PORTIMÃO, Portugal – If the quintessential compact sport luxury car was indeed born with the magical BMW 2002, as the ’70s rolled in, it was clearly defined and seriously launched with the 3 Series, in 1975. The swift and agile sedan quickly became, and remains, BMW’s most popular car, 43 years on, with more than 15.5 million units built and shipped. No wonder the mavens in Munich take great care in revamping their core model every few years.
The seventh-generation of the 3 Series had its world debut at the Mondial de l’Auto in Paris last fall and BMW introduced the resolutely sporty M340i and M340i xDrive versions a few weeks later, at the Los Angeles Auto Show. With perfectly familiar proportions and styling cues, the new “3” is now built on BMW’s adaptable CLAR architecture, shared with all its rear- and all-wheel drive series and even the new Toyota Supra coupe.
It’s also slightly bigger than its forebear. Longer overall by 76 mm, on a wheelbase stretched by 28 mm, with front and rear wheel tracks that are wider by 43 and 21 mm, respectively. It has great looks and stance, with nicely flared fenders, a couple of creased character lines that sweep rearwards from its front wheel wells, plus a wider, bolder set of BMW’s signature double kidney grille. M Sport versions are even nicer, with their larger front air intakes and more sculpted rear fascia.
The new bodyshell is more rigid by 25% overall and 50% around suspension pickup points, and yet the new “3” is lighter by up to 55 kg, thanks to more liberal use of aluminium throughout. Comfort, handling, ride and performance all benefit. Cargo volume also goes from 447 to 481 litres in the trunk, with 40:20:40 folding seat backs to increase it at will.
Change is more obvious and radical inside, especially the shift to a pair of large digital displays. A 12.3-inch touch screen stretches, at the center, across the upper part of the instrument panel, flanked by a configurable, 10.2-inch screen to the left, for the driver’s use and enjoyment. The new design is sleek and uncluttered, with just the essential quantity of control buttons and switches grouped in neat clusters.
This also applies to the center console. You get a clear row of switches on the left, for driving modes and functions, with the silver start/stop button in their midst, a large and flat iDrive knob to the right, surrounded by only a handful of switches, and a short, stubby electronic shifter in between.
It all works well, thanks in no small part to the improved iDrive 7.0 interface, because there definitely is a learning curve for the numerous menus, commands and adjustments that lurk within. Also, a digital tachometer with a red needle that sweeps counter clockwise makes us long for a virtual interpretation of the classic, round, white-on-black gauges BMW made better than just about anyone. These would pop up with all sport driving modes, of course.
The new 3 Series is replete with all modern applications, connections and interfaces, Apple CarPlay, 20 GB disk, wi-fi hotspot and wireless charging included. It also offers the newest voice commands, powered by artificial intelligence, with the prompt of your choice. All is clear and effective at the command post, with neat secondary controls on a nicely-shaped wheel, draped in smooth, matte leather. The front seats provide a great blend of comfort and support, with a solid footrest for proper triangulation. The outside rear perches are good too, in spite of a rather short cushion, scooped out to preserve headroom, no doubt.
Fully revised power units reside under the new lightweight aluminium hood of the new 330i xDrive and M340i, at once more compact, potent and “clean.” The former’s 2.0-litre 4-cylinder now develops 255 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque while the latter’s 3.0-litre inline-6 delivers 382 hp with a 369 lb-ft helping of torque, thanks to new, lighter, twin-chamber turbochargers and a host of changes and refinements, in both cases.
These fortified engines, coupled to upgraded iterations of the excellent ZF 8-speed automatic gearbox, promise a 0-100 km/h sprint in 5.6 seconds for the 330i xDrive and 4.4 seconds aboard the M340i xDrive, with launch control. The rear-drive M340i gets the same “active” electronic limited-slip differential as its siblings. None of these cars will be available with one of BMW’s superb manual gearboxes, alas.
Suspension components were lightened further, also with the greater use of aluminium, and all mountings tightened, refined and fine-tuned over a few hundred thousand kilometres of real-world testing, including on the fabled North loop, at the Nürburgring. Chief dynamics engineer Albert “Mike” Maier is especially fond and proud of the “passive” shock absorber that lets the new 3 Series “float” over roads by neutering bumps, large and small, thanks to a clever, smaller second hydraulic piston within.
Finesse and character reclaimed
The 330i we drove, on Portuguese roads, was marvellously agile, stable and playful. Body roll and understeer were about nil, in tight cornering, with an optional M Sport suspension that is 20% firmer and decreases ride height by 10 mm. Never do you feel at the helm of longer and wider sport sedan. Rather the opposite. Steering is quick and sharp but a bit too light (our only serious gripe!). The 4-cylinder is feisty and flexible and the gearbox responsive and precise.
In contrast, the M340i xDrive in which we chased Timo Glock, former F1 racer and current BMW works driver in the DTM series, booting a 405-hp M2 Competition around the amazing Portimão race track, was simply spectacular. The larger sedan more than held its own, in spite of its 33-horsepower disadvantage and the extra 100 kilograms it carries. With its impeccable balance, superb all-wheel drive system and solid, fade-resistant brakes, it felt everything like a scaled-down M5. A new M3 with all-wheel drive seems all but certain, now.
The 2019 BMW 330i xDrive will be launched on March 9, in Canada, with a base price of $49,000. The 2020 M340i and M340i xDrive sedans will come next, in early summer, starting at $59,150 and $61,850, respectively. Finally, a plug-in hybrid-powered 330e sedan is set to arrive in 2020. Can’t wait to drive these, on Canadian roads, and see what else BMW has up its sleeve.
Model: 2019 BMW 330i xDrive
Base price: $49,000
Engine: Turbocharged 1,998 cc inline-4
Peak output: 255 hp at 5,000 rpm
Peak torque: 295 lb-ft at 1,550 – 4,400 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Suspension front: Independent, double-joint arms and struts
Suspension rear: Independent, multiple links
Length: 4,717 mm
Width: 2,068 mm
Height: 1,448 mm
Wheelbase: 2,851 mm
Curb weight: 1,711 kg
Acceleration (0-100 km/h): 5.6 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 210 km/h (optional package: 250 km/h)