First Drive: BMW's new 3 Series: Is it still king of the road?
First Drive in the Algarve: BMW 3-SERIES
When all is said and done, there is only one real question to be asked of the new BMW 3 series. Is it a better-handling car than the previous one and its rivals (Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class, Jaguar XE)?
The latest version, built on a new platform, arrives Ireland in March and will cost from €43,770 (318d SE). The 320d SE is just above €46,000.
I drove the 320d (190bhp, two-stage turbocharger) diesel and the 330i (258bhp) petrol, so I got a good sample. There's also a 320i (184bhp), a 150bhp 318d and a 265bhp 6cyl 330d. There will be a 330e iPerformance model with plug-in hybrid.
The looks have evolved. Nothing dramatic, but the cabin was fresh in design, look and feel, with good central location of key visuals and buttons. It has caught up with, but not passed, the Mercedes C-Class in that area. My main criticism was that the steering wheel was far too large and chunky. I didn't like it at all.
Connectivity is prevalent, of course, but the much flaunted 'personal assistant' ('she' answers when you say 'Hey BMW') struggled with our requests. Not a hope with navigation, that's for sure, though it has two-plus level automated driving. You can also interact/connect with the system via iDrive and touch.
You sit low in the cockpit, but forward visibility is excellent. It made me want to drive. And that's what I did, with real-feel immediacy of motion, steering and balance, especially coming out of curves. Any car can feel good in a straight line, but this remains easily the best in class in mixing upright tautness with tangible feedback and security of handling.
While its revised proportions are modest (85mm longer), wider (16mm to 1,827mm) and just 1mm taller (1,442 millimetres), the 41mm increase in wheelbase (to 2,851mm) and wider track widths (front plus 43mm, rear plus 21mm) helped it feel both solid and sprightly.
In the cabin there was a sense of more space at the back. The boot's a decent size with a reasonable aperture.
I preferred the 2-litre diesel to the 330i petrol. It was massively smooth, yet had great pick-up and emitted little noise (the company has lowered levels after previous model criticisms - acoustic front windows are standard).
This was a car to pitch, as I did, at hilly twists with plenty of power on stream and an 8spd auto gearbox so good you forget about it. There is a 6spd manual and there will be a 320d xDrive all-wheel drive from launch.
The new damping system, described as a damper within a damper, flattened unruly bumps, crevices and kept us assuredly level. It was a thoroughly enjoyable drive.
Verdict: I didn't push the car to the limit (I did subsequently on the race track with a mad powerful version), but I know a class leader when I drive one.
Spec levels: SE standard includes extended LED headlights with cornering, reversing camera, 3-zone air con, acoustic glazing, 40:20:40 split/folding rear seats, 8.8in central cluster, 17in alloys. 'Sport' adds exterior tweaks, front sports seats, 18in alloys, Vernasca leather, heated front seats. M Sport adds large air intakes, updated Vernasca leather trim, Live Cockpit Professional and ID7 operating system.
Nice touches: The narrow passage support system gets you out of tight spots (traffic barriers, cones etc).
It also has a reversing camera with a twist. It records your last 50m of slow driving and can retrace the steps so you can park safely. It worked. I tried it.
You get a BMW ID which you take with you even when you buy a new car. Your preferences are learned and known to the system.
If you are tired, there is a 'revitalisation' system. The temperature lowers, ventilation speed increases, the sunroof opens and lights brighten - for three minutes.
You can update your software three or four times a year via a BMW Connect app or over the air.
The Digital key can turn your smartphone into a smart key. Hold the phone to the handle and the door opens. It only works for Android auto for now.
In conclusion: I know why I'd prefer the 3 Series to a comparable SUV. Diesel isn't dead and neither is the executive saloon.
On the electric front: Coming down the line is the iX3 SUV in 2020, followed by the i4 electric car based on the 3 Series platform for 2021. It will be based too on the iNext family of cars that will herald another major phase in the brand's electrification.