How do you improve on a car that is as hugely successful as the 3-series? That was the challenge facing BMW as they developed the sixth generation of the much-loved compact sports saloon. The answer was to meet the demands of today without losing the essence.
Styling is less bold but more elegant. The car is slightly longer and wider. The new more subtle look is a bit like its bigger brothers, the 5 and 7-series. Indeed, it is a big of a little limo with features from the bigger Beemers such as eight-speed automatic transmission, head-up displays and Park Assist.
Not so much the ultimate driving machine but more the ultimate business proposition – that’s how BMW is pitching the latest 3-series. Gone are all but one of the exquisite straight six engines. In their place are more efficient four cylinder donkeys of diesel or petrol persuasion.
The 320d will be the apple of the business buyers eye. The 184bhp versions gives a beefy drive with 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds. It now comes with start-stop and returns 61mpg on average with emissions of 120g/km. This is a sports saloon with better economy than some family hatches!
If that is not tax friendly enough for you, there is an Efficient Dynamics version of the 320d for the same £28,080 asking price. This has a 163bhp engine but can still do the sprint in 8 seconds. The bottom lines are 68mpg combined and 109g/km.
For me, the ultimate driving machine is the petrol engined 3-series. The weight of the diesel dampens the handling in my book. The petrol cars are more lithesome and responsive to the wheel. They have the edge on dynamics.
Driving pleasure has always been a key BMW attraction. This has been enhanced by a stiffer body and new chassis with slightly longer wheelbase. The car has the balanced feel that comes from rear-wheel drive and good weight distribution.
I rather enjoyed the new 328i, now powered by a 245bhp turbo charged petrol engine. This had sparkling performance from a well fettled four-cylinder engine that just loved to rev. It can sprint to 62mph from rest in 5.9 seconds and top speed is limited to 155mph.
Compared with the previous 328i six cylinder, this is a more economical drive with 44mpg on the Combined Cycle. The price is £29,060 – only a modest increase over the previous model. Short of the delicious range-topping 335i saloon this is the driver’s choice.
Other models include the popular 320i – now with a 184bhp turbo petrol engine and a couple of less powerful diesels – the 116bhp 316d and the 143bhp 318d. In total there will be eight versions of the new 3-series with emissions at or below 120g/km.
All models have Drive Performance Control which allows the driver to dial up four driving modes from sporty to economical. The new option of the eight-speed automatic gearbox gives seamless changes and is at least as economical as the manual equivalents.
For many drivers the 3-series will be still be the perfect car. Great to drive and now roomier and comfortable with more cabin appeal, it is set to build on its laurels. But it is not just about performance, it offers impressive economy across the range.
I suppose this is a softer 3-series in some ways but it is still a joy to drive. It meets the eco demands of today and will help broaden BMW’s appeal to a broader church of buyers.
The obvious rivals are the Audi A4 and the Mercedes Benz C-class but – what’s this? – a new ‘Comfort’ trim level on a BMW? This might just attract a few customers from Volvo and Lexus!