Fleet News

BMW 3-series

BMW

Review

SEAMLESS transition is what any car manufacturer is looking from one highly successful outgoing model to its new version, but it doesn’t always happen.

BMW didn’t quite manage it when the new 5-series took over from the previous, legendary model, principally because it looked too controversial for some. But the portents are much better for the 3-series. It’s looking like more of the same.

And that means high quality design and build, a top notch driving experience, strong residual values and huge corporate sales success with company car drivers clamouring to own one.

At launch, the 3-series will come with four engines, three petrol and one diesel, although such is the domination of diesel that the 320d should account for the vast majority of sales. In the old car, the 320d took up nearly half of total registrations, while the petrol designations now transferred over to the new model – 320i, 325i and 330i – totalled only 11% between them in 2004.

That could well mean that getting hold of a 320d in the early part of 2005 could require some nifty footwork, until it is supplemented later in the year by the other high seller, the 318i. The 320d and 318i accounted for two-thirds of total 3-series sales last year, and BMW does not expect this to change to any great degree. About 18,000 units will be available in 2005 with 50-60% going to fleets.

But if the badges and sales figures remain roughly the same, the actual engines have not. Power and torque is increased, and it is particularly noticeable in the 320d and 330i. The diesel is EU IV-compliant and has second generation common rail technology which controls the fuel flow into the cylinders even more finely than before.

With a number of other upgrades, the engine now produces 163bhp and 251lb-ft of torque and a combined fuel economy of just under 50mpg, figures which are all pretty impressive for an engine BMW like to call its ‘sports diesel’.

The 258bhp 330i is no less an achievement. It’s the engine that is already in the 6-series, and benefits from a lightweight magnesium crankcase, which is lighter even than aluminium.

This makes the unit 10kgs lighter than the old 3.0-litre. It is also 27bhp more powerful, and is the lightest 3.0-litre production engine in the world, BMW claims.

With any BMW launch, there’s always a lot of concentration on the hours of blood, sweat and toil that have gone into honing and refining the driving experience and it’s no different with the 3-series, if not more so. BMW is claiming perfect 50/50 weight balance over the front and rear axles, as well as a featherweight double joint axle made entirely of aluminium and a version of the five arm rear axle which debuted on the 1-series. It’s also stiffer than the old car by 25%, which makes it even easier to tune the suspension for the ultimate handling set-up in its sector.

As is always the way of things, the new car is bigger – 49mms longer with a 35mm longer wheelbase and 78mm wider. Despite this, the 3-series is nominally lighter than the previous car.

With a higher level of equipment as standard, it’s the same weight as the previous car. This is probably the first BMW launched in recent years where there hasn’t been a great discussion about the way it looks.

It still has plenty of the concave and convex surfacing inspired by Chris Bangle, but it has been toned down, and the popular proportions of the old car can be seen beneath its new flowing sheet metal coat. In fact, it’s by far the best looking BMW money can buy.

Think of standard specification in German premium cars and miserly is the word best associated usually, but the 3-series is surprisingly well-specced with a six speed manual gearbox, CD player, six airbags, Dynamic Stability Control, leather three spoke steering wheel, electric windows all round and 16-inch wheels as standard.

Prices start from £21,090 for the 320i, rising to £28,455 for the 330i SE. That is slightly more expensive than the old car, but there is more equipment than standard, and residual values are almost certain to reach the imperious levels of the previous car, up in the mid 40% range.

The interior is much sharper and more shapely and has many of the features of the 5-series, but still wraps around the occupants, hugging each one in. Higher spec models will get the i-Drive, which necessitates a second binnacle, but the dashboard of the models without it look more elegant. There’s no real improvement in the functionality of the i-Drive. It’s still as obtuse as ever.

BMW claims that as the car is bigger, so is its interior space, with class-leading rear legroom. But that doesn’t make it extremely spacious and three adults in the back would be uncomfortable, mainly because the wide side bolsters on the outside of the rear seats, where the wheelarch encroaches, push occupants in towards the middle.

Materials in the inside are generally of a very high standard, and the cars with brushed aluminium trim seem a lot more appropriate to the sharp-suited world in which it operates.

The wood finish, especially with the sickly beige plastics of the launch cars just doesn’t suit the aggressive attitude of the rest of the 3-series.

Behind the wheel

IT’S all rather familiar once you settle into the driver’s seat of the 3-series, thanks to the thick leather steering wheel, domed instrument binnacle, low, well-gripped seating position and stubby gearlever close by that is characteristic of the 3-series. This is a good thing: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Start up is now by way of a plastic key situated low down, and annoyingly so, by your right knee, and a push button like the 1-series. In the 320d starting up provoked a disappointing response. Cold and at idle, the diesel feels no more refined than the old 320d and there is plenty of vibration through the cabin. At least pulling away is now easier. The clutch is much less snappy and once you’re on the move, a very marvellous thing happens. The 320d turns into a petrol car.

The car springs forward with all the urgency we’ve come to expect from great diesel engines, but with one redefining characteristic. It sounds like a four cylinder petrol engine, with a hard-edged burst of noise. Also improved over the last model is the long, steady shove. Gone is any brief, orgasmic rush of torque followed by emptiness. In each gear, the steady force just keeps coming, making this one of the most enjoyable diesels to drive on the market.

I can’t say much about the gearchange, because it’s not the sort of thing you notice. It fits so innately into the whole driving experience, combining with the clutch beautifully, that you barely notice yourself flicking between gears. The brakes are a little snatchy at first contact, but that’s because they are immensely powerful. Further on in the push they are nicely weighted.

Then there’s the steering, which has always been BMW’s major strength, and for a car of this type it is perfectly adjusted. Even the first, tiniest input translates to the road, but it’s not unnecessarily sensitive or nervous and the driver always has a good idea of what is going on.

The ride is firm, but the test routes were exceptionally smooth and it will be interesting to see how the run flat tyres – standard on all models – handle Britain’s less virtuous surfaces. We concentrated on the 320d on the launch, but the other engine available, the 330i was equally fantastic, pulling hard and fast and making a high-pitched metallic noise, but as a corporate car, it’s appeal is limited.

In every area the new car feels just that bit better than the old one. It’s not a giant leap forward, but then that was never going to be likely as the old car was the benchmark. However, it is tweaked and refined in almost every area and these small incremental gains add up to a much improved whole. The 3-series is sharper, more responsive, grippier and quicker than its predecessor, but it is without any doubt a 3-series.

Verdict

THIS could well be the most important car launched in the fleet and corporate sector in 2005. And I’ll be willing to wager that the new 3-series is also the best car launched this year. It’s an improvement over the last car in virtually every area, and that’s one hell of a feat.

BMW 3-series fact file

Model: 320i 325i 330i 320d
Engine: 1,995 2,497 2,996 1,995
Max power (bhp/rpm): 150/6,200 218/6,500 258/6,600 163/4,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 148/3,600 184/2,750 221/2,500 251/2,000
Max speed (mph): 137 153 155 (limited) 140
0-62mph (sec): 9,0 (9.7) 6.3 (6.6) 8.3 (8.6)
Comb fuel cons (mpg): 38.2 (35.8) 33.6 (31.4) 33.2 (31.4) 49.6 (42.2)
CO2 emissions (g/km): 178 (190) 203 (218) 210 (216) 153 (179)
Transmission: 6 sp manual/6 sp auto
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 60/13
Service interval (miles): condition-based service
On sale: March 12
Prices (OTR): £21,090-£28,455

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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