With a little over more than 15,543,000 3 Series models that BMW has manufactured over the past forty years- and now seven generations – of the iconic sports sedan, BMW enthusiasts often reason about which generation is best, the never-settled discussion generally focusing around the second generation E30 (1982–1994) and the fourth generation E46 (1998–2006). Both of these 3 Series variations would raise the benchmark of what a great sports sedan should be, with their precise steering, even weight distribution, power delivery, and sheer driving pleasure.
Through the generations, the 3 Series has grown expressively in both size, accessible technology, and power. At the same time, the purists put the E46 on a pedestal against which any modern 3 series should be compared. They’re a tough audience, too: it’s fair to say that the sixth generation car never met with quite the reception BMW hoped it might
For this latest 3 Series that we had the pleasure of driving this past week, then, BMW’s designers have tipped their hat to the E46 even more determinedly. It starts with the angular line leading from the lower grill to the shark-fin shaped intrusion into the G20 headlight, itself meant to mimic the lower shape of the old E46 headlights. Gone are any unnecessary cut-outs in the bumper, to give the new 3 Series a cleaner old-school look. Still, it wasn’t just the designers who started looking back at 3 Series history.
Chassis and engine engineers also went to work to build a more dynamic 3 Series. The chassis is now 50-percent stiffer, the sedan is now back to a perfect 50/50 weight distribution, the centre of gravity has been lowered by 10 mm, the overall weight is down 55kg, the front track has increased by +43 mm, and the rear track by +21 mm.
To see first hand what BMW has accomplished, the automaker invited us to ever beautiful Cape Town, to take a road trip not only through incredible scenery but through the new 3 Series line-up, too. We started with the 2019 330i M Sport, as it will be the launch model when the car debuts from R649 000, the car our host through a mixture of small towns and beautiful twisty mountain roads.
Setting into the new 3 Series, the first thing that you notice is the lack of analogue instruments. The cockpit is now comprised of two displays, a large screen right in front of the driver and a second in the middle atop the centre console. BMW has played with the arrangement of the driver’s display and have relaxed the tach and speedometer to display them along the edges of the screen, instead of in the traditional circle. This allowed them to display more useful information in the center of the display. Also, all of the driver controls have been centralized around the shifter in a cleaner layout.
I started my drive with the 330i M Sport set to its default Comfort mode. The Driving Experience Control adjusts the steering, transmission, suspension, and xDrive bias. The first thing I noticed is that, even in Comfort, everything felt as piercing. The best improvement comes in the steering feel as BMW has really fixed the responsiveness. In the last generation, it felt like there were some major dead spots where there was no response out of the steering input. After leaving the town and approaching the twisty roads, I switched into Sport mode and the engine revs jump as the transmission immediately jumped down a gear. I started to push, and the car is not backing down; thanks to all of the new suspension magic that the BMW engineers have worked out, the whole thing feels stable and well planted.
BMW for the first time has introduced lift-related dampers that are part of the car’s standard chassis. The newly developed suspension and damping system contributes to the well-balanced handling of the car. The dampers work to reduce body movements and even out vibrations caused by uneven pavement and when pushing the car through high-speed turns. Extra hydraulic damping at the front axle and a compression limiting system at the rear continuously adjust the overall firmness, according to the changing spring travel. Altogether it helps reduce that unsettling response that you often feel when driving over larger bumps, uneven surfaces, or twisty mountain roads.
The 330i M Sport comes equipped with the optional M Sport suspension, helping tighten up the car even further with its rigid bearings and additional body supports, firmer springs and anti-roll bars, and an even higher degree of wheel camber.
So far I’m totally besotted with the 330i M Sport, and it’s not even the tip of the 3 Series spear. The engine’s power delivery is excessive, though I definitely felt some drop out at the higher rev range; that’s to be expected from a four-cylinder. Switching the transmission into Sport mode and letting it handle the gear changes itself, I was pleasingly surprised by how the car almost always seemed to be in the right gear. I experimented with using the paddle shifters, but almost always ended up back in Sport or Sport+ mode as it really allowed me to focus on the driving. There was really nothing I could do with the paddles that the car was not already doing itself.
Pointing the kidney shaped grille west, toward the ocean, it was time to hit the highway to not only get a feel for the car where it will be used the most, but to also take in some remarkable views. The 330i is just as great on the highway as it is on the mountain roads. It accelerates to pass effortlessly, and the steering reacts just as well to lane changes as it does sharp turns. Off the highway, the roads quickly turned into narrow twisty roads and eventually transitioned from pavement to dirt. Something you would expect for beachside communities found on the outskirts of Kaapstad, slowing us down until we could pause to take in views that were absolutely spectacular.
It’s not hard to get the impression that everyone involved with the new 3 Series set out with a goal of bringing it back to what BMW enthusiasts expect from the brand. There’s no shortage of technology here, too, such as a new BMW voice activated assistant that can control the temperature and help you navigate, along with motion-sensing radio controls and a great sounding audio system.
To me, though, all of that comes second to just how great the car drives. The purest of the 3 Series purists will likely complain that, when it arrives in the hands of Mzansi drivers, it will be missing the manual transmission option. Still, that’s just about the only negative thing I could say about the car when I grudgingly handed the keys back. Welcome home, 3 Series, we’ve missed you.