What we’re driving: BMW 330i
What it costs: from $70,900
Why we’re driving it: This is the all-new 2019 BMW 3 Series, and it goes back to the 'Ultimate Driving Machine' promise. Is there any better reason than that?
For the longest time, BMW’s 3 Series was the benchmark for prestige car buyers, and everything else in the class orbited around it. When you bought into a 3 Series, it proved you had arrived
Then BMW got complacent, and its buyers got bored. Mercedes-Benz' compact C Class came on strong, and now ranks as the category champion and sales leader. Audi also picked up the pace with the A4 setting new levels of cabin elegance.
Thankfully BMW has listened and learned. The the seventh-generation 3 Series has been fired right back to the beginning. That means style, a step away from the pack in equipment, and proper driving fun from the wheel.
First off the boat are the 320d – with a diesel engine and starting price of $67,900 – and the 330i as the headliner with a sweet four-cylinder turbo engine, loads of equipment, and pricing from $70,900.
On the outside
The look of the 2019 3 Series is properly new and pleasingly youthful. It’s not generic, nor a shrunken 7 Series, but something with curves and creases and pizzaz.
Why is this noteworthy? Every 'Three' since the landmark fourth-generation E46, which was built from 1997 to 2006, has been a cookie-cutter copy of something bigger in the BMW family. The idea was that buyers would see something familiar and impressive, but shrunken to a size and price they could afford.
But not this time. BMW wanted its latest 3 Series to be its own machine, and make an immediate impact in the process.
Of course, that signature ‘kidney grille’ is still there, albeit modernised, and flanked by twin LED headlamps in the nose plus LED tail lights at the rear.
The 330i builds on the basics of the 320d with bigger 19-inch alloy wheels and a bit more bling, and inevitably there will be a 4 Series coupe, as well as M3 and M4 hotrods at the top end.
Under the bonnet
Four-cylinder turbomotors are fitted to both 3 Series cars, with the petrol and diesel making the same torque for shove but the petrol power-plant making more power. They also each have an eight-speed automatic feeding the rear wheels, although BMW describes the self-shifter in the 330i - which has paddles on the steering column for shifting - as a ’sports automatic’.
Weight was a big target for BMW’s engineers and the 2019 Threes are up to 55 kilograms lighter than their predecessors, with a 50:50 front/rear weight distribution that’s always been the target for sporty cars.
The wheels are set further apart to increase the footprint and cornering grip and, since the body is much more rigid, the suspension is tuned for enjoyment without compromising comfort.
For the 330i, BMW has fitted ‘Adaptive M Suspension’, which is shorthand for a car that sits closer to the road and also has electronically-controlled dampers with driver-selectable Comfort and Sport modes. There are also M Sport brakes for better stopping.
On the inside
Even the location of the Start button has been changed, down to the centre console. That’s how much the new 3 has changed.
Graphics on the digital dashboard are new, moving away from the traditional pair of big circular dials, as twin displays – 12.3 inches in front of the driver, 10.25 inches neatly integrated into the centre of the dash - take up residence.
BMW claims more space from a longer and wider cabin, particularly in the back seats, as well as upgraded materials.
Sports seats are standard, with leather on the 330i, there is a bigger heads-up display in both models, the latest iDrive system, Apple CarPlay and an improved voice-control system are fitted.
Safety-wise, the 320d gets everything from lane-change warning to front-collision warning and rear cross-traffic warning with crash protection, while the 330i is upgraded with radar cruise control, emergency stop assistance, even crossroads warning with auto safety braking.
On the road
It only takes 10 minutes in the 330i to know this Three is back where it belongs.
New looks are good, improved cabin comfort is better, but it’s the driving experience that seals the deal.
BMW has managed to make the car more responsive in all conditions, but done it without destroying the comfort or making the cabin too noisy. Those are traps that rivals brands have fallen into at various times.
It’s a sharp chassis, reacting well to even small movements of the steering wheel, which gets even more crisp with the dampers in the Sports setting. But compliance is the big bonus. It can do the turn-and-grip stuff in corners while also defeating both big and small bumps.
The instruments are crisp and clear, as well as refreshingly new, and it’s good to know that all the 5-Star safety stuff is fitted.
What’s not to like? Nothing I could find during a two-hour romp around the outskirts of Melbourne.
A little more engine response would be welcome, because it sometimes takes reminding that you want to overtake or sprint from a corner, but there are always the flappy paddles to take manual control.
BMW claims impressive economy but there was no real chance to check in a short-is run, although 200km passed quickly in a wide variety of conditions from stop-start inner suburbs to a run up the late Peter Brock’s favourite driving road and some motorway time.
The new Three is right back where it belongs. It’s taken far too long, but BMW has finally restored the 3 Series to the top of its class and given keen drivers a reason to return - or join - the movement.