2016-BMW-330i-1

In case you have somehow missed BMW’s marketing storm last year, a staggering 40 years have passed since the 3 Series was first introduced in 1975. In the intervening years, Munich’s iconic sports sedan – and the centre on which it has built its reputation as the maker of the Ultimate Driving Machine – has become the benchmark, the yardstick on which all compact premium sedans have been measured.

The sixth and latest generation, the F30, started out life pretty much the same way. When we first tested the car in Barcelona all the way back in 2012, we praised it for its fleetness of foot and an impeccable ride and handling balance. “Back to the top of the heap,” “the balance of power has very much shifted back to Munich” and “the king is dead, long live the king” were just some of the things we said about it.

But the past four years have shown why a king should never rest on his laurels. The first part of a one-two punch came with the radical new W205 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, which impressed with its mini-S-Class looks, an awe-inspiring interior and improved driving dynamics that came close to toppling the 3er. Then came the new B9 Audi A4, which will arrive this year – we sniggered at the lackadaisical “facelift” styling, but the Ingolstadt wunderkind blew us away with first-rate cabin quality and whisper-quiet refinement.

The tougher competition is starting to hit the 3 Series where it hurts, so a well-timed facelift has been called to rejuvenate the BMW, as it faces one of the toughest fights in its history. Seconds out, round two – does the revised F30 3 Series have what it takes to hold its own in the ring? We suss out the formidable new BMW 330i on Malaysian roads to find out.

2016-BMW-330i-5

Unveiled to the world in May last year, the Life Cycle Impulse (LCI) brings along a fair few updates – both in terms of aesthetics as well as under the skin – in an attempt to keep the F30 3 Series looking and feeling fresh, as well as to tighten its grip on the sports sedan crown.

With the refresh comes a new range – out goes the base 316i and the range-topping 328i, replaced by the 318i and 330i. The mid-range 320i remains, but all are powered by new engines, including a downsized 1.5 litre turbocharged three-cylinder mill on the 318i. Sadly, we don’t get the top dog straight six-powered 340i here, despite its predecessor, the 335i, being sold in Malaysia for a short time.

From the outside, the most noticeable difference are the new full-LED headlights (standard-fit on Malaysian-market models), something that was previously reserved for the sleeker, more low-slung 4 Series models.

These lamps give the 3 Series a sharper gaze in the day, thanks to the reshaped LED “corona ring” daytime running lights and LED “eyebrow” indicators. They lack the definition of the previous xenon projectors when fully lit, however – the end result is that at night, the “eyes” look a little lost, becoming just big white globules of light. Still, they’re very nice to have, as they project a whiter, brighter beam.

At the rear, the tail lights are also now full-LED and gain reshaped light guides and full red lenses for a cleaner look. The M Sport kit on this 330i (and the 320i M Sport) is unchanged, save for a new fender M badge that debuted on M Sport variants of the F10 5 Series LCI; other models receive sharper front and rear bumpers that provide the standard 3 Series with a more aggressive appearance.

Also fitted on the 330i are 18-inch Ferric Grey M double-spoke style 441M alloy wheels – the darker hue provides some much needed contrast compared to the bland silver items (M star-spoke style 400M) on the 320i M Sport and the pre-LCI 328i M Sport.

Those expecting a substantial revamp to the F30’s business-like interior will be disappointed, as it still presents neither the flair of the new C-Class nor the polish of the new A4. Sure, there are a number of minor changes, including gloss black trim around the audio and climate controls, as well as satin chrome air vent surrounds. Even the powered seat controls feature the same silvery trim.

Elsewhere, the dashboard accent strip has been extended across the doors for a more unified wraparound look; on the 330i M Sport it’s Estoril Blue, matched to Aluminium Hexagon dash trim. There are also new graphics for the LCD climate control screen, ambient lighting around the centre console and – finally! – a sliding cupholder cover, replacing the old, useless removable one that needed to be stowed in the glovebox.

2016-BMW-330i-30

That may seem like a long list of upgrades, but they do little to lift the interior ambience. If the F30’s clean-cut exterior design stands the test of time, the cabin feels decidedly old-hat now, particularly next to newer opposition – apart from the ageing design, fit and finish still isn’t quite up to scratch. Perceived quality is exactly where rivals are spending a lot of effort on these days, and it’s sorely lacking in the BMW.

What’s more, signs of the F30’s traditionally suspect build quality continue to rear their head here. While the condition of a test car is not always representative of one that is used by actual customers, cabin creaks and a squeaky driver’s side door mirror (the latter manifesting itself when the mirrors unfold every time the car is unlocked) on a car with less than 2,500 km on the clock doesn’t exactly dispel our nagging concerns.

Not helping matters is the dearth of standard kit. This 330i may seem well-equipped at first, with Adaptive M Suspension, Variable Sport Steering, Comfort Access keyless entry, the full Navigation System Professional with a widescreen 8.8-inch display and handwriting recognition on the iDrive knob, and even a colour head-up display. There are also the new ConnectedDrive Services and Apps, including the cool Concierge Service that will even send directions directly to the navigation system – watch the video below for a demo.

Look closer, however, and you’ll find some startling omissions on the kit list. Shockingly, this near-RM300k car does not have a reverse camera (it’s a dealer option), the top Harman Kardon sound system, a powered bootlid, seat lumbar adjustment, rear air-con controls or even split-folding rear seats. Also given a miss are a suite of driver assistance systems offered in other markets, including autonomous emergency braking.

Thankfully, we have no qualms with the space inside. That’s no mean feat, given that the F30 3 Series is on the smaller side of the compact premium sedan class – at 4,633 mm long, 1,811 mm wide and 1,429 mm tall, it’s smaller than the W205 C-Class (53 mm shorter, 13 mm lower), and is dwarfed by the massive B9 A4 (102 mm shorter, 31 mm narrower).

Despite the more compact dimensions, the 3 Series manages to avoid feeling claustrophobic inside, with plenty of head- and legroom to spare – although the tall transmission tunnel means that centre passengers will have to splay their legs to get comfortable, so it’s not really suited to three-abreast rear seating. Visibility is also excellent, as is the vast seat and steering wheel adjustability, enabling a fantastic driving position.

No complaints with what’s under the bonnet, either. The 330i is powered by a 2.0 litre turbo four-cylinder as on the preceding 328i, but don’t let the similar capacity lead you to believe that this unit is in any way related to the old N20. Based on the mill in the latest MINI Cooper S, the B48 is all-new, and in this application produces a heady 252 hp (up from 245 hp on the 328i) at 5,200 rpm and 350 Nm from 1,450 to 4,800 rpm.

That’s the same power output as on the new A4 2.0 TFSI, and while maximum torque is 20 Nm down, it’s made 150 rpm lower and extends 300 rpm higher. Compared to the C 300, the 330i has seven more horses, although it also makes 20 Nm less torque.

2016-BMW-330i-28

The end result is that the 330i feels incredibly rapid out of the gate. Push past the small amount of initial turbo lag and the car surges forward effortlessly, the engine delivering its power smoothly and cleanly throughout the rev range. Mid-range punch is particularly potent, allowing for effortless overtaking manoeuvres.

Progress is accompanied by a new, rather interesting engine note, no doubt influenced by synthetic induction noise piped through the speakers. Rev the engine out at a standstill and all you’ll get is a flat, uncultured yell, but set off and the car develops a sonorous, almost V6-like burble, accompanied by a boomier exhaust in Sport mode – although, to be quite honest, this writer could do without the latter.

The new noise sounds downright weird at first – it’s nothing like a typical inline-four engine note – but it grows on you the more time you spend with it, and gives the four-pot a distinct character that’s separate from other engines in BMW’s stable. Purists may bemoan the fakery used here, but even the most ardent will have to admit that the days of unadulterated engine noise are now truly behind us. It’s the new normal, guys.

Paired to the new engine is the improved ZF eight-speed sport automatic transmission that is as brilliant as ever. It’s smooth, quick-shifting and almost always on top of things, although the eco-friendly mapping is a little hesitant in kicking down a gear or two in regular driving.

You can quicken the gearbox’s responses by engaging Sport mode, which provides the driver with lightning fast gear changes and instantaneous manual shifts (though it will automatically shift up at the redline unless you’re in Sport+), twinned with quicker throttle response. Alternatively, Eco Pro mode helps reduce fuel consumption thanks to a coasting function that allows the car to “sail” on off-throttle.

Refinement has long been a bugbear of the F30 3 Series, and unfortunately it’s something the facelift fails to rectify. The cabin is inundated with excessive road and wind roar any time you go anywhere near the national speed limit, and the clatter of raindrops striking the roof and windscreen makes itself heard all too clearly. The rough automatic engine start-stop system only adds to the uncouth nature of the car.

This lack of refinement is borderline unacceptable, particularly as rivals have made great strides in this area. It’s a right shame, as it undermines the premium nature of the 3 Series, and threatens to unravel all the good work Munich has done to the engine and chassis.

Fortunately, the latter claws back much of the ground lost to rivals, bolstered by tweaks that are aimed at making the 3 Series a more involving, yet cosseting drive. New models get a more rigid bodyshell mounting, while the suspension has now been made stiffer without compromising ride comfort, thanks to new damper technology. The steering has also been retuned for improved precision.

Over rough roads, the 330i is exemplary, particularly with the adaptive suspension set to Comfort mode. In this setting, the improved damping enables the car to literally glide across pits and undulations, soaking up the worst our terrible blacktop can throw at it. Even Sport mode doesn’t deteriorate the ride quality too badly – yes, it’s a lot firmer, but it remains composed, only becoming a touch uncomfortable over larger bumps.

It only gets better in the corners. Flick the steering wheel in any given direction and the car changes tack with remarkable alacrity, with little slack in the chassis. Come into a bend a touch hot and you will find a fair bit of understeer, but it is easily neutralised with a dollop of throttle; keep your foot pinned down the accelerator and the 330i rewards you with a brief but satisfying drift as you pull out of the corner. The brakes also inspire confidence, with immense stopping power and precise pedal feel.

Body movements are well controlled, up to a point. Drive it at seven-tenths in Sport mode and the 330i is a riot, with very little body roll to speak of. At higher speeds, however, it begins to fall apart – the stiffer setup exposes the dampers’ inability to cope with higher-frequency bumps, so the car begins to skip about.

It’s here where the softer Comfort mode would start to make sense, as the softer suspension gives it more room to absorb these bumps. However, you also won’t get the sharper throttle and gearbox settings of the Sport mode – ideal for spirited driving.

Luckily, you can decouple the Sport mode’s harder-edged chassis setup from the drivetrain’s in the vehicle’s settings, so Sport mode with the more comfortable damping became my ideal setup – although I did miss the heavier steering of the Sport chassis.

Speaking of which, the Variable Sport Steering system on the 330i is a bit of a mixed bag. While it’s quick, responsive and provides immense stability at high speeds, feedback through the rim leaves a lot to be desired – no doubt numbed further by the too-thick M steering wheel.

It’s also marred by inconsistent weighting, making it a little bit difficult to place the car accurately through a corner. Thankfully, with time, it does become less noticeable, and doesn’t detract from the 3 Series’ trademark deft handling.

In short, then, the new BMW 330i is a sports sedan served straight up. It’s a car that demands that owners put all their stock into its towering dynamic capabilities, and makes little attempt at pandering to frivolous distractions like refinement and quality. Of course, that has always been the case with the F30, but BMW has sharpened the 3er further still – not by much, but just enough to make the difference that much more stark.

2016-BMW-330i-3

But is that what people really want these days? The competition, particularly from the likes of Mercedes and Audi, has stepped up the game immensely over the past couple of years, and customers’ expectations have risen proportionally as a result. The fact that we’re seeing so many of the W205 C-Class on the road these days only proves that buyers aren’t titillated by BMW’s sheer “emotional appeal” any longer.

In fact, it’s now very hard to justify the 3 Series’ mechanical excellence. The F30 brushed off those concerns easily enough in 2012, but four swift years later and the yardstick has very clearly moved on. That’s not to say that the 330i is in any way a bad car – it can’t be, not when it drives so well – it’s just that, more than ever, it’s a car that doesn’t compromise, for better or worse.

The choice is obvious. If you are looking for a refined, properly premium motoring experience – especially one that you would expect at the sharp end of RM300k – then you are arguably better off looking elsewhere. But the select few that still insist on driving the most dynamic car in the class may find that the latest iteration of the original sports sedan can still surprise and delight.

The new BMW 330i M Sport is priced at RM297,800 on-the-road without insurance. It comes with a five-year unlimited mileage warranty, five years’ free scheduled maintenance based on the onboard Condition Based Service (CBS), as well as a two-year tyre warranty. Browse full specifications and equipment of all BMW 3 Series models on CarBase.my.

VIDEO: BMW ConnectedDrive demo, available with the 330i