BMW 3 Series: Local Launch

words - Ken Gratton
Larger, lighter and livelier, new BMW redefines rule of '3'

BMW 3 Series

Local Launch
Dandenong Ranges, Victoria

What we liked
>> Performance across all three variants
>> Fun but safe cornering
>> Pedestrian-safe looks

Not so much
>> 'Modern' vehicle line interior trim
>> Steering is less communicative
>> Doors won't close effortlessly

-- Finding the right balance in tougher times
BMW's F30-platform 3 Series is likely the most important new model launch for the prestige brand since 2005 — when the previous 3 Series was launched.

As the basis for an expanded range of GT-style liftback, wagon, coupe and convertible models — and as the traditional mainstay of BMW sales and marketing — the new 3 Series is being introduced in a world where fuel is more expensive, the global economy is more volatile, consumers are more demanding and the environment weighs heavier on vehicle design than ever before. Yet somehow the new 3 Series is mostly cheaper, it's larger, safer and more frugal to run.

BMW has achieved all this by several means, not least of all the adoption of downsized turbo four-cylinder engines in place of the widely admired small sixes of the past. Then there's the new eight-speed automatic transmission too.

Exposing the new model to the local press for the first time, BMW laid on the first three variants due here this month for a drive program out in the Victorian countryside and at a little known driver training facility near the importer's head office. Here was the opportunity presenting itself to determine the truth. Would the new 3 match the hype?

-- More affordable, better value — and no LCT for the thrifty models
It's not yet in the country, and won't be here for some months yet, but the new 318d will be the cheapest car in the 3 Series range. As the entry-level model it's priced at $56,400; just $1200 below the 320i at $57,600.  To be powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine displacing 2.0 litres, the Australian-delivered 320i is due to enter production in March — for an anticipated June retail launch here.

A second diesel variant to be sold here is the 320d — and that is available right now from BMW dealerships. At $60,900 it's about $1200 more than the 320d variant in the superseded E90 generation of 3 Series. BMW has carried over the engine, unchanged, from the old model to the new.  The difference in price is practically offset in full by the introduction of a new, eight-speed automatic transmission across the range. This new box delivers a significant component of the improved fuel efficiency of the new model range.

Just as the 318d and 320d share engine architecture, so does the 320i with the uprated engine powering the 328i. This petrol-engined variant is priced from $66,900 and represents a $10,000 reduction in price from the six-cylinder 325i sold in the E90 generation range. All the new models mentioned to this point are priced free of Luxury Car Tax (LCT), thanks to each of them achieving fuel consumption below the 7.0L/100km threshold demanded by the Greens Party prior to the introduction of new legislation that would have resulted in the LCT changing from 25 per cent to 33.

Only the 335i — also carried over from the E90 equivalent without change to power and torque outputs — is subject to the LCT, since it's priced above the ceiling for the green-car dispensation.

As the entry-level model, the 318d will come equipped as standard with idle stop-start function, 16-inch alloy wheels, Park Distance Control (rear only), halogen headlights, LED tail lights, electrochromatic rear-view mirror, remote central locking  and rain-sensing wipers/auto-on/off headlights. Inside, it features Sensatec leather-like seat trim, dual-zone climate control, triple-split folding rear seat, , 12V power socket in the centre console, leather-bound multi-function steering wheel, trip computer, cruise control, USB/Bluetooth connectivity and MP3-compatible CD audio with six speakers.

In addition to the 318d's specification, the 320i and 320d add shift paddles, 17-inch alloy wheels, Park Distance Control (front and rear), Lights Package (including puddle lights and LED reading/vanity mirror lights), electric seats with memory and sports steering wheel.

The 328i moves up a peg with electrochromatic exterior mirrors, electric lumbar adjustment for front-seat occupants, nine-speaker audio and satellite navigation. Topping the range, the 335i comes with 18-inch alloys, bi-xenon headlights, high-resolution instrument display, 16-speaker Harman/Kardon audio, extended Bluetooth connectivity (with voice control), premium navigation system and Internet access.

All the models either released here already or mooted for launch during the next few months come in a basic model line, but BMW also offers them in three different model lines: Modern, Sport or Luxury. Just as the company has done with the 1 Series ('Sport' and 'Urban'), the model lines amount to option packs for each drivetrain variant. Each line is identifiable by cosmetic features and the respective badges on the front quarter panels. The Modern variants feature, for example, kidney grilles in what BMW calls 'satinated aluminium' finish; the Sport variants' grilles are finished in high-gloss black and the Luxury variants can be distinguished by the polished chrome finish.

In offering the different model lines BMW aims to ease the confusion and indecision that normally goes with deciding what options to order with a new 3 Series purchase. The components of the three lines comprise different wheel styles, exhaust tailpipe finishes, seat upholstery and interior décor trim finishes.

Prices vary for each of the three lines, according to the drivetrain variant ordered, which may already have some of the vehicle line's features as standard, and whether Luxury Car Tax is payable. That may depend on the price of the car (335i for example), or whether options ordered take the price of the car above the green-car dispensation ceiling.

For the Modern line prices range from $769 for the 328i (LCT excluded) to $3900 for the 318d (with LCT applied). In the case of the Sport and Luxury lines, pricing runs the spectrum from $1538 (328i without LCT) to $4900 (318d with LCT).

-- Six into four does go, with a bit of forced induction
For the F30 generation, the 3 Series remains rear-driven with longitudinal ('north/south') engine mounting. And BMW has persisted in evening out the weight distribution of the car as close to 50:50 as possible. So nothing's changed, one might say.

Certainly the engine in the 320d and the 335i are the same engines that powered their E90 counterparts, but the four-cylinder turbocharged engines of the 320i and 328i are new, and all variants are now delivered with a standard eight-speed automatic transmission, although buyers can also order a six-speed manual transmission at no extra cost, if they so wish.

For the 318d, the 2.0-litre common-rail diesel does away with the variable-geometry turbocharger of the 320d's engine, explaining in part the difference in power and torque. Nonetheless, the lower-output engine still develops 105kW of power and 320Nm of torque for an acceleration time of 9.3 seconds to 100km/h from a standing start. Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are down to 4.5L/100km and 118g/km, respectively. The figures for the 320d — now 16 per cent more fuel efficient than its predecessor — are 135kW and 380Nm. Fuel consumption and CO2 figures are the same as for the 318d.

BMW is following the lead of other European manufacturers, offering highly efficient four-cylinder turbo engines running on petrol, rather than the straight sixes previous available in the 3 Series range. The new four-cylinder engine family is named N20 and has already been introduced here in both the Z4 and 5 Series models. Respectively, peak power and torque figures for the 320i version are 135kW and 270Nm. For the upmarket 328i, those figures are 180kW and 350Nm. BMW claims fuel consumption and CO2 emissions of 6.0L/100km, 141g/km for the 320i, 6.3L/100km, 147g/km for the 328i.

The 3.0-litre twin-scroll turbocharged petrol six powering the 335i continues to develop 225kW and 400Nm in the F30 application. 7.2L/100km fuel consumption represents a 17 per cent efficiency gain, despite the ongoing performance potential. CO2 emissions are at 169g/km.

As for the last of the E90 models, the F30 features electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, topped off with four-wheel ventilated disc brakes.

-- Added room in the rear
It may be a modern practice to downsize engines, but upsizing vehicle bodies for added roominess inside is as old as the industry itself. And the new 3 Series has not deviated from that path.

The new car is up to 30kg lighter and 10 per cent stiffer, but it also boasts larger external dimensions that provide 8mm more headroom and 15mm more legroom in the rear. That extra space was noticeable too.

And the driving position in the new 3 Series was hard to fault. There was plenty of front headroom, even with a sunroof fitted. It was possible to locate oneself at the right distance from both pedals and the wheel, without losing sight of instruments or finding oneself removed from the controls. In fact, the Driving Experience Control, which adjusts steering, throttle and shift points — but not the dampers in the vehicles tested — was so readily accessible it was getting quite the workout.

Seats in the Sport grade 328i were more aggressively contoured, which means they will hold the occupant in place better (without detriment to comfort) than the standard seats fitted in the Luxury (335i) and Modern (320d) variants driven. That said, for ease of entering and leaving them the seats in the diesel and the six were a better choice — and didn't fail to hold the driver secure during faster motoring. That they were quite comfortable by any standard was a bonus. The shape feels like a funnel, with every part of the body seemingly supported irrespective of the driver or passenger's physical size.

The interior of all three cars showed BMW's attention to detail in assembling the appropriate trim materials, although the 320d Modern came with a strange textured woodgrain trim that might help you feel at home if you're Abraham Lincoln and you grew up in a log cabin. Otherwise the three cars driven were comfy and stylish.

We found the build quality was generally up to par, although our man in Europe, Michael Taylor, took exception to the exposed bolts in the 480-litre boot, under the parcel shelf — two on each side. They could conceivably scratch luggage and probably wouldn't pass muster in a Volkswagen, as he says. Perhaps even more telling, the doors of the 3 Series wouldn't meet the standard required for many Japanese hatches. During the drive program, the doors wouldn't latch with just a gentle push, they needed a dose of determined thrust — not quite a slam. It was amusing to see even BMW's event management staff close the doors of the new model twice over, to ensure a secure seal.

As a final observation, the styling of the new 3 Series has not been universally applauded, but in the metal, as we predicted, it does look better — and certainly better than most other cars also required to meet new pedestrian safety legislation due to take effect in Europe next year. The upward sweep of the bonnet from the sleek nose levels out to provide a shape that will reduce head trauma in the case of pedestrian strike. The swage lines along the vehicle's flanks are pure 5 Series and the Hofmeister kink remains true to form. BMW claims a drag coefficient of 0.26Cd, which, along with the pedestrian-friendly bonnet, is another of those design constraints the manufacturer seems to have overcome with relative ease.

All of which leads us to the view that while the F30 may lack the ultimate purity of line from the E36 era, there's little doubt the latest 3 Series will find plenty of buyers who love it for its looks.

-- Adroit handling heightens active safety
The 3 Series is a five-star NCAP-rated car for crash safety and BMW has enhanced the car's occupant protection beyond the NCAP requirement by integrating an Active Protection package in the specification across the range. This system activates automatically once the car is travelling at or above 18km/h and tensions seatbelts. In the likelihood of a crash occurring, it also tightens the seatbelts further, winds up windows and closes the sunroof. Finally, once a crash has taken place, the system will automatically apply the brakes for 1.5 seconds to reduce the prospect of a second crash.

Standard safety gear for all models includes an electronic differential lock, six airbags, stability control, ABS, Brake Assistant, Cornering Brake Control, Dynamic Traction Control and Dynamic Braking Lights.

-- C-Class, A4 now on the back foot?
BMW will be relieved by the arrival of the F30 in Australia. It represents a chance to take back some of its market share lost last year, when sales of the 3 Series sedan fell back 850 units (to 4203).  Munich's archrival in Stuttgart also lost some sales last year, with the Mercedes C-Class dropping 275 units to 6428. C-Class is the strongest competitor for the 3 Series and the Benz has been recently upgraded, but with F30 now essentially commencing a new model life cycle, it has the upper hand in theory.

The BMW's other rival from a German prestige marque is the Audi A4. If it matters not which end drives the car, the A4 remains a significant threat to sales of the 3 Series. Among other cars in the same market sector as the BMW include the Lexus IS and the Volvo S60.

-- Improved ride hasn't hurt handling
While the forced-induction four in the 328i feels a little more brisk on launch than the same engine in the larger — and heavier — 528i, it still boasts the effortless torque for just loping along at cruising speeds. Given a bit of stick, however, the engine will often fail to meet the mark, due to turbo lag. This is one engine that can really benefit from driver input through the shift paddles. Left to the transmission's own devices, the engine will bog down on the exits from corners and the transmission won't necessarily kick down for the driver, even in Sport mode. But use the paddles as they were intended and the results can be overwhelmingly positive.

The same problem doesn't apply in the case of the 335i, which has that muscular twin-scroll turbocharged six in its favour. It's a weapon — and the traction and stability control systems help rather than hinder the driver get from point to point in the optimal time.

While we didn't get the opportunity to put the 320d — the higher output four-cylinder diesel — through the same paces as the two petrol engines, a brief drive through some select hairpins and uphill provided a feel for what the engine can achieve in a sporting context. It's surprisingly responsive and, frankly, more a charmer when it's working at speeds above 3000rpm than when it's just plodding along under 2000rpm. Although, that said, the 320d is relatively quiet too.

All three vehicles were autos and all shifted with commendable silkiness. Even when shifting manually the transmission wasn't unduly aggressive. BMW's gear selector can still catch out the uninitiated, as it did for our co-driver on a couple of occasions, but it's functional enough once it's also familiar.

The fuel consumption in the diesel, over the longest run was 6.8L/100km, according to the car's on-board computer. That was, admittedly, including a lot of open-road and country driving, but also a long section of a narrow, winding road running up the side of a mountain. After reaching the top the trip computer read 7.0L/100km, but further cruising dropped it back to its final figure of 6.8.

The first thing to strike a driver new to the 3 Series is how rapidly this car will turn into a corner. After a diet of other, less nimble cars, the 3 Series comes as a real surprise, responding immediately and promptly to steering input. It's a direct steering ratio too, by the feel of it, but the amount of feedback is, sadly, not what it was in the E90 models this new F30 replaces. There's weight through the wheel — in the right proportions and at the right times — and the car communicates enough to leave the driver confident as the 3 Series hurtles into bends. But it's simply not as tactile an experience as was the case with the E90 models — and particularly prior to the final model year update for that generation, when electric power steering was first introduced when electric power steering was first introduced.

Ride comfort could be a minor sticking point for some 3 Series buyers. It's probably suppler than we remember of the E90 3 Series, but can be a little sharp at times nonetheless.

Handling-wise the new 3 Series makes Switzerland seem partisan. It's nice and neutral on a trailing throttle into corners and doesn't change its line with power applied through the apex, but nor did it step out during the drive program — either with power on or off. For a rear-wheel drive car mustering so much power and/or torque, the 3 Series remains very composed and trustworthy through corners. We would upgrade the tyres of the 328i Modern to something more like those fitted to the 335i Luxury, but that's the one whinge where cornering is concerned. The 328i's tyres just knuckled under when pushed beyond their limits.

BMW claims the 3 Series is now 10 per cent more rigid and resistance to torsional bending than the E90 generation. While we can't attest to that figure specifically from personal experience, the new 3 Series certainly does feel tauter in corners. Through three dimensions the car's body rolls on the suspension like a cross-hatched and ribbed steel plate — and it's discernible after stepping out of any lesser car.

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Published : Wednesday, 22 February 2012
In most cases, attends new vehicle launches at the invitation and expense of vehicle manufacturers and/or distributors.

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