I've owned three BMW 3 Series models.
The first was a boxy 323i four-door bought to replace a sports car which had become too small?
The second was a later model 316i fitted with a 1.8-litre engine.
And my third one, the most prized, was a 328i Individual, with special two-piece Compomotive alloy wheels, a soft white leather interior, and an exclusive azure blue paint finish.
I liked all those cars - so much so that I couldn't bear to part with them, and as a new one came along the previous model was absorbed into the company fleet, to be driven enthusiastically by a number of staff members until prudence - and rising ownership costs - forced replacement.
Times change, and I moved away from BMW into a succession of 4x4s and other "lifestyle" vehicles.
But the interest always lived on, and it was this, perhaps, which resulted in my vociferous outcry against the Bangle designs, a seeming affront to my personal sensibilities, a move away from great design into gimmicky.
When information on the new 3 Series started to surface, followed by a succession of spy pictures of the new cars, my soul lifted when I read that BMW management had warned against controversy in the design.
The 3 Series is BMW's bread and butter, too precious to destroy in a few strokes of a stylist's pen.
They got the message, and they've got it right. After a day spent driving the car flat out on a racetrack, and sampling its legion of electronic controls on a skidpan that was so wet you couldn't see the road, I can tell you it's the best yet.
The styling is modern, but evolutionary rather than the way-out controversy of the 5 Series or the 7 Series.
The interior is clean and, again, has evolved from the previous E46 model's rather than attempting to travel in a new design direction.
And the car has grown, with enough room in the back now to accommodate two large men, without their knees touching the front seat backrest or their necks half crouched. Rear legroom is 19 mm more than in the E46.
Overall length is 4 520 mm (49 mm more than before), width measures 1 817 mm (up 78 mm), and height is 1 421 mm (up 6 mm). Its wheelbase is 2 760 mm (up 35 mm).
Boot space is increased by 20 litres, partly because the car no longer carries a spare wheel, with runflat tyres standard in all models. There's a 60 litre fuel tank.
What's more, the 3 Series cars have actually got lighter, not heavier, as to be expected - albeit by only 10 kg. Weight distribution is a perfect 50/50 front to rear.
Engines are more powerful while at the same time offering better fuel economy, and the suspension has been improved. Six-speed gearboxes are offered in both manual and automatic versions.
More than 1 000 different types of steel are used in the new 3 Series, resulting in it being stronger and more crash resistant. As a result BMW says there's no need for side airbags in the back seats, although pyrotechnic seat belt tighteners are now standard on all seats.
However, the car gets curtain bags as well as pelvis/thorax bags built into the front seats, plus the normal "in your face" bags.
All six-cylinder models get "next generation" Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) which incorporates hill assist, as well as sporty Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) which allows the driver to induce an element of oversteer before the electronics take over.
This latter feature is selected by the driver pressing a button on the dash. The same button can be used to turn off DSC altogether - sometimes necessary when wheelspin has to be induced, such as when driving on mud or snow.
Other features, some of them optional, include bi-xenon adaptive headlamps, and active cruise control which uses an infrared beam to detect a car ahead, and slows the vehicle accordingly - even to the extent of using emergency braking if, for instance, another car swerves into your path.
There's also active steering and park distance control.
Leather is standard on all models, including the four-cylinder 320i and 320d.
A feature not seen at this level before is Comfort Access, which allows the driver to get into the car without having the key on display - the car senses his immediate proximity, and the door can be opened. No need to go searching through your pockets or handbag for keys.
Sound systems have been upgraded, too, and satellite navigation is available, coupled with the infamous iDrive system.
A multi-function steering wheel is also available.
Three models are being launched as I write - the 320i, 320d and 330i, with 325i coming in June, and 323i and 330d in October.
Top of the tree is the new 330i motor which has an extra-light magnesium crankcase, plus VALVETRONIC and double VANOS variable camshaft adjustment as first seen on BMW's award-winning 4.4-litre V8s.
Power makes a big leap to 190 kW at 6 600 r/min with massive torque of 300 Nm available in a wide band between 2 500 and 4 000 r/min.
This results in claimed sea level 0-100 km/h acceleration in just 6.3 seconds, with top speed electronically limited to 250 km/h. Fuel consumption (EU combined cycle): 8.7 litres/100km.
The BMW 325i has also received a boost, and will deliver 160 kW at 6 500 r/min with 250 Nm between 2 750 and 4 250 r/min. Top speed is 245 km/h and fuel consumption (EU combined cycle) is 8.3 litres/100 km.
The 320i has a new 4-cylinder motor which also features VALVETRONIC and double VANOS, and this produces 110 kW at 6 200 r/min and 200 Nm of torque at 3 600 r/min.
Zero to 100 km/h acceleration comes up in 9 seconds and top speed is 220 km/h. Fuel consumption in the EU combined cycle is 7.4 litres/100 km.
The 320d features BMW's second generation common rail technology, as well as variable turbine geometry on its turbo to pump out 115 kW with torque of 330 Nm at 2 000 r/min. Top speed is 225 km/h, 0-100 km/h in 8.6 seconds, and fuel consumption (EU combined cycle) is 5.7 litres/100km.
The best way to describe this is to tell you what's new. Firstly, the lights feature the "Bangle eyes" look, which I don't find unattractive, plus a new kidney grille treatment which is refreshing and macho.
The bonnet still has its "power bulge" but there's a styling line which now flows down the front of the grille and into the bumpers.
BMW's famed side crease is even more pronounced on this model, as are the side sills, and there's a strong shoulder line just ahead of the rear window.
At the back there's a built-in "spoiler look" bulge on the boot, while lights are more simplistic, although some commentators thought they looked more Oriental than German!
Inside there's a simple dash design with the centre stack still slightly angled towards the driver.
On cars without satnav there's just one instrument binnacle directly in front of the driver, while cars with satnav get a "double bubble".
A great feature is the inclusion of aircon/heating controls for the rear seat passengers; there are also sun blinds on the rear side windows as well as an electrically operated sunblind on the rear window.
Driving the cars
All the cars feature the same keyless operation as found on the 1 Series, with a small oblong tablet inserted into a slot on the left of the steering column followed by a push on a start button.
I started out in the 320d, and it was great to wallow in its massive torque curve, allowing deep entry into tight corners without having to gear down, with huge grunt out of the corners.
On really tight stuff the DSC would intrude and cut power on the exit to prevent a wheel lifting, but on the whole a satisfying and certainly safe exercise.
The beauty of this engine is that most of the time it feels - and sounds - more like a petrol motor than a diesel, with quite high revability.
The second part of the test was on a soaking skidpan, but at no time did I feel that the car was getting away from me. We did sudden lane changes, slalom, sudden braking - you name it - but it was impossible to fluster these new BMWs.
Moving straight into the 330i was the proof of the pudding. Despite its high power output the traction controls made it impossible to get out of shape, and even when I switched to DTC mode I couldn't manage to get the tail far out - although it did make driving the car on the track a lot more fun!
The 320i is a new product in the 3 Series lineup in its four-cylinder incarnation (the previous 320i was a six), and I must say I liked the extra power over the former 318i (which was also a 4-cylinder 2-litre). It has a remarkably smooth engine for a straight four, and shows remarkable poise - perhaps the best of all.
By the way, I sat in both front and rear seats while colleagues were driving the cars, and one thing I certainly noticed is that BMW has gone to great lengths to improve comfort. There's plenty of support, the seats are firm without being hard, and I also saw plenty of stowage space in the front, although there's little in the rear.
I've had a great day today, and I'm looking forward to another tomorrow when we take to the open road.
I am sure I'm going to be as happy tomorrow as I was today, just as BMW owners around the world are going to rejoice that the 3 Series has got better, not worse.
Without doubt it's the finest handling sedan I've driven, with chassis dynamics that once more set the standard in its class - and you would have to be REALLY stupid to get the car out of shape.
BMW has taken driving dynamics to a new level with this car, re-writing the rule book in the process, and it's going to be hard for competitors to get close.
It's going to be a winner!
BMW 330i manual R346 500; auto R359 500
BMW 325i manual R285 000; auto R298 000
BMW 320i manual R243 500; auto R256 500
BMW 320d manual R269 000; auto R282 000
Can you afford it?
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