BMW 3-Series review
by Sue Baker (17 February 2012)
The road that twists and swoops its way down from Ronda to San Pedro in southern Spain is renowned as one of the finest car test drives in Europe. It is a bear-trap for reputations, an exacting trial for any car's performance, ride and handling characteristics. It was part of the 250-mile route set by BMW for the launch drive of the new 3-Series, and it showcased a car that BMW rather arrogantly describes as the "ultimate sports saloon".
Such a tag could well be a hostage to fortune, a claim just asking to be shot down. Fortunately though for the men in Munich the car's behaviour on the Ronda road proved that it is justified. The previous 3-Series was a very well-regarded car, and this new sixth-generation replacement is all-round better and undoubtedly the new benchmark for its class.
That ensures that it will almost certainly go on outselling its rivals just like the old one before did: UK annual sales figures for last year were around 25,000 3-Series, compared with just under 20,000 Mercedes C-Class and 12,800 Audi A4s.
Rear-wheel drive and an even front-rear weight distribution give the new 3-Series the "driver's car" feel that is expected of a BMW. Compared with the previous model, this one is 93mm longer, with its wheelbase extended by 50mm, and a wider track, but fractionally narrower in body width.
These changes help the car feel just a touch more securely planted on the road, with an improved ride and grippier cornering. They also benefit interior space. The back seat has an extra 15mm of knee-room and 8 mm more headroom, and the boot has grown by 20 litres to a size that equals that of the front-wheel drive Audi A4.
The way the car handles and its communicative steering - creditably so for an electromechanical system - are its most appealing features. The gearchange quality is good too, with slick shifts through the six-speed box via a stubby, well-placed gearlever.
There is plenty of driver's seat adjustment to achieve a near-perfect driving position, and the optional Head-Up Display - a first in a car in this class - is well worth having. Ride quality is very good, with supple damping that absorbs all but the worst of the bumps on a rough road surface. For an extra £750 you can have optional adaptive damping that gives you a choice of settings: Eco-Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+, to let you tune the ride according to road conditions and personal preference.
Refinement is generally excellent, with low noise levels in a hushed cabin while the car is slicing rapidly through the scenery. Not on start-up in the 320d, though, as the two-litre TwinPower diesel engine clatters a bit as it gets going. Once warmed up and on the move, it settles to a smoother rhythm. Wind noise is minimal, and tyre noise is pleasantly subdued.
The 320d is expected to be the most popular version, with its good economy and CO2 output pegged at the crucial 120g/km level that qualifies for a £30 annual tax disc and lowest-rate company car taxation.
With mid-range Sport trim the interior is very tastefully clad in top-notch materials. The dashboard design is not quite as cohesive as it might be: it does not flow round into the door décor as fluidly as it could, giving the impression that the cabin has been designed by several different people. There is a new edgy Modern trim option that is supposed to appeal to trendy young customers, but it includes dash and door inserts that resemble rather cheap corrugated cardboard.
BMW has nudged the new 3-Series further upmarket and it is priced accordingly. The list price of the 320d Sport, for example, is almost £30,000. While it includes a long list of standard specification such as dynamic stability control, rear parking sensors, run-flat tyres and ambient lighting, there are plenty of desirable options that can quickly bump up the final tally. The test car had extra kit including Head-Up Display and adaptive damping, and the bill totalled £39,935. The thick end of £40,000 is a rich hit for a 3-Series, even one as good as this.