While SUVs remain the rage, BMW proves that its humble 3 Series sedan remains the king of the hill in 2020.
Johannesburg – In the 1970s, BMW was looking to replace its compact 2002 sports sedan, a successful car in its own right, with a practical solution for young executives and professionals. The replacement car had to retain the dynamism of the 2002, but it had to offer more usability in terms of passenger space, cargo space and creature comforts.
The 3 Series was born and since generation-one took to markets in the mid-1970s, it quickly rose in infamy as one of the best handling sedans in its class. Sales show that people love the 3, with BMW reporting that it had sold at least 15 million 3 Series units by the time this 7th-generation model you’re seeing in the pictures arrived on the scene last year.
I recently had the opportunity to drive the 320i and the M340i xDrive back-to-back and found both cars to be extremely satisfying to drive. Let’s dive in the new G20 3 Series first.
THE BMW 320i
Leading the charge at the very bottom of the current 3 Series line-up, as we wait for the 318i to arrive after the COVID-19 lockdown, is the 320i. The 320i has come in many flavours over the years, with naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engines, those smooth six-cylinder engines, and now with a turbocharged 4-potter. Trim wise, it’s been sold as standard models, or M-Sport variants, as well as Luxury and Modern lines. Overall, the 320i was made to satisfy a whole host of tastes.
The latest 320i comes to town sporting a 1998cc four-cylinder single-turbo petrol engine. Like all of BMW’s latest cars, the engine is tuned to deliver most of its torque from a fairly low rev range, which works extremely well with its standard eight-speed auto gearbox. Our test unit, however, had the optional M Sport pack and Sports auto transmission, which meant slightly more urgency in its responses compared to a standard 320i. Incidentally, the 320i is rated for 135kW between 5000 and 6500rpm, and 300Nm between 1350 and 4000rpm.
BMW says you’ll use 6.3l/100km in a combined cycle, on average, however as I experienced on the test, it will use closer to 10l/100km if you make prodigious use of the Sport driving mode. It’s not too thirsty considering the brisk performance on offer. There’s a nice tuning of the latest 320i’s engine that gives it this long-stroke big engine feel like you used to feel in big six cars. There’s a nice whistle and pop from the under the bonnet thanks to the wastegate and just enough character in the car’s drive to keep you engaged.
On the twisty roads through the Cradle of Humankind and around the Hartbeespoort Dam, the 320i excelled, providing responsiveness and fun, with easy-to-access dynamics. That lovely rear-wheel-drive feeling is still there and the steering itself feels good if not a little numb in hands, but that’s ok as this is essentially an entry-level car in the greater scheme of things BMW. You get a respectable 0-100km sprint time of 7.1 seconds and it’ll top out at 235km/h.
THE BMW M340i
While the 320i represents itself as a value proposition, the other car I sampled on this test drive cycle was the new G20 M340i with xDrive all-wheel drive. The M340i is the current range-topper in the 3 Series range, and it has more than enough performance and luxury to keep you satisfied until the full-fat BMW M3 arrives in 2021.
Under the hood is a 3.0-litre straight-six petrol engine with a single turbo that works so well that you might be fooled into thinking it’s a Biturbo. Power is rated at 285kW between 5000 and 6000rpm while peak torque is indicated at 500Nm between 1600 and 4500rpm. Using an eight-speed sports auto transmission it will blitz the tarmac, taking just 4.4 seconds to reach 100km/h from a standstill. Although its all-wheel-drive system adds weight and complexity, it raises the 3 Series as a formidable contender in sports car circles. In fact, this M340i will give BMW’s own M3 and M4 a proper run.
The car doesn’t feel like an Audi quattro or Merc 4matic; it feels more rear-driven. If you enjoy driving spiritedly, and you like to exit corners fast and with minimal under- or oversteer, this M340i is the car for you. Once you get used to the torque delivery and the weight transfer, you can really get comfortable behind the wheel and enjoy the drive in a non-“hardcore” M car, which is absolutely fantastic.
LOADS OF CAR
Both the 320i and the M340i proved so luxurious and engaging that it really made me question where the BMW 5 Series stands in all of the G20 awesomeness. You see, the 5 Series, and that E-segment of luxury sedans in general, is feeling the SUV sting the most. Most Japanese and European carmakers aren’t even bothering with bringing their larger sedans to SA as an equivalently-priced SUV is a trend amongst shoppers.
The latest 3 Series is as large as a previous generation 5 Series inside and out and it rides and handles with more grace and elegance too. In fact, a blindfold test with a friend who loves BMWs revealed that the 320i in Comfort mode felt more comfortable from the passenger seat than his previous generation 550i.
In terms of proportions, the G20 3 Series is 76mm longer than its predecessor (at 4709mm), 16mm wider (1827mm) and 1mm taller (1442mm). The car’s 41mm longer wheelbase (2851mm) and increased track widths (front: + 43mm, rear: 21mm), have a direct and positive influence on its ride, handling, and agility.
The revised suspension, adaptive in our test cars, also proved exceptional at providing different characters in the cars. In the past, when dialing Sport mode in a BMW, it meant firmness replacing compliance, but that’s not the case in the G20 as it just soaks up imperfections in the road. In Comfort mode, with the relaxed steering, it’s a sublime cruiser.
The 320i did provide a more supple drive compared to the M340i but that was expected due to the larger wheels on the sportier model.
LOADS OF LUXURY
We can’t deny the fact that BMW has built a fantastic car in the latest 3 Series. To drive, it’s remarkable, and yet, it’s the inside of the 3 Series that comes as a genuine upgrade.
Compared to the E90 and the F30, the G30’s interior is a cut above; better than an equivalent Merc or Audi in my opinion. Ok, so our test cars came lavishly equipped with extras, as most BMW press units do, but I did pop into a BMW dealer to see what a standard car looks like. They didn’t have a bog-standard version on the floor, but after clawing around the 320i on the floor, I came away impressed at what you get in the more standard cars.
As standard, the new 3 Series models come with electric windows, central locking and alarm, stability and traction control, several driving modes including Eco Pro, limited smartphone connectivity via Bluetooth, artificial leather seats, alloy wheels, run-flat tyres and much more.
You won’t feel like you’re missing anything from a luxury or comfort or safety perspective, however, if you want to experience the latest in driving and safety technologies from BMW, you’re going to have to be prepared to tick some options boxes in both the 320i and the M340i. The items I’d pay extra for, and that were included in our test cars, included Lane Departure Warning, Collision and Pedestrian Warning with City Braking function, the latest version of which also alerts the driver when a cyclist is detected.
Other options to consider include BMW’s Active Cruise Control with a Stop-Go function and the Driving Assistant with Lane Change Warning, Rear Collision Prevention and Cross-Traffic Alert.
Also offered is a Driving Assistant Professional system, which they say is a complete comfort and safety-enhancing package. One of the key features of the Driving Assistant Professional is the Steering and lane control assistant, which works together with the driver to help keep the vehicle in the detected lane through narrow channels and also includes the Lane Keeping Assistant with active side collision protection and the evasion aid. With all these systems active, you’re closer to autopilot than you think and they work well in making us more familiar with letting go of the wheel when fully-autonomous cars start to arrive in SA in the future.
WORTH THE MONEY?
The new 3 Series is not cheap, but then it’s not cheaply made or engineered. You can feel the quality in the car from the moment it ticks over and you take the first corner, while the inside is certainly leaps and bounds better than the predecessor.
Options wise, you can get carried away, spending more money than necessary, but at this level, you should pick a budget and then go shopping for your perfect-fit 3.
Between the 320i on the test drive and the M340i, I’d actually go for the 320i, as it’s such a soothing and comfortable car to use on a daily grind. It has the ability to make haste when necessary and as mentioned earlier it’s tuned in such a way that you feel like you have much more performance at your disposal than you actually do.
For a big sedan, with a large boot, enough space for the family and a decent maintenance plan, you can’t go wrong jumping into a new 3 Series this year.
Before you settle on an X3 or equivalent SUV, I urge you to take a 3 sedan for a spin to see why it’s considered a benchmark among three-box mobility solutions.
All BMW 3 Series models come with a five-year/100 000km full maintenance plan and complimentary roadside assistance and SOS in-car calling.
1998cc four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
135kW at 5000rpm
300Nm at 1350rpm
8-speed auto (standard) with Steptronic
7.1 seconds (claimed)
6.3l/100km (claimed, combined cycle)
10.1l/100km (on test, combined cycle)
2068mm (including mirrors)
2-year/unlimited mileage warranty and 5-year/100 000km Motorplan
R646 762 (base price)
BMW M340i xDrive
2998cc six-cylinder turbocharged petrol
285kW at 5800rpm
500Nm at 1850rpm
8-speed sports auto (standard) with Steptronic
xDrive all-wheel drive
4.4 seconds (claimed)
7.7l/100km (claimed, combined cycle)
12.6l/100km (on test, combined cycle)
2-year/unlimited mileage warranty and 5-year/100 000km Motorplan
R1 006 316