What is it?
We all know what it’s like to feel pressure. But imagine the pressure you’d feel if you were a BMW engineer and your boss said: “Okay, next job on your list: improve the 3 Series.” Yikes.
Not only is it a massive seller for the Munich marque, accounting for 25% of all BMWs sold, but it’s also the benchmark small premium executive, and has been for the past 40 years.
Perhaps that’s why BMW didn’t radically alter the looks of this facelifted version. The front air intakes have been enlarged and the headlights, which now include an LED option, have been changed. At the back, BMW’s signature L-shaped light design has been crystallised by new all-LED tail-lights. Cabin modifications are equally restrained, with the addition of gloss-black surfaces and some extra chrome highlights.
Of more interest, considering the challenges posed by the Jaguar XE and forthcoming new Audi A4, are the performance and economy gains achieved by this new modular 2.0-litre diesel engine, which uses Efficient Dynamics technology. Power and torque are up by 6bhp and 15lb ft respectively, while the all-important CO2 emissions are down to 111g/km and fuel economy has improved to 67.3mpg.
What’s it like?
Those performance gains may be modest, but this was always a beefy diesel which is now even more meaty. Whatever the figures may say, in a real-world drag race the BMW will monster an equivalent Jaguar XE – especially with this superb eight-speed automatic gearbox, which knocks a tenth of a second off the zero to 62mph time of the manual version. Just keep 1500rpm showing on the tacho and you can rest easy that there’ll always be plenty of poke available.
We had hoped for some bigger improvements in refinement. It’s on a par with the XE’s Ingenium diesel and better than the gruff-sounding Mercedes C220 Bluetech, but knowing how whisper-quiet this engine is in a 5 Series begs the question: why the background clatter here?
The 3 Series’ claim to being the best handling car in its class took a bit of a wobble when we drove the Jaguar XE. As a countermeasure, BMW has retuned the steering and stiffened the 3 Series’ suspension, which on this M Sport model, is even stiffer still and 10mm lower.
Our test car also had the optional adaptive dampers and 19in wheels, and while it’s always firm – even in the Comfort setting – it’s extremely well controlled. The body tracks the topography of a typical British B-road like a kestrel on the hunt: there’s hardly any rebound off crests, and it stays remarkably level through corners.
For such a stiffly sprung car, bump absorption is okay. It’ll take the edge off most lumps and bumps, but hit a vicious pothole and you will feel it. But if you prefer to tour in your car, rather than feel like you’re in a touring car, best go for SE trim and smaller wheels.
On a damp track, the 3 Series seemed a little grip limited – which could be down to the tyres – but still beautifully balanced. This is when you realise that banging on about 50/50 weight distribution is not only marketing spiel, but also smart engineering, too.
The revised steering is a bit of a mixed bag. This was the Servotronic set-up, which at speed lacks weight around the straight-ahead but throws in too much resistance thereafter, especially in Sport mode. However, stick with the standard rack (as opposed to the variable option) and that’s juxtaposed with excellent gearing that results in it feeling linear and accurate.
The optional M Sport brakes fitted to our car didn’t feel great, even though they do stop you well. The initial feel is okay, but start to lean on them and there’s a point where the pedal loses any progressive quality.
As tends to be the case with big tyres, you get a lot of road noise at speed, although that said, a similarly shod XE is appreciably quieter. The old 3 Series’ issue of wind noise around the mirrors is still in evidence, too, but it’s the lesser of these two evils.
The small cabin upgrades feel greater than the sum of their parts. The gloss-black surfaces and additional chrome detailing enhance the premium feel; throw in the well-damped switchgear and functionality of the superb iDrive, and you’re left in little doubt that this is one of the better cabins in the class.
Otherwise it’s much the same as before. The driving position is good, apart from the slightly offset pedals and the lack of lumbar adjustment on the grippy M Sport seats. The cabin is also roomy enough to seat four adults easily, and the boot is the bigger than a that of a C-Classor an XE.
Should I buy one?
There was chat that the 3 Series was losing its sporting edge, but there’s no doubt that this M Sport version is plenty sporty enough. In fact, even though each change is individually small, they all add up to make this new 3 Series a demonstrably better all-round car.
Is it back to being the best small premium executive? Yes, but not by the huge margin it once enjoyed. The competition is just too good these days, and when the new Audi A4 breaks cover in a month or two, the pressure will be back on.
BMW 320d M Sport saloon
Location Bedfordshire; On sale Now; Price £32,085; Engine 4 cyls, 1995cc, diesel; Power 187bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1505kg; 0-60mph 7.3sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 67.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 111g/km, 20%
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