2019 BMW 3 Series: First Drive Review
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Lighter. Faster. Bigger. Loaded. Is BMW's 3 Series just too good to be true?
If you’ve wanted a small luxury sedan that plasters a smile on your face and pleases the enthusiast in you, BMW’s 3 Series had been the go to choice. But with comfort taking precedence over driving involvement, some of the specialness of the 3 was lost. With the new ‘G20’ generation, BMW claims to have pushed the envelope further. There’s more tech, more space, more comfort and more performance to be tapped into, they say. Has it finally found the balance?
Viewed in profile, it’s hard to distinguish the new generation 3 Series from the outgoing model. Yes, it’s grown in every measurable way: length is up by 76mm, width by 16mm and wheelbase is a significant 41mm longer than before. Yet it’s not immediately apparent to the naked eye. But dig around and you’ll notice that the lines are tauter, and the 3 Series looks readier to pounce. It’s got the signature elements in place too, including the twin kidney grilles, the Hoffmeister kink and the shark fin antenna.
Thankfully, from the face you will be able to tell that this is new and it will take some getting used to as it stares angrily at you. The full-LED headlamps that comes as standard (though the adaptive beams are reserved for higher variants) and the closed look of the kidney grille (the flaps are active - they open when required) make it look more technical and futuristic. In the M Sport variant that we drove, you also get sportier bumpers and larger 18-inch wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber. Much like the older M Sport, the new generation runs narrower 225-section front tyres and wider 255-section rear tyres -- after all power is going to the rear wheels only.
Over to the back, BMW seems to have broken away from tradition. The new tail lamps are nothing like what we’ve seen from the manufacturer. In fact, they remind us quite a lot of Lexus. There are subtle hints at sportiness here too, with the exaggerated boot lip and twin exhaust pipes.
We like the way the M Sport variant looks, purely because it doesn’t go overboard with chrome. Save for the surrounds on the kidney grille, you’d struggle to find bling elsewhere. There are some neat little party tricks too, such as puddle lamps on all four door handles and BMW’s ‘light carpet’ that lights up the ground near the front doors at night.
With the G20, the design is definitely more evolutionary than revolutionary. Nonetheless, it does retain the essence of the 3: it always looks like it’s ready for some mischief and mixing it with BMW's brand of technical-ish elegance.
Even with the generation change, the 3 Series continues to be a low-slung sedan. So getting in and out can get taxing on the knees, especially for the elderly. But get yourself comfortable in the plush leather-upholstered seats and you’d be looking at a cabin that’s now in line with the 5 and 7 Series. Quality levels are visually better than before, with the top half of the dash and door pads being draped in soft-touch materials. BMW has been stingy in a few places though. The power window switches, the AC vents and the buttons on the steering wheel feel budget grade, and clearly out of place on a car as expensive as the 3 Series.
The dashboard is visually wider, and the large 10.25-inch touchscreen takes centre stage. Playing accomplice is a slick 12.3-inch TFT display instead of analogue dials in the instrument cluster. But BMW hasn’t really de-cluttered, say, like Volvo has. You still have a plethora of buttons under the touchscreen for the climate control, and eight (yes) configurable buttons further down. The central cluster is usual BMW fare with the iDrive selector and shortcut keys to various functions on the infotainment screen.
Bespoke to the M Sport variant is the meaty steering wheel and the Sport seats. Together, these two really do make you feel like you’re not in just another luxury sedan. The seats have extra-generous side bolsters (adjustable) that hug you like your grandmother, and the steering is just the right size and weight. You can manually adjust the steering for rake and reach, whereas both front seats can be adjusted electrically. Do note that a memory function is available only for the driver’s seat. There’s a central armrest too, that’d happily swallow your wallet and keys.
Hop into the rear seat and you’d pick on two immediate differences compared to the outgoing model. One, that the kneeroom is now (marginally) better than before. You can tuck your feet underneath the front seat comfortably as well. But this seat too is quite low set and one tends to sit ‘in’ the seat than on it. Second, that the seat squab now supports the underthigh better. Over longer journeys, this will make a difference. So, while it isn't dramatically different, this is definitely a more comfortable backseat by a significant margin.
And yes, theoretically, there’s enough width in the cabin to squeeze three adults. But the XL-sized transmission tunnel means that the third occupant will have to sit with their legs spread, jostling for foot room with occupants on either side. Not recommended. Should you choose to enjoy the 3 Series as a four-seater, the armrest (with cupholders) will come in handy. To keep you comfy at the rear, there’s a dedicated zone of climate control as well. But, bear in mind that it only lets you set temperature, not fan speed.
Bootspace is rated at 480-litres. Sadly, the space-saver spare tyre and tools take up most of that. However, should you want to haul your mum’s pots and pans in a hurry, you could always choose to fold down the rear seat that features a 40:20:40 split as standard.
Heads up, if you were expecting the 3 Series to be an extravaganza of features, you might be underwhelmed. While it’s not exactly scantily equipped, BMW hasn’t pushed the envelope here either. For instance, features such as a 360° parking camera, passive keyless entry and an electric bootlid have been omitted from the India-spec 3 Series. These are features we now expect from cars that cost a third of this BMW. And to make things worse, BMW has deleted handy features such as the rear window blinds for the new generation.
That said, basics are taken care off by electrically adjustable front seats, configurable ambient lighting as well as plush leather upholstery. BMW has also ticked the larger sunroof - available as an optional extra in other markets - for India. Other highlights include full-LED headlamps, a tyre pressure monitoring system, wireless charging and three-zone climate control.
The party pieces, however, are the two large screens on the dashboard: the touchscreen and the digital driver’s display. BMW’s iDrive infotainment has evolved hugely over the years, and it’s now easy to use and quicker to respond. Handwriting recognition on the iDrive controller works like a charm too. BMW has also bundled in ‘Gesture Control’ which lets you control volume, answer/reject calls by making gestures at the screen. This does take a little time to do intuitively. However, once you get the hang of it, we doubt you’d go back to physical controls.
What we aren’t too pleased about is the rather bland 6-speaker audio system. Notably, a 16 speaker Harman Kardon setup is optional on global models.
Analogue dials have made way for BMW’s ‘Live Cockpit’ setup.This screen changes themes based on the drive mode you’re in (EcoPro = blue, Comfort = orange, Sport = red) and displays a host of information including navigation and audio information. Also, it’s sad to see BMW skimp out on the heads-up display (HUD).
Could the BMW 3 Series be better equipped for India? Definitely. Will you miss the omitted features in the long run? Possibly not.
The 3 Series is offered with two engines: a 2.0-litre turbo petrol and a 2.0-litre diesel. The petrol motor makes 258PS and 400Nm (a 6PS and 50Nm boost) whereas the diesel continues to make 190PS / 400Nm. Both engines come paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the rear wheels.
We sampled the 330i, which can be summed up as effortlessly fast, and incredibly easy to drive. Of course, the engine is as smooth as ever and barely makes a noise at idle. However, should you choose to get naughty with the accelerator pedal, it definitely has ample in reserve to keep you giggling. This split nature of the engine is captured well by the predefined drive modes: EcoPro, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus.
EcoPro mode works surprisingly well when you just want to amble about on your way to the office. We’ve seen most cars feel choked and underserved in their ‘Eco’ setting, but the 3 feels anything but. Yes, throttle response is dulled, but it never gets frustrating. In fact, seeing the range climb up thanks to efficient driving and coasting feels rewarding!
In Sport and Sport Plus, the 330i is at its titillating best. Valves in the exhaust open up as soon as you select this mode, and that’s just the start. This mode eggs you on to exploit what the motor has to offer and the sharp throttle and gearbox response help you do just that. It’s easy to get carried away, search for gaps in traffic and dart through them at full throttle. Because, you know for sure you’ll get the required acceleration to execute that quick overtake. Add the pops and crackles from the exhaust, and the 330i feels like an everyday sports sedan in the truest sense. What we could do without, however, is the artificial exhaust sound that feels like it’s being pumped through the speakers.
As expected, Comfort mode is a healthy blend between the immediacy of Sport and the frugal nature of EcoPro. You also get to select individual settings for the steering, transmission and engine (between Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus) to help you tailor how you want the drivetrain to behave.
Pick the 330i and you’d have a sedan that’s at home tackling daily office commutes, and even happily head to a racetrack on the weekend. Sure, it’s not setting benchmarks in terms of outright performance, but whatever it has to offer is genuinely usable on a daily basis. And that makes it all the more desirable.
Ride and Handling
As you’d expect, a German sedan like the 3 Series (and especially a sporty one like the M Sport) isn’t exactly friendly with potholes. Every time you go over a sharp bump or undulation, the suspension will make sure you hear it. Sharp sound aside, there’s some expected side to side rocking motion involved as well. But as a daily driver or highway tourer, you'd hardly have any complaints.
We couldn’t really put the 3 Series through a proper twisty test. But, wherever we pushed it into a bend, it’d feel at home. It’s a departure from the last iteration of the 330i M Sport that felt a bit wishy-washy through the corners. It holds its line well, and the steering does ensure you require very little effort to do so. From an enthusiast’s perspective, you could wish for a bit more communication from the wheel itself. It feels a bit vague at low speeds and can leave you guessing. Build speed, however, and it doesn’t feel as dull.
BMW’s 3 Series continues to remain driver-focussed. While the stiff ride might be an annoyance to some, we don’t see it as a dealbreaker. It’s managing to strike a nice balance between comfort and handling, with a stronger bias towards the latter.
As you’d expect from a sedan like the 3 Series, there’s a host of safety tech. This includes six airbags, ABS with EBD, dynamic stability control (DSC), traction control and ISOFIX child seat mounts. It also features goodies such as the Park Assistant and the Reversing Assistant. While the former will park the car by itself, the latter remember steering inputs for the last 50 metres. So, if you’re backing out of a tight spot, you only have to manage the throttle and the brakes while the car figures out the rest based on memory. Also, if the car thinks you’re a bit too close to anything, it will jab the brakes, forcing you to stop and take a second cursory glance.
Notably, the G20 3 Series hasn’t been crash tested by the EuroNCAP yet. It was however tested in the USA by the IIHS, where it secured the highest rating possible in every crash test.
Wth prices ranging between Rs 41.40 lakh and Rs 47.90 lakh, the 3 Series remains a sedan that you buy because you want it, and not because you need it. It has learnt new tricks and now delivers on more than just performance. The updated styling, plusher interiors and better cabin space all point towards the same. Yes, it could’ve done without silly feature omissions, and a softer ride might have won it a few more favours among back seat buyers.
That said, what makes you want the 3 Series is its ability to make you want to drive it over and over again. It raises our expectations of performance not just from small BMWs, but the segment as a whole. And, if you picture yourself as someone with a bit of a naughty streak, you’d find a willing partner in crime in the 3 Series.