NEW BMW 3-SERIES SALOON

More upmarket Three sheds weight, not size, and is noticeably sharper and more refined to drive.

12 MAR 2019: The traditional core of the BMW range, the 3-Series has now entered its seventh generation and good, keen drivers have plenty of reasons to celebrate. The looks are evolutionary (they get a pass mark for elegance), but what matters more is how successfully the Three fulfils its dynamic exec brief and how widespread improvements combine to make a meaningful difference to passenger comfort.

Very first impressions? It took only a few minutes behind the wheel of a new 330i to know that BMW has made a decent stride forward. It was immediately apparent from the hushed cabin that refinement levels are well up with less mechanical and road noise. Now sharing 5-series underpinnings, Gen Seven is longer at 4.71m with an extra 41mm in the wheelbase that partly accounts for an improved, more settled ride. It’s far more forgiving than you'd expect from M Sport suspension and 19-inch alloys. And there’s little untoward feedback through the (very thick) rim of the M Sport steering wheel.

If the new G20 feels lighter on its feet than the old F30, it is on average 55kg (roughly 3.5 percent lighter across the model range). It instantly feels better planted, too, with wider front and rear tracks and a heavily revised damping system with stiffer springs and roll bars.

Before long you want to test the dynamic properties of the M Sport suspension settings. They lower the car by 10mm and introduce more rigid bearings, extra body struts, firmer spring rates and greater roll bar stiffness. And the advanced adaptive damping system is standard on the 330i. Switch to Sport and the feeling of confidence on a dry winding road means you very quickly feel inclined to push the car as Munich’s engineers intended.

The only downside of the cabin is a failure to create more legroom for rear seat passengers despite the wheelbase stretch and bigger overall dimensions. In all other respects, this appears a much more grown-up car, and a notably better driver’s car.

Inside, the latest iDrive is the best yet with intuitive one-touch buttons and access to functions via the familiar rotating controller and broad central screen. Of the driver assistance functions, Reverse Assistant is carried over from the new X5 driven recently. It’s genuinely useful, unique to BMW, and a feature that we would regularly employ. The car records the last 50m of travel and can automatically reverse the route without steering input from the driver, making it extremely handy in tight car parks, unfamiliar driveways, blocked laneways and so on. In terms of firsts, the G20 is the first BMW model with voice recognition technology. It’s a clever system that learns driver preferences and is centred around an Intelligent Personal Assistant that can anticipate commands.

Model choice at launch is between the 330i (a 190kW blown 2.0-litre petrol) or the oil-burning 320d whose twin-scroll turbo has made way for sequential turbocharging. Again, first impressions of a yet-to-be-run-in diesel were strong, with linear power delivery complementing 400Nm from just 1750rpm. It’s quick, too, with a quoted sprint time to 100km/h of 6.8 secs.

You’ll have to wait until winter for a true performance model in the form of the M340i xDrive, an all-wheel drive powerhouse that will go head-to-head with the Audi S4. Its straight-six turbo promises 275kW and 500Nm, and xDrive will combine with a standard locking rear differential. A whirlwind 4.4-second sprint to the ton suggests performance that not too long ago was the reserve of fully-fledged M-division models.

Based on our intro, all 3-Series variants promise to be impressive around town while showing a keen appetite for the open road. Bigger dimensions have not dented the ability to shrink around a driver in a sporting sense. So while many premium saloon buyers have migrated to SUVs, this car’s rich seam of talent ought  to persuade a few to return.

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