Return of the King

Thirty years after its introduction, BMW’s 3-series has turned from a low-volume niche product into a rampant sales machine, often outselling even the Vauxhall Vectra and Ford Mondeo in the UK. Yet, staggeringly, it remains as aspirational as ever. And while slick marketing has played its part, in the main it’s simply because it was and has remained the best affordable saloon of its time.

So the many thousands of current generation 3-series drivers may wonder why BMW feels the need to replace it at all. When new in 1998 it was the best car in its class and, seven years on, considered as a range, it’s still there. What we have seen in the interim is BMW uncharacteristically dropping the ball: the 7-series and X3 are deeply flawed, the Z4 attracted mixed reviews, and even the 1-series has had to duck the odd rancid tomato. But BMW can wear such criticism: individually none is crucial to the company’s health. By contrast, 65 per cent of all BMWs sold in the UK are 3-series – making a mess of its replacement cannot be countenanced.

Which is why the new 3-series is the least-radical new BMW since, well, the old 3-series. The brief, clearly, was ‘the same, but more so.’ The styling is conservative, the engineering entirely predictable and predictably brilliant. Codenamed E90, it’s bigger in every direction than the current car yet, spec adjusted, it’s 20kg lighter.

Its engines have more power yet use either no more or even less fuel, while aluminium front suspension and a new five-link rear axle retain the same easy fluency that’s made the 3-series chassis the envy of car manufacturers and the darling of car enthusiasts the world over. It goes on sale on 12 March in 320i, 320d, 325i and 330i guises, with prices ranging from £21,090 for a basic 320i to £28,455 for a 330i SE. Other models, including the entry-level 318i and 318d and the mighty 330d arrive in the autumn. The Touring will be with us for Christmas, the coupé comes in 2006 with the convertible and M3 being kept back until 2007. The 1-series has killed the Compact.

Visually, it’s a little disappointing. Parked next to its predecessor it looks upright, with poorer proportions and fussier detailing. Inside, the appearance is of a shrunken 5-series with a camel-like double-hump dashboard and an awkward blend of smooth and grained plastics with token slivers of unconvincing wood. BMW proudly crows about the increased leg and shoulder room in the rear, but forgets to mention the reduced headroom. It’s a reasonable cabin but, in this regard if no other, the 3-series is not going to have anyone at Audi quaking under the bedclothes.

There is anticipation aplenty as you pull the wheel of the 258bhp 330i to your chest, thumb the starter and hear the new twin-cam six-cylinder spin into life. Lifted from the 630i, it offers more power now than the Porsche 911 did 12 years ago. Compared to the outgoing 330i, it has another 27bhp, an identical torque figure of 221lb ft yet uses less fuel: 33.2mpg compared to 31mpg on the combined cycle. And thanks to its unique aluminium and magnesium block, it’s 10kg lighter.

Bone up in advance on the electronic assistance that accompanies your every move and you’ll convince yourself you’re driving a mainframe, not a motor car. But despite the standard DSC Plus system, which wipes the brakes in bad weather, stops the car rolling backwards, helps bring the car to a halt smoothly and primes the brakes even before you touch them, it feels entirely normal and mechanical to drive. The new six-speed gearbox is a delight (save its inadvisably long ratios) and the motor is the usual BMW paragon of smoothness and sophistication.

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Best of all, the engine delivers its thrust in an almost linear shove from 2000-7000rpm. There’s a slight increase in urgency as the revs rise, the sabre-sharp howl enough to make even the straightest road a pretty joyous experience. You rip through gear after gear, watching the speedo needle heading for the danger zone and if you do it right you’ll hit 62mph from rest in 6.3sec. A new Porsche Boxster is no quicker. So imagine my delight when I discovered that the BMW has, in fact, saved its best for the corners.

Mind you, BMW did its best to ensure we never found out how good the 330i chassis is. The test cars came with Active Steering, that hateful system which varies the steering ratio according to road speed, meaning you’re never quite sure how the car will react to any given input. I had to seek out an uninfected 320d to discover that normal 3-series steering is positive, precise, communicative and entirely predictable.

But nonsense (and optional) Active Steering aside, BMW has pushed the dynamic boundaries of the 3-series still further from the reach of its rivals. Drive at conventional fast road speed and it’s almost flawless. Body control is excellent, grip from its 225/45 R17 tyres as copious as you could wish. Ultimately on standard suspension it understeers a shade too much, something we lamented about the current car seven years ago, but a few track laps on sports springs revealed a much more neutral, exploitable attitude. 

And even at circuit speed it is unflappable: you can turn off all the electronics, turn too fast into a corner, stamp on the brakes and all it does is shrug off the speed. It’s not a landmark car to drive fast, for this is not an M-car, but it is fast, fun and mightily impressive.

It even rides properly, which is not something I’d expected to say about a BMW with run-flat tyres any time soon. They will be standard on every new 3-series, so if you’re ordering a car, insist it comes with the silly sounding but brilliant Pirelli Euforias. They still pitter-patter a little over small bumps but, compared to a Bridgestone-shod 5-series I drove recently, they were a complete revelation.

Which is more than I can say about the car that wears them. The new 3-series represents no giant leap forward, no redefinition of small saloon art. Overall, there is really very little that’s remarkable about it. Which, perhaps perversely, is why I liked it so much. 

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Recent experience suggests that when BMW tries to be clever it trips up; when it sticks to what it knows, it does it better than anyone else. Such is the case here: looks and rear headroom aside, the 3-series has been improved in every discernible area, and if this doesn’t plunge Stuttgart, Ingolstadt and Coventry into deep gloom, it should. The 3-series might be conservative, cautious and entirely evolutionary, but it is also a triumph. Right now, it’s hard to imagine what kind of car could beat it; harder still to imagine who could make it.


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