Friday’s unveiling of the new-generation 3-series was rather unusual.
Rather than a conventional press launch, the assembled hacks were allowed to look in on what was really an in-house ceremony. BMW board members and workers at the central-Munich factory gathered outside a production line exit marked BMW Werk 1.1 Tor 1 – a nicely symbolic hint that this was the 90 year-old facility’s original exit point and probably the exit point of the first-ever BMW vehicles made.
Hyped up by a pair of his-and-hers presenters and a circling videocopter, a series of somewhat intense speeches were delivered to the assembled workers by the factory boss, the works council boss and Norbert Reithofer, BMW’s head honcho.
The general theme was gratitude that the new 3-series was still being built in central Munich, ‘rather than in some exotic location’ and the pride in BMW’s achievements. Reithofer pointed out that he ‘grew up’ inside the Munich facility, making clear that the ultimate boss was a chap who knew what it was like to work on a production line.
The first of the 6th-generation 3-series models off the line was preceded by examples of the five previous generations of 3-series, starting with the 1975 original. Continuing the theme of solidarity with the workers, the six board members teamed up with six line workers, who drove six examples of the new model out of the factory and the few hundred feet across the road into BMW Welt, the huge exhibition centre and museum.
The first of the new F30 3-series – a 320d Efficient Dynamics – was finished in white and signed by the factory workers. A blank space on the bonnet was signed by the board members. I was amused to think that this example had spent just a few seconds in the real-world between production line and permanent exhibit at BMW Welt.
The 3-series is hugely important to the company. Last year around one BMW in every three sold was a 3-series and around one in five of all cars sold was a Munich-made 3-series saloon. Traditionally, the 5-series has netted more profit, but as drivers continue to rapidly downsize, the 3-series will become even more important.
The new model is not a big departure from the current 3-series. Indeed, in the flesh, from the side it looks remarkably similar. The tail is redolent of the current 5-series, while the new nose design looks fresh and modern. However, a Cd factor of just 0.26 is remarkable for such a conventional-looking car. Inside the story is similar: big, upright sat-nav screen aside, it’s a polished and matured version of a familiar formula.
And why not? The concept of a relative compact, rear-drive, evenly-balanced sports saloon remains as compelling as ever. It was just this concept - known as the ‘New Class’ - that saved BMW from oblivion in the early 1960s, and it remains something of an ideal. The next three months will be a hard slog at Munich, ramping up production of the new car in order to supply all of BMW’s global dealerships in time for the 12 February on-sale date.
No doubt, sometime late next year, work will begin in earnest, considering the likely form of the 7th-generation 3-series. Due in 2019, just in time for the super-stringent EU fuel economy regulations, I’d bet that this model will take a really big leap in terms of new technology. It will, though, remain sporting, compact and rear-drive.