What we’re driving: BMW 330i
What it costs: $70,900 RRP (plus on-road costs)
As tested: $77,400 (plus costs)
Why we’re driving it: Like a lunar eclipse, the launch of an all-new BMW 3-Series only comes around every few years but is always worth the wait.
Earlier this year the Bavarian luxury car maker returned serve on its Audi (A4) and Mercedes-Benz (C-Class) rivals with the spanking new G20 3-Series, the seventh-generation in an unbroken line of premium sports sedans dating back to the original E21 of 1975.
What it costs: While the previous F30 3-Series range stretched to 13 models, at the outset of the G20 generation the range is limited to two; the 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel 320d and the 2.0-litre single-turbo petrol 330i. More variants are in the pipeline.
The thrifty diesel sedan currently opens the batting at $67,900, with the 330i sedan topping out the truncated range at $70,900.
We drove both and reckon the 330i is where we’d put our money, as well as the focus of this review.
On the outside
While there’s an undeniable and expected familial resemblance between this model and its predecessor, the new 3-Series is longer, lower, wider and slipperier through the air.
The car comes standard with an M Sport pack, although there is a less-flashy Luxury Line fit-out available for the hair shirt brigade.
Up front, aggressively framed adaptive LED headlights glare on either side of an enlarged kidney grille.
Crisp crease lines straking the shapely bonnet allude to a sense of power and motion, while a strong shoulder line, big 19-inch alloys and the famous BMW Hofmeister kink are all prominent in the side view.
At the rear, twin pipes and smoked hockey stick-shaped lights present a powerful graphic by day or night.
On the inside
Like the exterior, the 3-Series interior has been comprehensively redesigned and updated for this incarnation.
The aforementioned M Sport pack adds well-bolstered leather sports seats, tetragon aluminium finishes, and smart contrasting stitching on dash, doors and seats.
The dash design is wide and angular, dominated by a 10.25-inch touchscreen that’s well integrated, not jutting out like some Audi models.
Major controls are operated by BMW’s familiar iDrive rotary dial and associated shortcut buttons.
Behind the chunky M leather-trimmed steering wheel is a 12.3-inch, high-resolution configurable digital instrument display. Something new is a tachometer that now swings right to left, instead of the more conventional left to right.
Under the bonnet
There was a time when the alpha-numeric 330i badge meant your BMW packed 3.3 litres of naturally aspirated, smooth inline six-cylinder; these days, it’s more an approximation of what a boosted four-cylinder delivers in power and torque outputs.
While the numbers don’t lie and the 190kW/400Nm from this 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder are beyond what the best of the non M-enhanced atmo-six cylinders delivered, I still can’t drive a 3-Series without pining for the silken surge of those gloriously sonorous sixes.
Nonetheless, hitched as it is to a highly effective eight-speed automatic, the turbo four launches the 330i to 100km/h in an impressively rapid 5.8 seconds. That’s fully one second quicker than the cheaper, but less well-equipped 320d, five-tenths quicker than the Audi A4 45 TFSI quattro, and a lunge-for-the-line one-tenth quicker than Benz’s rival C 300.
If there is a criticism, it’s that the engine sounds somewhat subdued and doesn’t exactly bristle with horsepower. It’s got enough, but it’s so quiet and smoothly efficient that it doesn’t really get the blood boiling, even when you’re pressing on.
On the road
While design, technology and pretty much everything else about the 3-Series has improved markedly across successive generations, one thing that that has never deviated is the sinewy muscle of its thoroughbred chassis.
Underpinning this handling prowess is a reasonably svelte 1490kg kerb weight, to which is added lightweight 19-inch M alloy wheels, M Sport brakes, and adaptive M suspension.
Frankly, slot a turbo six under the lid and you’d be well on your way to a Frankenstein M3. But you’ll need to wait some time yet for that eruption.
Regardless, the 330i feels like a machine that’s made to be driven, and quickly. With keen reflexes and excellent road-holding, it delivers a fluid connection that makes you appreciate the quality of engineering beneath its lustrous paint.
Smooth, direct steering provides the quality feedback that inspires confidence in corners. Meanwhile, the stiff structure, flat cornering stance and brilliant body control are all that the badge on the rump suggests they should be.
The adaptive M suspension, which takes its cues from the auto transmission modes, offers a range of settings from decently compliant Comfort to firmly disciplined Sport, which should suit most tastes and driving conditions.
Like the 100 Years’ War that raged for, err, 116 years between the English House of Plantagenet and the French House of Valois, the battle for one-upmanship in the fiercely combative German mid-sized luxury saloon class has ebbed and flowed for decades. With each new model update, the protagonists throw down a gauntlet to their rivals to play catch-up.
With its new 3-Series, there’s little doubt that BMW has wrested back its cherished hegemony in the areas of performance, ride and handling. It also provides a tantalising glimpse of the eagerly-anticipated new M3 that’s idling menacingly in the wings.