13 Dec 2018

BMW 3-Series international preview drive

The smartest BMW ever
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A lot of makers claim their AI-driven cars are smart, but BMW says its new 3-Series is the smartest yet.

That bold claim is how the German car maker introduced it’s all-new seventh-generation 3-Series sedan; a single, defining statement that, considering the sheer pace of innovation, positions the company’s most popular vehicle ahead of its flagship 7-Series limousine, the all-new X5 SUV and the soon-to-arrive 8-Series family, which has been designed to drive BMW into the upper echelon of luxury against the likes of Bentley and Aston Martin.

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Overview

Make no mistake, despite an ever-expanding portfolio of SUVs, plus the development of cutting-edge plug-in hybrids and electric cars, the 3-Series remains the core of BMW; a car that created the compact luxury sedan segment almost 50 years ago, and one by which its rivals have benchmarked - and been benchmarked against - for generations. Except, perhaps, the last one…

BMW’s significant expansion over the last decade has taken its focus off the 3-Series, with the outgoing F30 often criticised for failing to live up to BMW’s “The Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline.

Reclaiming that status was a clear priority for the German brand this time around, with BMW’s development boss recently telling Australian media “It has to beat everybody in the segment in driving dynamics because all the Australian, UK and American journalists says ‘ooh, the E46 CSL was the last real 3-Series. I do not want to hear that shit anymore.”.

So, having sampled the G20 3-Series in Portugal last week, can the seventh-generation be both “the smartest car BMW has ever made” and "The Ultimate Driving Machine”? Let's find out.

What are the finer details?

Australian pricing will be revealed in January ahead of the car’s showroom arrival in April, with the initial line-up consisting of the four-cylinder turbo diesel 320d and four-four-cylinder turbo petrol 330i - the latter being the most popular variant in the current model.

Both will be offered exclusively in sedan body styles from the outset, with a wagon due to be launched later in 2019, while more variants will come on stream over the next 12 months, including the entry-level petrol-powered 320i, the 330e plug-in hybrid and the flagship of the mainstream range, the M340i xDrive with its uprated turbo six-cylinder and all-wheel drive configuration.

Beyond that, BMW’s high-performance division is putting the finishing touches on its next-generation M3, which, like the latest M5 sedan above it, could be offered with all-paw traction for the first time.

In any case, prices are likely to increase slightly over today (which starts at $63,400 for the 320i while the 320d costs $65,800 and the 330i sells for $70,900) considering the raft of new technologies available in the car. That’s the smart money.

Similarly, specifications have yet to be revealed but some of the key highlights that are expected to be standard equipment on the 320d include three-zone climate control, a laminated windscreen that reduces cabin noise, synthetic leather interior trim with heated front seats, ambient interior lighting, a fully digital instrument cluster and a new 10.25-inch colour infotainment display with BMW’s iDrive 7.0 interface that can be tailored like a smartphone and features sat nav, Bluetooth, Wifi, digital radio and smartphone mirroring for Apple and Android devices.

The turbo diesel is likely to ride on 18-inch alloys and has BMW’s innovative lift-related dampers (a conventional shock absorber with an additional piston ring on the shaft that drives into a smaller diameter chamber on bigger impacts for better bump absorption) and an eight-speed automatic transmission.

The sportier 330i is, like today, anticipated build on the standard equipment by riding on larger 19-inch alloys and have genuine leather interior trim, among other extras. It will also be available with a host of upgrades to improve its on-road behaviour, including electronically-adaptive M Sport suspension that sits 10mm lower, an M Sport rear differential, larger four-piston brakes and active steering. They will be a smart choice for enthusiasts.

If it is so smart, is it autonomous?

In order to live up to the claim of being the “smartest” BMW, the 3-Series comes available with an array of semi-autonomous driving features, including emergency braking, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go ability in heavy traffic at speeds up to 60km/h, lane keeping assistance, blind spot monitoring while occupants are protected by six airbags.

Apart from the ‘regular’ stuff, the 3-Series uses its autonomous functionality to offer a number of unique solutions to common problems. The first is a reversing assistant, which constantly records the last 50 metres of travel and can guide the car out of tight situations. Say, for example, you drove around a corner into a tight laneway and needed to back out, then all you have to do it press the ‘Reverse Assistant’ button on the display screen and (while controlling the speed) the car will reverse out in exactly the same way it came in.

The second function enhances the ability of the lane keeping assistance through narrow sections of road, such as road works, where markings may not be as consistent. 

Other than that, all models will come fitted with the usual electronic driver aids, such as anti-skid brakes and stability control, and have full LED headlights, although high-intensity laser lights that send a beam up to 500m down the road are available as options.

This is smart stuff.

How does the new technology work?

Without as much fanfare as Mercedes-Benz’ MBUX system, the 3-Series introduces BMW’s version of a digital personal assistant, offering much the same functionality through natural speech voice activated commands. Say, for example, you want to lower the temperature of the air conditioning, simply say “Hey (or Hi, or Hello) BMW, I’m a bit hot” and it will drop a few degrees. It can read you the weather, suggest the nearest restaurant or service station, call your mum… etcetera, etcetera.

But it also has something that others, including Apple’s Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, don’t have, and that’s the ability to change its character. If you call your Betty the BMW, for example, you can re-name the assistant Betty. Or Hal. Or Mercedes (which it didn’t think was very appropriate).

Using the BMW app, you can also leave your keys at home and use your smartphone to unlock, start and lock the vehicle with a digital key, which you can share with up to four other friends or family members so they can use the car too. 

Okay, so BMW wasn’t embellishing the smart-ness of the new 3-Series. But can it live up to the promise of the “Ultimate Driving Machine” with all that tech?

What's it like inside?

The G20 3-Series is physically bigger than the car it replaces, measuring 76mm longer, riding on a wheelbase with 41mm extra between the axles, 16mm wider and is a scant 1mm taller, yet, through the use of lighter materials in its stronger chassis, it weighs up to 55kg less than its predecessor.

Most of its bigger footprint has been translated into greater interior space, with increases in shoulder room between the front-seat occupants, head room for all passengers and more knee and toe room for those in the back.

The boot measures 480L in total capacity, divided between the primary luggage area and a separate underfloor storage compartment as it only comes with a temporary repair kit for the tyres rather than any physical spare. The rear seat can be folded through a 40:20:40 system that provides the flexibility to load longer items while still carrying passengers.

More than the numbers, the 3-Series looks smart on the outsider.

While it cannot be mistaken for anything else but a BMW, there is a real sense of new-ness about the 3-Series’ cabin, both in terms of its overall design and the integration of its new digital tech.

For starters, i’s the conventional stuff that takes a big of a leap forward with a sense of overall polish and practicality that was missing from its predecessor. The asymmetric upper portion of the dash looks gorgeous with chamfered edges around the air vents giving it a degree of depth and craft, while super tight gaps, soft touch materials and ribbons of ambient lighting ensures it looks and feels better quality than before.

There’s also better storage options with a large lidded binnacle at the front of the centre console housing two cupholders (albeit without the handy key holder of today’s model) and a wireless phone charging pad, a deep console in the centre and door pockets with separate compartments for bottles and odds and ends.

And then there’s the digital elements. The two screens look fantastic with crisp resolution, stylish new graphics (with the instrument cluster featuring the speedo and tacho on the outer edges to allow more information in the centre) and more functionality than you’ll ever probably need. The infotainment system, for example, can link up to Microsoft Office to read and transcribe documents, including emails and text messages. That’s pretty smart.

What's it like to drive?

At the heart of it all, the two four-cylinder engines are not as radical as the rest of the changes with heavily revised versions of existing units.

The 2.0-litre diesel in the 320d now features a clever multi-stage twin-turbo set-up that mixes the best qualities of a small low-pressure compressor with a larger, variable-vane compressor to produce a more linear power delivery and greater spread of torque. The end result is it produces 140kW at 4000rpm and 400Nm from 1750-2500rpm, which, along with revised gear ratios in the eight-speed automatic, gives it the ability to sprint from 0-100km/h in 7.1 seconds while consuming an average of 4.2L/100km.

The 2.0-litre petrol engine in the 330i also features revisions to its turbo charging system (a single, twin-scroll unit) as well as a high-pressure fuel injection system, lighter internals and software updates to generate higher outputs than before. It now delivers 190kW between 5000-6500rpm and 400Nm on a band of revs between 1550-4400rpm, and can sprint to triple figures in 5.8 seconds while drinking premium unleaded at an average of 5.8L/100km.

It doesn’t very long behind the wheel of the new 3-Series to recognise how serious BMW was about repairing its reputation.

From the moment you point the thick-rimmed steering wheel at even the slightest corner, it feels connected and responsive, tautly planted and energetic in ways the current car doesn’t. 

The steering is no longer light and aloof with great on-centre feel and plenty of weight across the ratio and the suspension - with its tricky dampers - brings depth to its dynamism, with brilliant road holding and excellent big bump absorption. However, there is a trade-off, as its primary ride isn’t as plush as some rivals and it feels busy over patchy surfaces.

The rest of the package is beautifully refined though, from the invisible gear changes in its automatic and the hushed isolation from wind noise through its laminated windscreen and (optional) side windows.

The 320d’s turbo diesel is effortless and super quiet for an oil-burner, but hardly theatrical in living up to the promise of a true driver’s car. The 330i’s free-spinning petrol motor goes some way to rectifying that with a bit more fizz in the way revs at the top end of the tacho and the exhaust note it emits under acceleration (especially in the Sport and Sport+ modes with a digitised soundtrack that not only sounds natural but the staging through the speakers makes it sound as though it is coming from the intake side of the engine rather than just the audio system).

With some of the the M Sport add-ons (the electronic diff, bigger brakes and larger 19-inch alloys with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres), it is a cracking little machine to punt along a twisty back road with excellent traction and superb balance. The 3-Series’ 50:50 weight distribution is fundamental to that, as it the significantly stiffer suspension mounting points in the chassis, but it’s the way the whole package comes together that impresses most.

What's the first impression?

In many ways, the 3-Series is back to its best with superb driving dynamics, a high-quality interior with decent space and practicality and the latest in cutting-edge safety technologies and luxury conveniences. It’s closer to BMW’s tagline than its predecessor but that singular focus comes at the expense of its everyday comfort, which could do with a smidge more polish. Otherwise, the new 3-Series is definitely a smart car.

 

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