DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

The fight for supremacy has become that much more fleeting in this day and age, given the speed at which carmakers race to come up with a step better, especially with electrification and autonomous drive the new, trending frontiers of exploration.

Some things of course remain the same, at least for now. There will inevitably come a time when the premium compact executive sedan segment adopts a quieter and automated stance, with less emphasis on colour when it comes to drivability and dynamics, but that day has not yet arrived, and as such, there’s still quite a lot to battle for when it comes to being the leading light in the arena in terms of driver engagement.

Up until the last decade, there was no doubting which car led the parade – right into midlife, the BMW 3 Series was pretty much the go-to car for drivers, unassailable for the requirements of the time. Competitors came, and competitors went, and the 3er saw them off.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

Things have changed markedly in the last 10 years. Rivals, threatening to catch up at the advent of the previous-gen 3 Series, have done so, both in terms of handling dynamism and plush. It’s not because the F30 hasn’t been up to measure.

Far from it, but such is the pace of progress that the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Audi have gone well past in terms of luxe, Volvo threatens from another angle with its new S60, while offerings such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia have arguably wrested the most treasured trophy in the arsenal away. That even – shock, horror – Jaguar, never known for its handling prowess in the segment, is right up there in that mix says everything.

Seven years on, it’s the turn of the seventh-generation G20 to carry the flag, and it arrives finding that there’s a lot of ground to cover – drive eminently better, offer more in the way of functionality and tech, and match the sophistication of its competitors. Tall order? Not quite, as it turns out.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

Because of what it represents, there’s really very little deviation from how the new 3 Series is scoped physically, despite the shift to a new design language. This wasn’t apparent when it first emerged via heavily-edited images – at that point, there were very few fans in the editorial team here, to understate the commentary about it then.

That it jarred as it did was largely in part to the bumpers, made all the more prominent in those ‘shopped images. It does settle to the sight quite nicely in actual photos, and while there are more creases in the bodywork, which makes the lines a little busier-looking, the G20 has a taut, athletic feel about it, and it looks far better in the metal than graphics suggest, although colour has a part to play in how the presentation shapes up.

Size-wise, the 3 Series has grown, almost in the same numerical vein as the F30 did in relation to the E90, although the perception is less evident to view. Numbers-wise, it’s 76 mm longer, 16 mm wider and one mm taller than the sixth-gen, and measures in at 4,709 mm long, 1,827 mm wide and 1,442 mm tall. Wheelbase length has also been increased by 41 mm to 2,851 mm, as has the track widths, by 43 mm in front and 21 mm at the rear.

Like the F30 before it, the G20 continues to shed the pounds. The body-in-white alone is 20 kg less than the F30’s, and the overall weight savings is even better than that managed the last round, when the F30 shaved off 45 kg over the E90 – the G20 drops up to 55 kg, depending on variant.

From the get-go, the car is available in four specifications of trim, the lines being Advantage, Sport Line, Luxury Line and M Sport. Moving from the base Advantage, the subsequent lines dress up the G20 with coordinated design elements and equipment features, including line-specific front- and rear bumper designs and wheel choices.

For Sport Line, items include high-gloss trim and the inclusion of sports seats, while the Luxury line introduces more chrome in the exterior presentation and an Ash grey brown interior, complete with Vernasca leather, Sensatec instrument panel and door trim as well as fine wood accents.

The M Sport route adds on dedicated bodykit styling and sports seats with M-specific upholstery as well as, an M leather steering wheel, among other things. It looks the business when you see it in real world conditions.

As standard, the 3 Series is equipped with full-LED headlights and darkened LED rear lights, with Adaptive LED BMW Laserlight units and LED front foglamps an option. We don’t get the Laserlight system in the local model as yet, and it remains to be seen if it will be introduced at a later point.

At point of introduction, the company announced six variants for the G20, two petrol and four diesels. The gasoline models are the 320i and 330i, while the oil burners are the 318d, 320d, 320d xDrive and the 330d. Because rollout hadn’t officially started then, the drive in Portugal saw the 330i M Sport as the primary petrol offering, with the 320d Sport Line the other available road-going variant.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

The engines and powertrains are about the only things carried over from the F30, although the mills have been upgraded for use here. In the case of the 2.0 litre TwinPower Turbo unit in the 330i, revisions have increased the output by six hp and 50 Nm over the previous application, the engine now developing 255 hp (or 258 PS) between 5,000 and 6,500 rpm and 400 Nm from 1,550 to 4,400 rpm.

Revisions that have brought performance gains include a re-optimisation of the turbo system, with redesigned direct injectors and a new fuel pump being introduced, and a reduction in internal friction. There’s also a lighter crankshaft, reworked heat management and a new digital engine management system. Performance figures include a 0-100 km/h time of 5.8 seconds.

The 2.0 litre oil burner seen in the 320d has also been updated. Aside from revised injectors, the 188 hp (190 PS) and 400 Nm unit now features multi-stage turbocharging to offer improve response and efficiency across all engine speeds.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

The drive also saw the appearance of the M340i xDrive, which is the range-topping – and fastest – model until the M3 appears. It hadn’t been officially launched at that point though (the LA show reveal was around the corner), and so the testers retained their exterior camouflage when sampled on track in Portimao.

Plenty of tech novelties have made their way on, including a new passive lift-damper system. Debuting on the 3 Series, this features in both the standard and M Sport suspension available for the car, and as it turns out, is quite the trick in enhancing drive dynamics.

How it works is by adding additional hydraulic damping in front, via an additional element within the inner sleeve of the front damper, and a compression limiting system at the rear. Continuously variable, the set-up adjusts the damper firmness progressively according to changing spring travel, the result being less body movement on bumpy road surfaces and when pushing the car hard into corners.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

Aside from lowering the car by 10 mm, the M Sport route adds on elements such as additional body struts, firmer springs and anti-roll bars as well as increased camber, increasing damping forces by 20% over the standard system.

A third configuration comes in the form of an electronically-controlled Adaptive M suspension, which features new valves and a revised control algorithm that enables load-dependent control of the damping forces. It also offers more perceptible variation in damping characteristics between the different drive modes Driving Experience Control.

The interior has been given quite a bit of a rework, even if the overall presentation remains familiar. Effort has been made to make the cabin more upmarket in feel, and by and large the new trim does a grand job of accomplishing this, even if some parts are less uniform than others. Nonetheless, the level of trim and materials is a step up from the old car, and while you could argue that the 3 Series’ interior is still behind some of its rivals in outright plushness, it’s not that far behind.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

Aside from that to the eye, refinements in other areas have come about, noticeably with regards to cabin noise. Reduction of this has been achieved with the use of better insulation, and the air-conditioning, a three-zone system, has been made quieter in operation. Additionally, new acoustic glass for the windscreen, which is standard across all variants, reduces the intrusion of external wind noise.

As for kit, fresh bits include a newly-designed sports leather steering wheel with multifunction buttons as standard and new ambient lighting offering a total of six light colours and eleven combinations of brightness, along with wireless mobile charging and a near field communication (NFC) BMW Digital Key, utilising a smartphone to lock/unlock the car and for engine operation. No joy for iOS users, as it’s available only on Android, and specifically for all NFC-capable Samsung Galaxy smartphones running Android 8.0 and above.

Also to be found are a six-speaker Radio Professional audio system as standard, moving all the way up to a Harman Kardon surround sound system with 16 speakers, the latter present on the drive examples. Albeit missing the transparency and outright resolution needed to have made it outstanding, the system had good energy levels and was sonically adept.

The Hi-Fi speaker system on the local car, which increases the number of speakers of the base offering to ten and ups the amplifier’s output to cope with the additional transducers, should be more than capable of catering to most users’ demands.

Seating aspects have also been improved, and there’s more shoulder and elbow room in the front seats and the rear has greater legroom. While the space itself hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds, the spatial improvements can be felt, and a quick trial at the back suggests it to be a more comfortable place over longer travel periods than on the F30. That the new rear apertures offer easier access in and out of the compartment aids the progress made.

In Portugal, both the 330i and 320d demonstrators were pretty much decked out, and as such was kitted out with optional sports seats – running an identical long-loop route for both cars, there was very little to complain about with regards to seat comfort on these, the units providing ample support where needed, with low fatigue levels noted, even well into an hour in on each run.

Boot capacity is 480 litres, which is exactly the same as the F30’s, and although this wasn’t explored due to a lack of cargo, there are supposed improvements, the automaker saying that there is better usability of that volume compared to the old car. As before, 40:20:40 split rear backrests ensure versatility in transporting longer items.

Switchgear ergonomics are good, though there is one little facet about the iDrive that is worth mentioning. Operationally, the system is peerless and continues to lead the way in the segment, but while the functional aspects are immaculate, the positioning of the controller within the console takes a bit of adjustment to get used to. Also, the large surface panelling for the controls means that the rearward buttons within the group has a plasticky feel when clicked, at least notably on the demonstrators.

In its base form, the G20 comes with a standard-styled instrument cluster, although the display screen contained within has more than doubled in acreage, and the console display is now a larger, 8.8-inch unit. The real buzz, however, is with BMW Live Cockpit Professional specified.

This presents a fully-digital 12.3-inch instrument cluster and 10.25-inch central display, making for a lot of screen space within the viewing field. The cluster is customisable, but only alters the colours and information displays, not the layout.

With plenty being projected through it, the new instrument screen takes some getting used to, including sighting aspects for the outward-facing and opposed orientation of the speedometer and tachometer sweep, but once you settle into it and know where and what to look out for, you’ll find that it’s all very legibly presented. The heads-up display, 70% larger than on the previous car, works a treat, largely precluding the need to view the cluster for the most.

In line with the demands of the day, the sedan is now equipped with BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, which is very much like Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX, complete with a “Hey BMW” prompt command. The system learns routines and habits, and is subsequently able to apply them in the appropriate context, allowing the car to interact with the driver in more proactive fashion through voice commands.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

Workable functions include temperature and navigation control, music selection, recommendations on nearby places to eat as well as weather reporting at the intended location, among others, all triggered via the “Hey BMW” voice command. A unique feature is that the system can be given a specific name, ensuring greater individuality and personality.

Thus, instead of just utilising BMW as the activating keyword, the system can be renamed to whatever a user chooses through a voice recording process. In practice, it’d probably be better to use a simpler name like Joe or Mary – a few attempts at “Hey Hafriz” didn’t qute work, with the system saying each time ‘Humphreys’ was not an easily distinguished name.

Otherwise, the system works very nicely, responding to command prompts on weather report requests, climate control adjustment and even music genre selection without hiccup during the short sampling with it on the drive. It’s not foolproof, of course, but like you, it learns more with every command given, every question asked and every setting selected.

The demonstrators in Portugal were also equipped with the optional gesture control, which now adds two extra gestures to bring the total to seven. Operable with finger movements in front of the screen, it allows interface operation to be accomplished without the need of screen contact.

Usage is tricky at first, the transitions being anything but smooth, but once you get the hang of it (or rather, getting your hand placed at the right location for the sensor to pick movement up consistently), it works well enough. Still, I doubt many would have the inclination to use it on a continuous basis.

As you’d expect, there’s an array of driver assist and safety kit available for the new 3er. As standard, the car comes with Lane Departure Warning – which is operational from 70 km/h to 210 km/h – and Collision/Pedestrian Warning with a city braking function, although strangely the latter is not mentioned in the equipment list on the Malaysian 330i.

Also to be found are an Active Cruise Control system with Stop & Go function, operating at up to 210 km/h, and Lane Change Warning, which helps the driver to guide the car back onto the correct path by means of steering input. Other items include Rear Collision Prevention and Cross-Traffic Alert.

There’s also Parking Assistant, of which one new feature is particularly noteworthy. A first in the segment, Reversing Assistant helps the driver to exit parking spots or manoeuvre when space is limited. Essentially, it stores the steering movements for any section the car has just driven forward (at speeds of no more than 36 km/h). When engaged, it simply reverses the car in automated fashion, steering it with the same lines taken moving forward.

As a sampling in Faro showed, the application works very efficiently, getting the car out of a very tight spot without any fuss. The driver still has to operate the accelerator and brake pedals and pay attention to surroundings at present, but the process isn’t intimidating. Although most are likely to view it as a novelty rather that a practical everyday item, the feature does provide a glimpse of another incremental gain towards autonomous drive.

So, a lot of new, and all adding up to a very glossy projection, but the big question is of course how the G20 drives and rides, because it is by these that it will be largely defined. The discussion has to start with how it rides, for this shapes up into how it handles.

At its core, the character of the 3 Series has, between generations, vacillated in its approach to ride presentation. Coming in from the E36, the E46 offered a more rounded focus for wider appeal, to which complaints of softness resulted in the overcompensation seen in the E90, which in its early form had a ride best described as unwavering.

The response to that was a return to a much improved level of comfort on the F30, which managed to keep things fairly balanced on the whole, sacrificing the nth degree of sharpness for workable levels of compliance. Of course, the cycle being what it is, the expectation is that it would head back to a tougher stance.

Which it has, but not in a bad way. That the G20 rides firmer than the F30 is without doubt, but the new lift-dampers offer the best possible means to eliminate tetchiness when pushed while still offering workable levels of comfort when ambling along. The suspension, at least the M Sport one, has very good primary aspects on the move, offering the car good consistency in poise.

That firmness becomes perceptible at lower speeds and evident on poorer surfaces, where there is quite a bit of imperfections being picked up from the tarmac. It’s not crashy, certainly not in the way the E90 was, and it’s not grating or harsh, so a good descriptor would be to call the secondary ride busy, although given the general nature of 3er buyers, this behavioural pattern should be very acceptable. For sure, those that thought the F30 too soft will find the new one the right stuff.

It’s when you push it along that any questions about ride (if you have any) will be shelved, because the new geometry and improve tautness of the chassis allows the new car to drive so much better than the old one. It corners flatter, its limits higher, effectively allowing more to be explored than before when traversing off the straight line. The partnering eight-speed automatic transmission continues its fine work, silky-smooth and eminently responsive and willing to coaxing.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

There’s a precise, nicely-weighed nature to how the car flows in and out of corners – there’s very little understeer and high levels of predictabilty. Allied to an electronically-controlled, fully-variable M Sport differential, the threshold of grip is tenaciously high, the overall character nothing short of keen. The end result is a faster, more engaging car to drive than its predecessor, and very palpably at that.

The steering plays its part – it remains light-ish in feel but is quick and very clean on-centre, remaining sharp when lock is applied, although in information it is still largely the chassis that provides the large chunk of workable feedback to input.

A mention of the diesel, even though that’s not coming our way. Also equipped with an M Sport suspension, the 320d demonstrator offered a more compliant low-level ride, with less being transcribed off the surface and into the car, and it also felt quieter than the petrol in terms of road noise, likely as a result of its 18-inch alloys (the 330i rode on 19-inch double-spoke 791 M units).

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

Otherwise, the oil burner felt like one – what it had less of from the road it made up for from the engine, which while efficient and willing, is missing that absolute refinement and creaminess of the petrol in terms of delivery.

Finally, some notes about the M340i xDrive, which is everything that is suggested on paper – on track, the adaptive suspension setup, which the company touts as the sportiest and most comfortable suspension available for the 3er, allowed even more of the G20 to be explored.

Again, cleaner, flatter and faster in corners was the predictably hummed tune. Across the fast track, the power bandwidth offered by the 369 hp (374 PS) and 500 Nm B58 3.0 litre six-pot was addictive, its energy levels sparkling. It sounded the business too. Even overdriving the car, which transpired at one point in Sport mode, didn’t really flap it. The question now begs as to just how devastating the new M3 will be when it arrives.

DRIVEN: G20 BMW 3 Series – upping the ante, again

To say the seventh-generation 3 Series represents a revolution from the F30 wouldn’t be all that accurate, because in many aspects it is evolutionary, but the progression it has made across the board is significant enough to call it a major leap or – to paraphrase its tagline – reinvention, and a very well engineered one at that.

The level of polish is well up, and the tech definitely adds a veneer of sophistication, but it’s how it drives that makes the new 3 Series such a compelling proposition. Given the path most cars are slowly heading towards dynamically these days, keen, avid drivers should be thankful that such levels of engagement are still to be found without having to invoke the mention of sports car or the equivalent price tag.

The G20 BMW 3 Series has been launched in Malaysia, and is on sale here in a solitary 330i guise.