Still great to drive, and now easier to use

What is it?

The facelifted version of BMW’s fifth-generation 3-series. BMW says it has made 2500 changes to its predecessor, which has been on sale since 2005. But this is still a facelift and not an all-new model.

Each of the steel body panels on the new 3-series apart from the newly contoured bonnet has been carried over unchanged, BMW’s designers have still done enough in altering the look of the fifth-generation 3-series to make sure the facelifted model is clearly recognisable.

Up front, there is a new interpretation of the classic kidney grille, along with bold new headlamp graphics that include LED indicators and BMW’s signature corona rings as well as an edgy new bumper.

The rear has also been reworked, with redesigned LED tail lamps combined with a re-profiled bumper to introduce a fresh new look with visual links to the BMW’s equally new range-topping 7-series.

Unfortunately, the 3-series saloon and touring won’t be getting the seven-speed double-clutch gearbox that has been fitted to the cabriolet and coupe variants.

The basic design of the interior remains unchanged. There’s a new, redesigned driver’s arm rest, and reworked switchgear in combination with BMW’s second-generation iDrive system, which now includes four individual menu buttons nestled around the a reworked rotary controller as well as a ‘back’ function to ease operation.

The 3-series has never majored on space, but the facelifted model now highlights more than ever just how much roomier the A4 and C-class have become in their latest all-new incarnations.

What’s it like?

As engaging as ever. The 3-series remains a car you could seriously consider buying on entertainment value alone thanks to the agile handling and inherent balance of the chassis, both of which provide a key part of the overall appeal.

The standard steering (a hydraulically assisted system) remains unchanged, but the suspension (BMW’s traditional MacPherson struts up front and multi-link arrangement at the rear) has been altered slightly on the six-cylinder models such as that driven here, with the rear track widening by 24mm to 1529mm.

The inherently precise feel and engaging nature of the standard steering encourages enthusiastic driving, while an impressive resistance to body roll and strong levels of grip make it fun to operate near the limits of adhesion.

There is a price to be paid for this dynamic excellence, however. Although the 3-series now runs fourth-generation run flat tyres, it can’t match the composure and sublety of the C-class for overall ride comfort.

At speed it feels nicely settled, but around town it tends to get a little ragged owing to the firm spring and damper rates and stiffness of its tyres.

We tested the 330d, with its all-new turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel engine.

It adopts the same cylinder bore spacing and internal design as the German car maker’s excellent 2.0-litre four-cylinder oil-burner, including the latest piezo injector system and an aluminium block that shaves 5kg from the weight of its old iron block predecessor at 185kg.

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Power is up by 14bhp to 245bhp at 4000rpm with torque extending by 15lb ft to 383lb ft, delivered on a band of revs between 1750rpm and 3000rpm. Forget the numbers though.

It is the tremendous flexibility and superbly linear delivery that mark this engine out as one of BMW’s finest.

You don’t quite get the silken smoothness and inherent balance of a modern-day petrol engine; some characteristic chatter remains at start-up and distant vibration through the mid range.

But the new engine does combine huge low end thrust with a truly sporting top end in a way that no comparable diesel engine comes close to matching.

Power arrives in one potent surge, providing the 330d with the sort of real-world performance to make the 330i appear tame by comparison.

Revs build solidly from just 1000rpm and they keep coming until the limiter cuts in at a high (by diesel standards) 5400rpm.

Channelling drive back to the rear wheels is the same Getrag six-speed manual as used in the old 330d.

There is also an optional six-speed automatic, but BMW won’t be offering its new seven-speed double clutch ‘box in anything other than the top-of-the-line 335i and M3 coupe and cabriolet.

BMW’s figures put the 0-62mph time at just 6.1sec - a full 0.6sec inside the time of the old 330d and just 0.2sec slower than the more overtly sporting 335d. In fact, the 330d now beats the 330i in the benchmark sprint by 0.1sec.

An outstanding combined cycle average of 50mpg means that the 330d also undercuts its predecessor by 4mpg. With spirited driving the figure suffers a little, but we still managed to record 36mpg on a rapid run on one of the autobahns out of Munich.

Playing its part here is BMW’s EfficientDynamic initiative which brings features such as an electrical water pump, part-time alternator and active aerodynamics.

Should I buy one?

If you don’t mind swimming with the crowd, definitely. The facelifted 3-series is a car of predictable evolutionary improvement but it is still a blast to drive, especially in 330d guise.

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None of the changes BMW has brought to it represent a giant step in the design, conception or engineering. But taken as a whole they do help to make it a more rounded car.

Thanks to its new iDrive system and other detailed tweaks to the interior, it is also a good deal more user friendly from any every day point of view.

They’re the sort of qualities that should ensure the 3-series returns to its traditional spot at the top of the executive car ranks.

Still, with its old protagonists, the C-class and A4 having undergone some major redesigns in recent times and the Lexus IS beginning to make headway, it’s going to take a proper comparison on UK roads to find out which one is best.

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