Ollie Marriage 17 November 2011

Our first drive in the new BMW 3 Series

“It’s the best car in its class. Still.” Ollie Marriage reports

Our first drive in the new BMW 3 Series

Let’s start with some facts, because we’ll admit that the BMW 3-Series, especially in 320d guise, might not be the most exciting car you can read about on the web right now.

But it is one of the most important. Your mates who have proper jobs, ones that involve company cars, will want to know about the sixth generation BMW 3-Series, and it’s your duty to tell them what they need to know.

If this needs to be communicated briefly, via Twitter or somesuch, just tell them it’s the best car in its class. Still. Because it is. If you want to go into much depth, begin with increased dimensions (93mm longer, 9mm taller etc) and go on to discuss how the new lower nose design has improved both aerodynamics (0.26Cd for the most air-cheating models) and pedestrian safety.

Of course it’s not a revolutionary leap forward. This is a mainstream car that sells in massive numbers – when it goes on sale in the UK next February it needs to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. We can’t see it alienating many. With the exception of the pointier front end the exterior is entirely fine. Nothing radical, just a good freshen up. Same indoors, too. BMW has been bolder with materials, folding them into more interesting shapes, yet the ergonomics are excellent and the quality and design is fully up to scratch.

Seven engines will be available, four diesels and three petrols, although on the launch just two were present, a pair of 2.0-litre turbos, one petrol, the other diesel. The 328i is the new engine, a four cylinder turbo that replaces the old naturally aspirated straight six of the 330i. No, it’s not as charismatic, and yes, that does matter as there’s now one less reason to buy petrol instead of a more sensible diesel. It’s got plenty of grunt though, as in 242bhp and 0-62mph in 5.9secs and growls in a vaguely interesting way as it homes in on the 7000rpm redline. Look, it’s an impressive engine for its combination of power and efficiency (44.1mpg), but it’s not especially memorable or lovable.

See more pictures of the new BMW 328i

Same goes for the 320d, except you should be doing 62.8mpg. You won’t be, you’ll be getting about 50mpg, but you’ll be enjoying sub-120g/km of CO2 and 181bhp along the way. That’s enough for 0-62mph in 7.6secs and although the diesel isn’t a miracle of refinement and aural suppression, it’s plenty good enough to bear comparison with the best out there.

See more pictures of the new BMW 320d

Special mention also goes to the eight speed automatic gearbox worn by every car on the launch. I can’t report on what the standard-fit six speed manual is like, but the auto (likely to cost around £1,400) is terrific. It has many ratios to choose from, but manages to slink through them all rapidly and unobtrusively.

A good drivetrain isn’t the be all and end all of this car though. Granted, it would be a shock if BMW had ballsed up the ride and handling, but it really hasn’t. Quite the opposite. The rear wheel drive saloon drives smoothly, precisely and rewardingly. The steering might not be the last word in feedback, but the weighting is so good and the nose so responsive that it’s never an issue. And the thing’s just so well balanced and agile. For a mainstream car, it’s brilliant.

And we’re not just talking about the petrol here. Sure, the 328i has a bit more about it if you’re really going for gold, but the 320d isn’t far behind and the one we drove rode marginally better on its smaller 18-inch wheels. Both, though, are mighty capable motorway devices: quiet, stable, smooth and all the rest.

The 3-Series, all seven engines and five trim levels, arrives here next February, to be followed in the autumn not only by new body styles (estate leads the way, followed by coupe and cabrio), but also a hybrid model and, for the first time ever, a 4wd version. Now that really will put the cat among the Audi pigeons.

Prices start at £24,880, with the car you actually want, the 320d Sport, costing £29,080. Insist on petrol? The 328i starts at £29,060 in SE trim. Both are good. No scratch that – both are excellent, excellent cars. Now go tell your mates.

 

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