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First drive: BMW fights back with new 3

On the way: The impressive new BMW 3 Series will go on sale in Australia from early 2012.

All-turbo BMW 3 Series built to take the crown back from Mercedes’ C-class

23 Nov 2011


BMW has returned fire on the Mercedes-Benz C-class with a new 3 Series that advances the mid-sized prestige class with new technology and high levels of comfort and convenience.

The company has launched the sixth generation of its most important model, which accounts for almost a third of its global sales, in Europe, and will bring it to Australia in February with hopes that it can wrestle back the prestige mid-size leadership from Mercedes.

This impressive car – dubbed F30 – is built on a new platform (shared with the 1 Series) and armed with an eight-speed automatic transmission and an all-turbo engine line-up.

This means the sweet-revving naturally-aspirated six-cylinder is gone, although a turbo six remains.

The Munich company is changing in the interests of fuel economy, vowing to introduce front-drive models and is even contemplating a V6.

Australia will take three 3 Series models at launch – the 320d that runs a tweaked version of the existing 2.0-litre diesel, a lightly revised 335i turbo-six petrol and the 328i with the new petrol turbocharged 2.0-litre four.

A slightly less powerful version of the same engine will be slotted in the 320i that will follow in the middle of next year.

14 center imageThe data sheet says the direct-injection turbo engine in the 328i – the only petrol variant we drove at the launch – generates 180kW at 5000rpm to 6500rpm and 350Nm between 1250rpm and 4800rpm.

It’s not a rocket, but boasts enough punch to make things interesting.

Turbo lag is minor, thanks partly to a twin scroll turbocharger. It isn’t as smooth as the six and has different note, but there is still a sporty edge to the engine audio.

It works well with the ZF eight-speed automatic that will be standard on the Australian 3 Series, except the M3.

Transmission shifts are crisp and clean, changing gears almost as quickly as a dual-clutch gearbox but without the occasional low-speed clumsiness for which automated manuals are known.

The changes become hard and fast when the driver selects the Sport + manual gear selection mode.

The 320d diesel is not as much fun (at least for this driver), but will please those who like low-end torque. It makes 120kW at 4000rpm and 380Nm between 1750 and 2750rpm.

It not the quietest engine in the world, but is still reasonably refined as it lugs hard with minimal effort, although there is a slight turbo lag compared to the petrol unit.

The diesel has an official fuel consumption figure of 4.5L/100km, but we achieved only 8.2L/100km in spirited driving.

The official figure of the petrol 328i is a stunning 6.4L/100km, but could be hard to achieve on our experience. Our average economy ran from 8.7L/100km in feather-foot travel, and 11.2L/100km in more enthusiastic driving. Aiding the enthusiastic driving is a new chassis set-up incorporating new double-wishbone front suspension shared with the 1 Series, and a slightly wider footprint with track increases of 37mm at the front and 47mm at the rear.

The test cars, riding on 19-inch alloys, exhibited the kind of sharp handling you would expect from a 3 Series.

This excellent agility was aided by optional adaptive sports suspension (fitted to all the test cars), so we will have to wait for a proper verdict on how the car runs with the standard damping on Australian roads.

BMW has listened to complaints about overly firm ride quality and honed the run-flat tyres and tuned the suspension, resulting in a genuinely comfortable ride – a breath of fresh air for a brand not known for a cosseting experience.

It will be interesting to see if the standard suspension achieves this sporty-yet-comfortable balance.

The test cars were also fitted with an optional sports steering system with a variable steering rack, using a different design to the planetary gear set-up offered in larger BMWs.

The slightly vague steering does not relay exactly where the vehicle is on the road through a bend and it is a little difficult to judge the exact amount of input needed to put the car where you want it.

BMW engineers talk of the benefits of electric assistance (which was used for all current 3 Series cars except for the M3) and the ability to tune out some negative feelings that come with some bumps and rattles. We will have to wait and see how the standard steering system feels. The new 3 has been stretched 93mm, with a 50mm increase in wheelbase, but the extra spaciousness feels greater than that.

Designers have redesigned the seatbacks, shaping them to liberate extra room – sufficient to keep this writer’s knees a considerable distance from the rear of the driver’s seat that was still in my driving position.

The 3 is still a little narrow across the back seat for three people, but two adults can be comfortable back here.

Our test cars were fitted with the option rear seat heater function.

The boot now has 480 litres of space and looks to be ample, due in part to the adoption of run-flat tyres.

A little hidey hole for small items sits beneath the boot floor, where batteries will go in a hybrid model.

BMW has followed the same path with its interior design as it did with the new 1 Series hatch, introducing a new centre screen that sits up on the middle of the dashboard to show vehicle information as well as satellite navigation maps.

This smart tablet-like screen stays in place permanently, instead of retracting into the dash, and has crisp and stylish graphics.

As is the case of the 1 Series, the centre console slopes away from the driver while the iDrive controller retains its central location.

The soft-touch plastic surfaces give the impression of quality, while most of the gaps between trim sections are small and consistent.

BMW offers some more adventurous trim elements, including real wood, but the surface is shaped into a ribbed pattern for a unique look.

The 3 gets three model lines, which are basically themed option packs – Sport, Modern and Luxury.

BMW has included the head-up display as an option for the first time on 3 Series to shows the vehicle speed and satellite navigation information reflected on the windscreen.

BMW also offers parking aids such as the overhead view camera – that, among other things, helps the driver to avoid scraping alloy wheels – lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control.

Like some latest models from rivals, the 3 gets a new automatic boot release that automatically raises the boot-lid when the driver waves a foot under the rear of the vehicle. It’s a great idea for shoppers, although this writer had a fairly low success rate.

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