Letís step back for a moment. At one time a new BMW was a predictable experience. Throw more technology into the old pot, refine the styling of the last one and hey-presto, BMW was set up for another six years. That all changed for the new millennium with a radical new look, first for the 7 Series and then the 5 Series. The trouble is, radical also means that some people arenít going to like it.
So while the sculptured design of the new 3 Series is still clearly "new BMW", the company couldnít afford take the risks it did with the 7 and 5 Series. Hence a more conservative rendition of the current BMW theme, and a mighty fine, well-balanced it is one too. The saloon is broader and longer, but itís the taught surfaces that appear like metal tightly stretched over a former that give it both a sense of solidity and style.
That the car still looks well balanced despite being considerably bigger (length is up 49mm, the width a scarcely believable 75mm) is a testament to the skill of the designers. One feature it does retain from BMWs of old is that the cockpit is set well back on the body, so you get that distinctive long bonnet, stubby tail look. Engine & Chassis
The technical content is, inevitably, even more familiar, with the traditional 50/50 weight distribution between the front and rear axles, front engine, rear wheel drive and even more use made of clever electronics that aid the driving experience without detracting from it. The 330i gets an all-new 3.0-litre six-cylinder unit from the 6 Series. As well as being lighter, and thus aiding the balance of the car, thereís another 27bhp pushing the output up to 258bhp Ė not that far short of an M3 of a few years back. Six speed gearboxes are standard across the range, both manual and automatic, the latter with full manual override if you feel like taking control yourself.
We drove a manual 330i in a whole range of conditions and found it rarely put a foot wrong. This new engine has BMWís Valvetronic system to control when and how long the engine valves open. Itís a new feature on the six-cylinder and it helps explain why it pulls so much better at low speeds. Higher up the rev range Ė and this one will go happily to 7,000rpm Ė the note takes on a hard mechanical edge that sounds oh-so-purposeful without ever becoming intrusive or showing any sign of its refinement becoming compromised. New 3-series
Itís undoubtedly a classic engine in the making, this 3-litre, and it would take a hard nosed, heavily chipped Impreza driver to be anything less than impressed with the level of performance. But we know from the past that you can stick a 1.8-litre engine in a BMW and still have a great package, for the essence of the 3 Series is as much about the chassis as it is any particularly power unit.
The body is now lighter but more importantly much stiffer. BMW has developed a new rear suspension system (in reality itís the same as on the 1 Series) that complements these improvements, along with fitting, for the first time in this class of car, active steering as an option. Although the pundits seemed unconvinced, BMW insists that German buyers have lapped this up on the 5 Series. Simply, this gives you all the feel of a traditional steering system when you are on the open road, but in town it speeds up the gearing so that less wheel movement is needed when you are parking or making a tight, low-speed manoeuvre.
Is it a good solution? Itís a personal thing, but the 330i seemed more alive than the 320d driven with the regular steering. BMW steering wheels get bulkier all the time, laden down with duplicate controls for things like the stereo, phone and even self-programmable functions. However, the disappointment with its muddled appearance is alleviated by fine feel and the ability to adjust it to a perfect position. The result is, on the road, the driver feels totally in control. Steering precision and feel are, as much as anything, what makes a BMW enjoyable to drive.
Thatís even on the standard run flat tyres. BMW is committed to this technology and, like the 5 Series, 3 Series buyers get no spare wheel. If you experience a puncture the car can be driven at speeds of up to 50mph for 150 miles on the Ďflatí to a tyre fitter. These tyres are, necessarily, stiffer than the traditional type, with the result that ride comfort can suffer. Our test route seemed carefully contrived to keep us away from bumpy surfaces, but BMW insists that by careful tuning of the suspension the ride will be fine. In our test programme it seemed firm in a normal, BMW way, but a final verdict has to be reserved for UK roads.
On a practical level the extra width makes the new 3 Series seem significantly more spacious in the front, but there are downsides. The fascia is rather too generic BMW, with a bold wood or metal strip running from side to side on up-spec models, neither of which is especially pleasing to the eye. Gone is the neat wrap around cockpit of the outgoing model, leaving the new car more classy than sporting. They have missed another trick to on interior storage Ė apart from squeezing CDs into the door pocket, thereís nowhere convenient within reach except on the passenger seats. Up-spec models get a multi-changer, but again it not one of the latest in-dash devices but a laborious in-boot machine.
It is a beautifully crafted interior though, with complex sweeping lines to door panels which add real style and a sense of quality. Cast aluminium door handles are a nice touch too. The optional sports seats are very expensive but absolutely brilliant with a thin layer of soft padding backed up by real all-round support; the grip from the side bolster is adjustable via electric motors. In the back there is decent legroom, although foot room can be very cramped if those in the front choose a low sitting position. All cars get climate control and lots of airbags.
Specify a new 3 Series with satellite navigation and you get the infamous iDrive from the 5 Series and an extra binnacle in the centre of the dash for the screen. Owners can also opt for ďkeyless goĒ, never taking the key from their pocket or bag. Sensors recognise your approach, unlock the car and set the seats and mirrors as you lift the handle. As with all new 3 Series the engine is then started by pushing a dashboard button. New BMW 3-series interior
Want more? How about headlights that point around corners? A tray in the boot for your laptop? The list goes on and on. What seems certain is that few cars will be bought at list price merely because there are so many enticing options. This hasnít done BMW any harm in the past and neither will it here. The new 3 Series is just too good to be spoilt by trivial matters like value for money. Track testing the 330i
Perfect weight balance doesnít necessarily equate to foolproof handling. With 258bhp the 330i is well able to slide off the road forwards, backwards or simply with all four wheels at once. But it wonít, at least unless you try very hard, because BMW has stuffed it to the gills with electronic gadgetry to correct your worst mistakes. The standard Dynamic Stability Control checks if the car is about to slide and cuts engine power as well as braking wheels individually to correct the attitude and keep the car in line. It worked its magic more than once when we hit a patch of ice (yes, itís freezing even in Spain in January).
If you are one of those drivers who has magical car control you might dislike DSC, for it may cut power just when you wanted the car to slide a little in the corners. You can switch it right off, but that removes all the safety nets. Now there is a middle ground, Dynamic Traction Control. It still prevents the worst mistakes but allows the back wheels to step out a little in the corners before tweaking the brakes and doesnít cut the engine power nearly as sharply. We tested it on road and race track and found it really enhanced the driving pleasure when the mood took you while still providing the safety net that 99% of us need.