For a BMW nut, it’s hard to imagine a 3 Series without a naturally aspirated, straight-six petrol under the hood. It should have become mighty evident in the hills around Barcelona, where the sweet thrum of a six-potter reaching a crescendo would drive even the most committed ecomentalist to give up on his or her thoughts of saving the world for a day. But I did not go through any of that; instead, just to make it a tad louder, I shifted it into Sport+ and it emitted a strong, four-cylinder growl from the intake. It sounded the way a sporty, executive sedan should. Is this the new face of BMW, then?
The new 3 Series definitely has a new face. Gone is that bulge on the bonnet and fenders; instead, you get a car that is a toned athlete. Yet, it retains that classic, short, stubby boot and a roofline that isn’t taken away by the hoo-haa of coupé-like lines. I particularly like the integration of the headlamps into the kidney grille, à la the i3 and i8. And with the emergence of three new trims — Modern, Luxury and Sport (soon to be joined by M Sport) — BMW is trying to make each and every 3 distinct, even in its mass-produced appeal. And mass produced it is — last year, nearly 400,000 cars found homes around the world!
Even on the inside, the new 3 may seem evolutionary, but in reality the differences are rather stark. With the addition of the multitude of trims, it’s hard to find two identical 3 Series, or at least theoretically the permutations and combinations make it difficult. For instance, the Sport trim has, apart from a different looking air dam, mirror treatment and badges, its very own colour coded key and dash inserts. Our red test car came with metallic red inserts and black seats with red thread double stitching.
The steering, as always, feels a tad large, but you now get paddle shifters on the 320d and some more cool features like lane change warning, proximity warning, side-view cameras etc. BMW has even introduced Connected Drive that not only lets you browse the internet using your phone, but even has separate Facebook and Twitter apps as well which let you check your feed on the iDrive screen. There’s even a cool looking heads-up display for the first time on a 3 Series that not only tells you your current speed and GPS pointers, but even informs you about the current speed limit and any other traffic information that may be important.
But the biggest change is the addition of four driving modes — Eco Pro, Normal, Sport and Sport+. Eco Pro not only cuts the throttle response, but even switches off/cuts the air-conditioning and other electrical functions in its effort to save fuel. An indicator on the instrument console tells you how many kilometres have been added to your range by driving in that mode. While Normal is self explanatory, the Sport and Sport+ change the character rather drastically. Unlike most cars where these modes don’t really make the car much sportier, including some BMW cars, this one seems to have hit the sweet spot. The Sport mode immediately sharpens the steering and throttle response while Sport+ even alters the dampers and switches off traction control. Does it really work? I’ll tell you all of that in a bit, but first, is the new 3 comfortable?
In essence, it has become a bit more spacious. Because it is 93 mm longer than the previous car and has a 50 mm longer wheelbase too, the rear seat occupants now get 15 mm additional legroom. While there is still a tad less under-thigh support, there seems to be better head room and knee room as well, so that certainly is a plus. Move to the front and the seats hug you tight and provide support in all the right places.
The 3 Series has always been the foremost sporty executive sedan in the world for decades, a benchmark for others, so it better not lose its title, right? Start up the car and what immediately catches your eye is the Start-Stop function just like the X3. As you amble around the parking lot, you realise that it’s a bit intrusive, shutting off the engine in a more pronounced manner than say, a VW Passat. Nevertheless, all these fuel saving tricks are designed to keep CO2 emissions low. At 109 g/km, the 320d Efficient Dynamics is nearly as good as some small European hatches. But in its quest of going green, the 3 Series has not lost its sporty nature Driving through the hills of Barcelona, with Sport mode engaged on the 328i, the engine exhibits a sort of muted growl, typical of a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol motor. Sure, it has given up its six-cylinder motor for a four-cylinder job, but power and torque are nearly identical at 245 bhp and 35.5 kgm@1250-4800 rpm. It’s this large band of torque that makes the 328i such a hoot to drive. The reactions are instant, the throttle response is sharp and the motor feels un-stressed across the board, whether it is pootling around town or going pedal to the metal at 6800 rpm. The 8-speed automatic is quite decent too and while it doesn’t downshift as quickly as it probably should (it’s fast nevertheless), the shifts are smooth when driving sanely, leaving a slight kick in your back when you are pelting down the road.
The 320d on the other hand stays pretty much the same. The 184 bhp and nearly 38.5 kgm of peak torque are good enough to make it one of the most practical cars in the world. Its combination of pace and frugality have been, and will continue to remain, a hallmark. While it’s a bit clattery at start up and there is some engine noise when standing outside, on the inside it continues to remain calm. At full chat, the 320d has good pulling power and overtaking maneouvres remain a breeze. Importantly, BMW have somehow managed to make the car even more efficient, thanks to the new gearbox (8-speed auto again), new aero bits and some engine tuning.
But it’s the dynamics where the 3 Series rises to a new level. Using newer runflats with softer sidewalls, combined with a revised suspension setup, the 3 Series rides rather well. Unlike the last car which had a sportier edge, this one is firm in the sportier modes but not overly so, while there is a certain degree of suppleness while driving at lower speeds, a welcome addition. It no longer feels like it has been thrown off kilter by bumps. While the steering now involves less effort and has a mite less feel, it’s still miles ahead of its competition. Driving flat out on the Catalunya track, just off Barcelona city, the 3 Series felt completely at home on what is a rather technical track. It turns quickly into corners, stays flat and when it slides, it’s easy to catch the back and correct it. The tradition of a 50:50 weight balance has been maintained, while the pointy front end just means that the 3 will do your bidding, whatever you ask of it.
The only thing you can’t ask is for its early arrival. For what is a rather fine automobile, we Indians will have to wait until June-July 2012 for it to arrive, as the right-hand drive model has yet to be launched. When it does, expect both the 320d and 328i to be offered here for ' 27-35 lakh (estimated). While the wait can be a little long, the fact that its competition is nowhere close should make the wait totally worth it. The 3 Series remains not just the sportiest exec around, but also one of the best cars in the world. The writer was invited by BMW to drive the 3 Series in Spain