 13 December 2018

It's midsize

It's "midsize" because, at almost 5m long, it only just fits into a normal car park space.

It's barely shorter than a 5-series.