Think BMW, and the first model that usually comes to mind – for most folk – is the 3 Series. Ubiquitous, the model has been at the forefront of things from the get-go, and while the brand has evolved its lineup to incorporate a host of new segment models from the ‘easy-to-figure three-model’ range of the past to the ‘just how many of them are there, really’ of today, the 3er has been very much the standard bearer for the brand, the one by which it has been defined, and association measured. Since 1975, five generations and more than 12.51 million units sold attest to that.

So when a full-model replacement comes about to continue the flag-waving, there’s plenty of bated breath, as well as the inevitable questions. How will it shape up? Will it turn things on its head? Does it change the game, again?

The answer is very nicely, yes and yes. Things haven’t exactly been easy for the 3er in recent times – the grip it has had in the entry-level premium sedan segment has been forcibly relaxed by competition that has studied and learnt from the benchmark, and done so very well. Arguably, the outgoing E90 didn’t help itself – from a design point of view, it was a little too safe, especially from the rear at the start of its life-cycle, almost as if the idea of changing things too much coming in from the E46 would alienate the buyer.

It also didn’t help that on the whole, the E90 felt like it was carrying a bit too much weight arriving at middle-age, and while undoubtedly there are a great many existing generation owners who might argue against this view, I’ve always felt the E90 to be too heavy-set – not ponderous – for its own good from a performance point of view. Simply put, a very able machine, but darker in character than its predecessors, missing that sense of overall sharpness, or that sprightly step, if you will.

Enter the F30, the sixth-generation incarnation of the type. It doesn’t just restore parity in the playing field, but takes the game a few steps further infield, and by all accounts should accomplish far more than the last one did in staying ahead of the chasing pack.

The arrival of the new car was announced last October, but it’s only making its market debut in Europe starting this month. Ahead of this, the media drive for the car took place in December, with the surroundings of Barcelona the location. Though four engine choices, two petrol, two diesel, all TwinPower Turbo mills, are available for the car at point of launch, the drive saw only the 328i and 320d EfficientDynamics Edition as samplers.

The range topping act of the lot is the 335i, with its 3.0 litre, 306 hp at 5,800-6,000 rpm and 400 Nm from 1,200-5,000 rpm mill; in Spain, the closest to be had with it in the metal was through a static display (the one in blue in the photos), and it looks a rather meaty proposition. The petrol mainstay, until the entry-level 320i arrives sometime in spring this year, is the 328i, which delivers 245 hp at 5,000-6,500 rpm and 350 Nm at 1,250-4,800 rpm from the new N20 2.0 litre TwinPower Turbo mill.

The two diesel variants are the aforementioned 320d EfficientDynamics Edition and the 320d, which both run a 2.0 litre commonrail DI variable geometry turbocharged lump, but with different output tunes – the ED Edition has 163 hp on call, while the 320d has 184 hp, both at a similar 4,000 rpm. Likewise, both feature identical torque figures, this being 380 Nm at 1,750-2,750 rpm.

In terms of transmission options, there’s the usual six-speed manual transmission, replete with a modified gear train design, primarily for the North American market, which continues to consume the stick-shifter in ever-dwindling numbers, but the real deal is the advent of the eight-speed automatic box, which the company proudly states is a first in the segment class.

Weighing and sized just about the same as the six-speeder it replaces, the transmission is available as a choice for all four engine variants, and BMW says that it offers identical or lower fuel consumption and emissions than the six-speed manual transmission. Incidentally, Auto Stop-Start is fitted as standard across the model range.

Electronics-wise, aside from Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), which offers ABS, ASC, DTC, DBC and CBC, along with start-off assist, brake drying and an electronic limited slip function for the rear differential under its operating umbrella, the F30 features a new Driving Experience Control function as standard across the model range – there are four operation modes on this one, COMFORT, SPORT, SPORT+ and a new mode called ECO PRO.

The last mode supports an extra-efficient and economy-conscious driving style, doing so by changing the accelerator mapping so that the same pedal travel delivers less power than in standard mode – the Optimum Shift Indicator for manual models and the transmission control strategy for the automatics are modified, bringing forward upshifts and delaying downshifts.

Elsewhere, intelligent energy and climate management logic reduces the mechanical power consumption as well as the consumption of electrical systems, all of which enables additional fuel savings, depending on individual driving style, of up to 20%. I actually had the chance to try ECO PRO out during the drive, but more on this later.

Exterior-wise, the Christopher Weil-penned design features the new BMW face, with flat headlights reaching along as far as the kidney grille, as well as an accentuated width, improving the car’s presence – there are more than a few visual cues to suggest a scaled down F10 5 er , the hood being one, and the headlight shape being another primary focal cue.

Aside from the merged headlights/grille design, the F30 replaces the central air intake of the E90 with two larger intakes, positioned underneath the headlights to the outer edges of the front end. In the flesh, the result is a very lean and flatter looking front, and the bonnet length seems even more pronounced on this one.

For the sides, highlights include flanks that are shaped by a double swage line made up of two character lines running alongside each other, and the back end runs through quite nicely surfaces – in all, it flows well enough, the lines, with the front being particularly outstanding, but as one of the styling designers points out during a discussion on the matter, it’s still a 3er, and there are only that many liberties that can be taken with how the design shapes up.

Retention being the key, an easily identifiable familiarity of what it is can’t be escaped, but on the whole the F30 sheds the pounds visually to come off as a fitter, healthier looking, and very much rejuvenated 3. It’s also figuratively lighter, weighing up to 45 kg less than the E90, depending on variant.

This has been accomplished despite an increase in overall size. The F30 is a larger car than the E90, with a wider track leading things in – the front has been increased by 37 mm, while the rear track has gone up by 47 mm. It’s longer by 93 mm, and the augmented wheelbase, at 2,810 mm, has been increased by 50 mm.

There’s also a corresponding increase in interior space, and in the flesh, the cabin does feel somewhat airier and roomier, though if there’s a bone to pick it’s with how much more prominent the central console bulge from the fascia has become – it does squeeze in front legroom space somewhat in terms of perceived width.

Nonetheless, the cabin is a more comfy place to be on the whole compared to the outgoing car.Rear passengers get the benefit of extra legroom, with an additional 15 mm knee room and 8 mm of extra head room to help things along. The 3er hasn’t always been known for how well it accommodates people in the rear, but rear ingress and egress is certainly better, as our hop in and out sessions during photo-taking sessions showed.

Boot space on the F30 is also up, with 480 litres of capacity, 20 litres more than that of the outgoing model. Additionally, 40:20:40 split rear backrests mean the ability to carry longer items.

Interior features include a driver-focused cockpit, angled towards the driver by seven degrees, with the four main circular dials (fuel gauge, speedometer, rev counter and oil temperature gauge) dressed with a black panel display. The fascia and overall element cues again lend the impression of a scaled-down F10, and the flatter-looking centre stack makes the presentation look nice and tight.

As far as features and kit goes, the F30 is loaded with plenty of ConnectedDrive gear, from driver assistance systems to infotainment. New to the car is a full-colour Head-Up Display, standard on the 328i, and aside from this the likes of Lane Change Warning System, Lane Departure Warning System, Active Protection safety package and Advance eCall are items on the list.

There’s also BMW Parking Assistant, Surround View (with Side View and Top View), Active Cruise Control with Stop&Go function, Speed Limit Info including No Passing Info display and Real-Time Traffic Information (RTTI), among the chockfull of items you can specify for a F30.

A new method of model line differentiation has popped up too with the F30 – in addition to the entry-level version, it will be available in three equipment lines. The three trim levels, called Sport Line, Luxury Line and Modern Line, will allow customers to personalise their rides to their individual preferences, with exterior design elements and selection of materials and colours available for each model; there’s even colour-coding elements for each line, and aside from that found in the cabin, the key-fob gets a similar imprint too, so everyone will be able to tell just which outfit your 3er wears.

Additionally, there’s an optional M Sport package, which includes a lowered M Sport suspension featuring a 10 mm drop in ride height, and this offers firmer suspension and damping as well as harder anti-roll bars, and also featured are 18 or 19-inch M Sport alloy wheels. If you want to take things even further, there’s an optional Adaptive M Sport suspension, with electronically-controlled damping.

There’s also an M aerodynamics package, which can be specified separately, and this one features special body parts and chrome tailpipes, replete with exclusive exterior paintwork and interior trim. The latter has sports seats wearing distinctive cloth/Alcantara upholstery, trim elements with blue accent strips, an M Shortshifter (in models with the manual gearbox), M door sill finishers, an M driver’s footrest and a new M Sport leather steering wheel.

The 328i demonstrator in Spain featured a mix of items, presumably to show off the car’s ability to the best possible measure – the eight-speed auto (there were no manuals on call at the event) Sport Line mules wore the optional 19-inch M Sport alloys with 225/40 front and 255/35 rear rubbers as well as the M Sport suspension. In its standard state, the 328i runs on 17-inch Star-spoke wheels, wearing 225/50 tyres. Meanwhile, the two diesel models are equipped with 16-inch V-spoke or Streamline-style alloy wheels, wrapped with 205/60 rubbers.

The first day of driving began with the 320d ED, in its Modern Line specification. Riding shotgun on the first leg out from the Aeroport de Barcelona towards the hotel in the Sabadell region, there was ample time to study the interior – I wasn‘t quite taken by the textured wood grain paneling on call. Yes, it will find fans, but I’m not really one of them, feeling that it looked rather kitschy on the whole. Otherwise, the rest of the elements in the light-coloured Modern Line looked easy enough on the eye.

Leaving the city, with traffic conditions limiting speed, the 320d ED puttered along ably, the diesel exhibiting all the well-known positives it’s already known for. What was interesting was how the nature of the F30 could be picked up fairly easily, even from the passenger seat – the car feels a lighter, breezier proposition, and not just from a handling point of view. Nearing the changeover point, opening up the throttle revealed a chassis that felt, in a word, alive.

From the driver’s perspective, there’s a strong element of agility that’s immediately apparent, and you don’t really have to push the car hard for it to shine through. Not that I was able to with the 320d ED, really. Taking on the second leg towards the accommodation, I’d barely taken less than 10 enthusiastic turns on the twisty downhill section heading into Martorell when my co-driver signaled he wasn’t liking things that much.

So that part of the drive came crawling down to a 40-50 km/h descent, and gently at that. Shame, because the road was promising, but the flipside was getting to use ECO PRO, since there was no reason to barrel along. By the time we got back to the expressway part of the route, I’d managed to ‘virtually’ gain another 11 km of driving range on that left in the tank, according to the trip computer.

The mode does cut the thrills, and by a fair amount – forget that you’ve left it on that and attempt to speed things up, and you’ll be left wondering why the stallion suddenly feels a bit castrated. I suppose saving fuel and the environment doesn’t – and shouldn’t – equate with excitement.

Vis-a-vis the E90 equivalent, the diesel F30 does come across as a far livelier offering, and it has all to do with the platform. There’s a sense of lightness in its character and behaviour that it makes the E90 feel a bit plodding in comparison. The steering is expecially noteworthy, sharp, precise and offering informative, useful feel that inspires confidence.

As standard fare, the rack is an electromechanical power steering system EPS (Electronic Power Steering), and this uses an electric motor to provide steering assistance, operating the EPS when steering assistance is actually required. Of even more cheer is the optional new, purely mechanical variable-ratio steering system, which of course offers a more precise response to input and sharper handling, and on the 335i and 328i, a Servotronic function for speed-sensitive power assistance is also standard.

The 328i the following day increased the liking for the new car, with the promise of track time on the Circuit de Catalunya capping things off. With new co-driver in tow, an early morning detour back into the city to pick up the co-driver’s wife was even managed. In town use, puttering about through the endless stream of traffic lights in downtown Barcelona, the 328i behaved with impressive civility in low-mid speed conditions – the stop-start worked smoothly and as intended, and of pleasant surprise was the level of ride comfort, even with the M Sport suspension and 19-inch wheels in tow.

At highway speeds, the 328i feels brisk and rapid when pushed, and the N20 mill is quite the standout – the throttle response is lively, and such is the element of poke and muscle, especially in the midband, that any real argument for holding on to a naturally-aspirated six-pot is easily dissuaded as the miles wear on. About the only thing the four-pot lump gives away is with regards to the engine note – there’s no six-cylinder low-end silkiness to be had, no matter how hard you try to hear or imagine it.

But that’s really a small trade-off for the performance returns, and it’s not just the engine that eclipses the old. Tackling the twists takes on a new tack – the F30 doesn’t just feel more articulate and nimble, it accomplishes things in far more inspiring and exciting fashion than its predecessor, even when you decide to be wild about it. There’s a fair bit of wind noise evident at high speeds, but it’s nothing to get worked up about. Seat comfort is high, and provide ample support levels over a longer drive.

By the time we finally arrive at the circuit, virtually all the assembled lot have had their go. This being a ‘drive what you bring’ do, first dibs went to my co-driver, none other than Autocar Asean’s Faisal Shah, who brings the 328i back with the brakes nicely hissing after his spirited track run. I give him a bemused look when he tells me it’s quite alright to go, “there’s no fade, the brakes hold up very well” being his words.

There just being under an hour left before track time ends, I take his word for it. The big plus is that the track is all but empty, so it’s a clear run right through for the five laps scheduled. Surprisingly enough, the brakes do hold up, and impressively so – the F30 wears a larger brake system than before, with a hint of fade starting to creep in only at the very end of the run. One wonders just how much better the optional M Sport brake system, with aluminium four-piston fixed calipers at the front and two-piston fixed calipers at the rear, will be.

The run on track also provided the chance to try out the various electronic driver aid settings, with Sport+ mode – with the DSC thresholds raised – making the car the liveliest, as expected, with DTC continuing to provide a safety net. On the whole, the car tracked well, and driven cleanly is eminently rewarding; though understeer is still present, the limits are far higher than that on the E90. Arguably, a bit more rawness around the edges wouldn’t have gone amiss, but such is progress, and the scalpel-like dynamics on call gives this one its own irresistibility and allure.

The real acid test closer to home will be how the 320i – which will feature the N20 2.0 litre lump with 184 hp and 270 Nm – shapes up when it arrives on the scene later in the year. Given the dynamic impressions painted by both the 328i and 320d ED, it should meet expectations ably enough.

As it stands, the F30 redefines things enough that it sets a new benchmark in the segment, and takes the 3er back to the top of the heap. Of the two, I much preferred the 328i ahead of the diesel variant; despite the diesel’s mule-like qualities, the petrol felt a more versatile offering, with a wider balance and feel about it. If something like the W204 C-Class was the better of the E90 in some regards, then the balance of power has very much shifted back to Munich. The king is dead, long live the king.