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.