Each new version of the BMW 3-Series aspires to be nothing less than the best car in the medium-sized luxury class. David Thomson slips behind the wheel of the latest, sixth-generation model, to see if it delivers.
A friend asked recently which model in the current BMW range I would buy if handed a budget of $100,000. My immediate answer was a 2.0-litre diesel version of the current X3.
Listing at $89,700, and likely to nudge up close to $100K with a few of those inevitable ticks on the extras list, the X3 2.0d is a great all-round premium SUV. It is almost as spacious as the previous offering of the X5 and a stunningly better effort in all respects than its lacklustre predecessor.
Since then, I have been out and about in the 328i version of the latest BMW 3-series. It's the first example of the new three to be sampled by Drivesouth on local roads, and a car sufficiently fine to force a rethink of that hundred-grand BMW choice.
In standard guise, the 328i lists at $85,900, so we are within budget for starters. Features covered by this tag include xenon headlights, satellite navigation, dual-zone climate control, auto start/stop, cruise control, iDrive, parking radar, a 40:20:40 split fold-down rear seat, phone and audio Bluetooth, internet connectivity, climate air conditioning and power-operated front seats.
The test car also featured the luxury pack - one of three different $2000 add-ons (the others being sport line and modern line) - that most customers will doubtless select, along with the further options of a rear-view camera ($950), heated front seats ($800) and the upgraded professional navigation package ($1500).
That pushes the test car into the nineties already, and there is no shortage of additional options - ranging from M-Sport suspension and handling enhancements through additional creature comfort and safety features - to push things up to the limit of the hypothetical budget, or beyond.
Taking stock of the 328i for the first time, initial impressions are of how carefully BMW has played the visual upgrade of this, the most important model in its range internationally.
The look of the new model (the F90 in BMW code) is a subtle evolution of the previous E90 3-series. The most obvious change is a sharpening of the styling about the nose, where narrower teardrop-shaped headlights and a lower grille and bonnet line give the car a tauter, more dynamic look, as well as contributing to improved aerodynamic efficiency.
Although it is well masked by the car's lines, there has also been some growing between generations, with the F90 3-series 93mm longer and 9mm higher than the E90.
The interior is a similarly cautious evolution of what has gone before, with the most fundamental change being the angling of the central instrument console towards the driver.
The console is topped by an envelope-format colour display screen, but otherwise there are few surprises with the key instrument controls; all conform to BMW norms, including the rotary knob controller for the car's iDrive system. Similarly the cabin, which is noticeably more spacious than before, especially in the back and boot, is trimmed to the expected high standard, with imitation dark woodgrain highlighting on the test car.
Past 328i models have been inline six-cylinder variants, but a push for reduced emissions and greater fuel efficiency has seen six cylinders reduce to four, and cubic capacity decrease from 2.8 litres to 2 litres. At the same time, a slick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission replaces the old car's six-speed as the standard gearbox.
The main casualty of the engine change is the aural delight of a straight-six burble. That former 328i signature song is replaced by a still sporty but less characterful four-cylinder growl.
There's no performance sacrifice, though. In fact, with the new 2.0-litre unit boasting twin-scroll turbocharging rather than natural aspiration, power and even more so torque rise to new levels, with peak outputs of 180kW and 380Nm respectively.
An official 0-100kmh sprint time of 6.1 seconds is but part of an impressive performance story: with peak torque available from as little as 1750rpm, the new motor is both hugely flexible at light throttle openings from low revs and wonderfully responsive for through-the-gears highway overtaking.
Fuel consumption is improved by the new engine, the car's standard stop-start system and a super-economy mode called Eco Pro. Selected via a button just aft of the gearshift, this mode changes the car's engine management settings with economy rather than performance in mind, and also reduces the amount of electricity used to power accessories.
There's also a simple display that shows how much you are saving; BMW claims savings of up to 20% compared with running the car in Sport mode.
Eco Pro is good for gentle cruising and town work, but the car's default setting is Comfort mode.
Operated in this state, the 328i presents a fine blend of usable performance and refinement: ride quality in particular has improved over the previous 3-series. This is particularly pleasing given that run-flat tyres - which in previous generations took the edge off bump-absorption - continued to be BMW's favoured choice.
First-rate handling remains central to the 328i's appeal. The latest 3-series chassis displays an extraordinary agility and fluidity, which -combined with outstanding body control - makes this a very composed and satisfying car to punt over any stretch of winding tarmac.
To make the most of such an experience, one should certainly select either Sport or Sport +. These modes sharpen the car's throttle response, alter the transmission's shift points and make the car's steering more responsive (though more steering feel would still be welcome). In the case of Sport +, vehicle stability aids are also partly deactivated to allow the keen driver to push the dynamic envelope a little harder.
In these modes the test car was superb when driven with verve, balancing nicely on the throttle, and dispatching back roads - including some with quite savage mid-corner bumps - with consummate ease. Use of the paddle-shift controls is recommended during such driving, with the engine showing its best in second through fourth of the gearbox's eight forward ratios.
Returning to home base with the test car after an hour of such driving, it was clear BMW will have every reason to be pleased with this latest 3- series model. A fine all-rounder and a superb driver-focused machine, it goes straight to the top of its class.
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