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BMW 3 Series 'F30' review (2012 onwards)
Summary: new BMW F30 3 Series fixes the wrongs of the old car while not spoiling the bits that were right. It excels in almost every way: BMW really has hit the nail on the head.
We like: across the board improvements, striking new front end design, vastly improved interior, all-round driving excellence
We don't like: could be a little too similar to the current car for some, the fact we have little to say here...
How do you replace a car that, even in its twilight years, is still near the top of its game? That's the dilemma faced by BMW. Its gameplan in creating the new F30 3 Series, then? Simple: maintain all the good bits of the current car, while fixing its bad bits. Sounds obvious. But you'd be amazed at how often this goes awry.
So that's why it looks similar to the old one then? Well, no. Historically, BMW styling has been one generation revolution, one generation evolution. The former E90 model was a big step forward, so this time it's refinement of the theme, yet still with some differentiation. That's focused on the front end design which, in the metal, is far more striking than the current car.
Much lower and wider-looking, it's dominated by jewel-like headlights that closely wrap the prominent kidney grille. This is forward-leaning, in a nod to BMW heritage, and tops a highly sculpted and structural front bumper whose insert trims alter according to trim line. It looks superb. The test Sport model had black inserts: others come in chrome or satin-look aluminium.
Overall, the new 3 Series is 93mm longer, with a 50mm longer wheelbase. This, along with wider tracks for the wheels, yields more space inside: it's amazing, then, that BMW has also reduced overall kerbweight by up to 45kg. Oh, and with its muscular rear arches and wider-look rear (finally sorting the ugly tail lights of the current car), it's clearly a 'new' 3 Series in the metal: don't be fooled by the similar-look images.
BMW is to make a big deal of its new trim 'lines' at launch: Sport, Modern and Luxury. These sit above ES and SE and let buyers choose a 3 Series with the right colour 'mood'. Fine - but around two in three UK 3 Series are M Sport spec.
Worry not, the new F30 M Sport arrives in summer 2012 and we have an early photo here. All can be enhanced by a huge array of optional technology. This includes Active Cruise Control that's so clever it can even slow the car to a halt and then get it moving again, completely automatically.
Prices start from £24,880 and the 328i test car will cost from £30,060. They're slightly up on today's car but so, says BMW, is specification, quality and comfort. At launch, there will be four engines, including the limited-interest 335i and the two core diesels: 184hp 320d and the 163hp 320d EfficientDynamics saloon that emits just 109g/km CO2. More engines arrive later, including 316d and 318d diesels plus a 320i petrol entry-level car - and every engine option is now turbocharged.
BMW is a company with engines at its heart. In the new 3 Series, these are even more powerful than ever. Just smaller. Downsizing has made the traditional six-cylinder engines a fringe player and now it's four-cylinders that dominate, with diesel being key: well over half of all 3 Series sold sport a four-cylinder diesel.
More fuel-efficient petrol engines aim to peg back this balance, and are headed by BMW's exciting new 245hp 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder 328i. Replacing the old 330i six-cylinder, this motor is remarkably responsive, with little turbo lag thanks to BMW's TwinPower technology, and it proves extremely smooth in operation. It even sounds like a charismatic old BMW four-cylinder motor, albeit in sanitised, digitised form.
The 328i is a very fast car: 0-60mph in just 5.9 seconds. Amazingly, that's faster than even the very quickest original M3 - yes, this car beats a BMW icon in a drag race. It's also far easier to drive quickly, courtesy of a huge 258 lb/ft of torque. This pulling power is spread from 1,250-4,800rpm, a barely creditable range that means, in reality, it's always ready to start accelerating (though it's at its happiest, and most powerful, at far higher revs).
Complementing every engine is an optional eight-speed automatic that's at its best in the 328i. With close-packed gear ratios and incredibly fast gearchanges (they're even faster in paddleshift mode), it's a smooth-running automatic that's a match for DSG-style twin-clutch gearboxes in terms of immediacy and speed of shift. An automatic 328i is a sportier, more satisfying drive than you may ever expect.
Ride and handling
BMW's first aim with the new 3 Series here was to maintain the handling ability of the current car. Then, to improve its ride quality significantly. Given how well the current car handles, the order of these priorities is telling: it is BMW, 'the ultimate driving machine', after all. But can you really make a sporting car also ride really well?
Yes you can. The new 3 Series has far greater compliance, much less harshness over scarred roads and way less jitter and bounce over dimples and undulations at speed. Telling moment: we found a level crossing on the route - the old one would have banged and boshed over this but the new one soaked it all up distantly, almost without utterance.
Proviso time, of course. Being a German car, there's a multitude of mechanical options, including Dynamic Damper Control electronic shock absorbers fitted to the test car. You control these settings via the new 'Driver Experience Control' switch on the centre console. In Comfort, these gave the supple, long-travel suspension you'd ordinarily associate with a Mercedes C-Class.
In Sport, things were far more tightly controlled but still, save for the occasional high-speed jitter, didn't significantly harm comfort or refinement. We don't expect the standard suspension to be less absorbent, but it may not boast the repertoire of body control displayed here.
So it's more comfortable. Which simply makes it a much nicer place to enjoy that so-familiar handling excellence from. Despite its wider repertoire, despite its longer wheelbase, it still turns in like an agile hot hatch, still feels led by its super-accurate front end and has lost none of its delectable balance and composure. The 3 Series oozes confidence and, thanks to a stack of mechanical grip both front and rear, you feel happy driving it hard straight from the off.
The 328i eschews the new fuel-saving electronic power steering of regular 3 Series for the traditional speed-sensitive Servotronic system. It's a touch sticky on centre but it's also very quick, precise and confidentlyweighted. It, with the help of your right foot on the accelerator if you so wish, directs a remarkably cohesive chassis, the balance of which is impeccable and whose lack of squidge or cloudy fuzz is admirable. All of these traits have only been enhanced in the new, improved model, making it better than ever. It remains the most purposeful car in this sector to drive.
It's a small but telling touch: the days of BMW 3 Series dashboards angled towards the driver are back, and this seven-degree twist towards the driver is the icing on top of a far better interior. It's much more three-dimensional than the bland old one, with a high central tunnel and prominent centre stack all set off by a standalone colour screen the same size as in a 7 Series and modelled on a flatscreen TV.
The detailing is exquisite. The four cylinder dials (neat touch) are prominent and set within a feature-packed black panel display, while the red stitching and trim panels of the test Sport trim are lovely added extras (with a red insert in the key to match).
Quality is also high, just as you would expect. This is a premium product that oozes solidity, even if it does still lack that last degree of tactility and subtlety that makes an Audi interior still the class leader here.
Further back, another long-held 3 Series complaint has been slayed: finally, the rear gets room enough for adults to sit comfortably. Knee room is ample and while you still can't quite get your feet fully under the front seats, there's still room enough to be comfortable, atop a supportive rear bench seat. The only grumble now is getting in and out, as door openings remain narrow.
The boot opening is narrow too, but at least the sill is low and capacity is up by 20 litres. It can be opened by 'kicking' a foot beneath the rear bumper, VW Passat-style. The interior has far more stowage, including door bins that are actually useful and, for the first time, twin cupholders in the centre console.
What makes the 3 Series really unique is the overall interior layout. Front passengers feel as if they're sitting far forward, almost on top of the front axle, something enhanced by a shallow dashboard and seats that can be set so low to the floor of the car that it's actually awkward to get out. With that super-responsive front end and sublime overall balance between front and rear, this all makes it feel more sporing than anything else in this sector.
Economy and safety
All the downsizing work means the new 328i averages 44.1mpg and emits 149g/km CO2. Amazingly low. It gets better. The eight-speed automatic defies convention and is even more efficient, averaging 44.8mpg and emitting 147g/km CO2. Diesel, meanwhile, averages 61.4mpg in base 184hp 320d guise, or 68.9mpg with the 320d EfficientDynamics.
A new feature is the ECO PRO mode. Select this and power supply to electric features such as the heated rear window is reduced, the accelerator pedal gives less power within its range and the automatic gearbox shift pattern is changed.
Your degree of success in ECO PRO mode is registered by a blue bar in the economy dial - keep it deep in the blue range and the amount of range you add to each tankful is recorded in blue numbers on the dash.
BMW reckons the stronger bodyshell will hopefully achieve five-star results in both the US and EU NCAP tests, aided by reinforced B-pillars and a front section optimised to aid pedestrian protection. A plethora of new safety technology is a further safety net with one of the most useful, the head-up display, also being one of the most impressive. Speed limit display and 'no-passing' warnings all displayed in full colour next to other functions chosen by the driver? BMW-unique technology that's also very useful.
The MSN Cars Verdict
BMW has lost little of what makes the new 3 Series such an impressive car, but added plenty more to the mixture too. It now rides far better, has a more charismatic interior and has more room in the back.
A familiar profile stands out courtesy of a striking new front end design and the interior is much more interesting too. Overall, it simply feels more cohesive, complete and together. It's an able car that on first acquaintance is hard to fault. The best just got better? You bet.
|Need to know|
|Engines, petrol||2.0 four-cylinder turbo, 3.0 straight six turbo|
|Engines, diesel||2.0 four-cylinder turbo|
|Power, hp||184-306 (petrol) 116-184 (diesel)|
|Torque, lb/ft||199-295 (petrol) 191-280 (diesel)|
|0-62mph, secs||tbc-5.5 (petrol) tbc-7.5 (diesel)|
|Top speed, mph||146-155 (petrol) 119-120 (diesel)|
|MPG, combined||35.8-44.1 (petrol) 61.4-68.9 (diesel)|
|CO2||149-186 (petrol) 109-119 (diesel)|
|Ratings out of five|
|Ride & handling||*****|
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