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We drive the next-gen 3 Series: Why BMW's bread-and-butter best seller makes for a great driver's car

2018-12-12 19:00
2019 BMW 3 Series Portugal

Image: Wheels24/Sergio Davids

  Gallery

The BMW 3 Series Sedan has epitomised the concept of sporty driving pleasure in the global premium midsize class for more than 40 years.

X7, 8 Series, Z4… BMW has embarked on a new model assault for 2019 with a wide variety of new cars ranging from a new flagship SUV to a coupe variant of its 7 Series. In fact, many new cars from the German automaker are set to arrive locally during the first quarter of next year. No model typifies its new model push than the opening salvo of its assault on rivals – the next-generation 3 Series.

GALLERY: 2019 BMW 3 Series

The 3 Series is BMW's bread-and-butter. The company has shifted more than 15 million units of its popular 3 worldwide since its model launch in 1975. The best-selling four-door sedan represents one in five BMWs sold and makes the most profit for the German automaker.

READ: Next-gen 3 Series, stunning Z4, flagship X7... This is BMW's exciting new model offensive for 2019

It's only fitting then that it receives the most design and engineering attention. In short, the 3 Series makes for a great driver's car (despite the lack of a manual version).

Driving the new 3 Series

If you’re familiar with the outgoing 3 Series the changes might seem more evolutionary than revolutionary. Driving it through the wonderful mountain passes of Portugal, I’ve come to realise there’s a lot more to the new 3 than meets the eye. Power delivery is as smooth as butter, turn-in is crisp, steering precise, and overall, it's a car that wants to be driven.

Given the awesome route I had available in Portugal's mountainous Faro region, I was more than happy to oblige the new 3. Its suspension, in a default setting, is supple enough to soak up bumps and undulations though for a more engaging drive you can switch to Sport (or Sport+). Its new chassis and suspension gives it a perfect level of balance its rivals will struggle to match.

The frugal diesel option - 320d

The 320d was the first variant I experienced and it immediately showed the 3 Series' strengths. It's a superb luxury sedan car rivaling its own stablemate - the 5 Series - at least dynamically. The engine is eerily quiet inside and even in Sport mode, the typical diesel brom is absent. With 400Nm, it's lag-free and despite its diesel powerplant the sense of excitement on the road isn't diminished. With its notably stiffer chassis, the 320d is unflappable on the road.

It's also the most frugal version in the range for now (the hybrid is still on the way) and given SA's exorbitant fuel price, this oil-burner could prove popular.

The sporty petrol 330i

The 330i's petrol engine feels more alert and more vocal (courtesy of engine audio electronically played in the cabin) than the outgoing version. Compared to the diesel you have more power to play with and its optional M suspension makes it that much more sporty and engaging. The caveat, however, is it's a lot harsher on the road and not able to soak up bumps and imperfections. The extra power is a boon and given its already composed chassis, you'll be having a lot more fun on the road as it's exciting and involving to drive. 

The petrol engine feels more alert, more vocal and has more power to play with than the diesel. The optional suspension immediately made the car feel more sporty though the caveat is it's much harsher on the road.

Overall, it's more exciting than the outgoing version and much more involving to drive.

M(ish) Power - the M340i

The launch of the 330i and 320d in South Africa will be followed by a rather special M-badged 3 - the new M340i - during the third quarter of 2019. The highlight of the M340i is its tuned X-drive system and engine. It's powered by a turbocharged straight-six delivering 275kW. Considering the power boost, it's capable of taking on the Audi S4 and Mercedes-AMG C43. Like its less powerful siblings, it's only available in eight-speed auto guise.


Driving a curiously camouflaged version at the Portimao circuit in the Portuguese Algarve, you'll definitely notice the extra power, more intense exhaust sound and X-drive system. The systems work in concert to give you all the confidence you need to take on a track as technical as that of the circuit.

WATCH: BMW's new 3 Series debuts new in-car tech

The M-Sport tech (which includes M-specific suspension, differential, variable sport steering and larger brakes) transforms an already great driver's package to one lending itself to be aggressively driven with all the confidence-inspiring road-holding BMW's performance division can muster... at least until the next-gen M3 arrives.

The M340i is quick and begs to be tossed around bends - power delivery is intoxicating and it's incredibly composed through corners. Switch to Sport+ mode and you can playfully slide through bends and even if you're a little too fast through corners it's incredibly easy to correct your steering and get back to pure driving enjoyment.

My stint at Portimao was but a brief taste of the new M-Sport package but it seems the 3 Series has regained the sporty personality that made it a benchmark.

If track days at Kyalami are in your future the M340i might be the 3 Series for you, though you'll have to wait until at least Q3 2019 for it to arrive locally.

The new BMW 3 Series design

BMW has drastically changed the design of its new 3 Series, complete with new front and rear design and the new model has grown in stature as befits its new premium status. For 2019, the 3 Series is based on the same CLAR platform as its new 7 and 5 Series siblings. It sits on a larger wheelbase and is longer and wider than its predecessor.

2019 BMW 3 Series

Overall, it’s a quintessential BMW with few curves, masculine lines and an assertive design. Some might even see a bit of Japanese influence… you be the judge.

The 3 Series tech

The new 3 Series is packed to the brim with new technological features. It debuts the German automaker’s new personal assistant system which can be activated by a voice command - uttering "Hello BMW" will give you access to the system. It’s capable of providing weather data, locations, diagnostic info or assist you in accessing the in-car Wifi.

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The next-gen infotainment system is akin to a Siri/Alexa-style voice assistant but it’s nowhere near true artificial intelligence.

BMW SA explains:

Or if you’re stuck in traffic you could ask it to help you pass the time…

Overall

The former benchmark of the luxury/sports sedan market is back and is entirely worthy of your attention. The 2019 BMW 3 Series isn't perfect but it makes a far more compelling case in its segment than ever before. It feels more akin to a less premium 5 Series.

READ: The new SA-bound BMW 3 Series is the epitome of sports luxury and innovation

The price might be alarming at more than R600 000 but if you value performance and handling, the 3 Series makes for a great choice. The new model is a great step forward for BMW. If BMW's goal was to create a class-leading sport sedan, then mission accomplished (a hat-tip to the engineers).

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The new 3 Series makes a proper comeback and is an absolute delight for fans of the brand. It once again leads the charge in the sporty sedan market with its primary USP being its chassis dynamism, handling that’s guaranteed to please enthusiasts and great tech.

It’s extremely efficient in 320d specification though those needing more oomph can opt for the M340i. It's incredibly roomy, practical and makes for a perfect family car that'll do a school run and take on mountain passes with ease.

3 Series rivals

Against a growing crop of great-to-drive sport sedans from longtime Bavarian rivals Audi and Mercedes-Benz, not to mention newcomers like Alfa Romeo and Jaguar, the 3 Series has its work cut out for it.

With an Audi A4 you'll get much better on-board tech (read: virtual cockpit), the Mercedes-Benz C-Class is luxury on wheels and Jaguar's XE is just as sporty with a healthy dose of class. The new 3 Series has the upper hand in terms of sporty chassis and performance compared to the aforementioned rivals.

Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Audi A4

Jaguar XE

Volvo S60

Lexus IS

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