The BMW 3 Series has ruled the compact part of the mid-sized executive segment for more than forty years and the company's hopes are high for this improved version of the 'G20' seventh generation design. It's smarter and gets a much more sophisticated cabin. Plus the diesels now feature 48V mild hybrid tech and there's a big step forward in media connectivity. All the things you'd expect from a facelift really. Something else you'd expect from this model is rear wheel drive handling purity. It doesn't disappoint in that regard either.
The BMW 3 Series has had an unparalleled reputation both for its quality and supreme handling in the premium mid-size segment for more than 40 years. When this the seventh generation 'G20'-series model arrived back in 2018, it raised the bar even higher. But since then, we've had an all-new version of this car's arch-rival, the Mercedes C-Class, so BMW has had to further improve its '3': it has. This contender is regarded as the heartbeat of the brand and always has been since the first generation design was launched way back in 1975. Today, this model line accounts for 14% of BMW's global sales, so it could hardly be more important. These updates must sustain the car until it's replaced by an EV next-generation model in 2025 with the brand's forthcoming 'Neue Klasse' architecture.
BMW has refined its engine selection as part of this facelift: the previous entry-level 318i (petrol) and 318d (diesel) units are no longer listed. So the range begins with the 184hp 320i petrol model or the 190hp 320d diesel, the latter gaining 48V mild hybrid tech. Eight-speed Steptronic auto transmission is now standard on all versions as before but is now upgraded to 'Sport' status which means that there's a gearshiftpaddle-activated 'Sprint' function for quick overtraking. If you can spend more with a mainstream powerplant, then the four cylinder 330e Plug-in variant with 292hp offers a tempting combination of speed and frugality. Across the line-up, rear wheel drive is still this 3 Series model's calling card of course; for mainstream models, xDrive 4WD is only now available (optionally) on the 330e. You have to have it on top M340i (374hp 48V petrol) and M340d (340hp 48V diesel) variants. The road-burning M3 Competition still tops the range of course, with its 510hp 3.0-litre twin turbo six cylinder engine and optional xDrive system. There's also a top M3 CS variant with an uprated 551hp version of the same engine. Otherwise, much is familiar here. All 3 Series models get the front engine, rear wheel drive formula with near perfect 50:50 weight distribution that has defined the 3 Series to date: this seventh generation model doesn't deviate too far from that script. Still notable are the standard 'lift-related' dampers. These clever shock absorbers incorporate structures that provide extra damping at the extremes of wheel travel, allowing quite a firm sporting set-up to be adopted, but also one able to deliver a fluent ride over tarmac imperfections. Thanks to that, this car's able to combine a set-up for Silverstone with something that works equally well on the North Circular.
This seventh generation 3 Series model has had a useful visual update here for both Saloon and Touring estate body styles. If you know this 'G20'-series seventh generation design, you'll notice the updated front end, which offers slimmer LED headlights, a resculpted grille and gloss black brake cooling vents. M Sport variants get a distinctive hexagonal lower air intake too. There are reshaped bumpers at the rear and colour-coded trim elements, plus M Sport models feature a chunky diffuser. The major changes though, have taken place inside, where this 3 Series gets the new-look curved instrument panel that we first saw on the iX luxury EV. this incorporates a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and a 14.9-inch infotainment screen with the brand's latest eighth generation iDrive interface. This all allows for a big step forward in media functionality, with things like real-time mapping, a parking space locator and wireless smartphone-mirroring. Other cabin updates include slimmer air vents, a redesigned gear shifter, standardised gear shift paddles and new touch-sensitive buttons for the centre console. Otherwise, things are much as before. There's reasonably comfortable space for a couple of adults on the rear bench - it'd be a bit of a squash for three. Out back, there's a 480-litre boot in the Saloon, which you can extend by folding the seat backs forward. If you're going to be doing that very regularly though, then you're really a candidate for the alternative Touring estate version, which offers a 500-litre boot, extendable with seat folding to 1,500-litres.
When you pause to consider that one product line - the 3 Series saloon - accounts for fully a quarter of BMW's global sales, you begin to appreciate quite how much there is riding on this car. Pricing now starts at just under £41,000 for the 320i petrol; or around £45,000 for the 320d diesel. You'll need a budget of over £47,000 for the 330e PHEV petrol model, with a premium of around £1,550 more for the xDrive system. There are now just two trim levels, 'Sport' and 'M Sport' and all models now include the 'BMW Live Cockpit Plus' screen set-up, which includes cloud-based BMW Maps, over-the-air updates and an improved version of the brand's 'Intelligent Personal Assistant' voice control system. The company's 'Parking assistant' is now standard, steering you automatically into spaces. And you can upgrade it with Park View, Panorama View and 3D View functions. M Sport customers are being offered a choice of exterior upgrades, including a carbonfibre rear diffuser, a large rear spoiler for the saloon and individual wheel designs of up to 20-inches in size. As for safety, well as before, optional across the range is the brand's 'Driving Assistant Professional' pack, which includes Active Cruise Control with a Stop&Go function. There's also a 'Steering and Lane Control Assistant', which helps the driver maintain their position on motorways where the lane narrows. The 'Active Navigation' function detects when a lane change for a motorway exit is required and prepares to steer the car into that lane. The system also comprises a 'Lane Keeping Assistant' with active side collision protection and an 'Evasion Assistant'.
The addition of mild hybrid 48V tech for the diesels has usefully improved efficiency. the 320d diesel many will want now manages up to 58.9mpg on the combined cycle and up to 127g/km of CO2, readings which are difficult to better in this class. The M340d, which also gets the 48V technology, manages up to 48.7mpg and up to 153g/km. Otherwise, things are much as before. The 320i petrol variant manages up to 44.1mpg and up to 145g/km of CO2. If you want to do better, you can ask about the 330e petrol/electric Plug-in hybrid which can deliver up to 217mpg on the combined cycle and a CO2 return of as little as 30g/km.. What else? Well the Steptronic automatic transmission features a coasting mode so that when the driver lifts off the throttle at higher speeds, for example on a gentle downhill grade on the motorway, the engine is automatically decoupled from the powertrain. It then simply ticks over in neutral, which saves fuel and ensures there is no unwanted engine braking at high speed. An additional fuel-saving feature, which also improves driving comfort, is the Proactive Driving Assistant, which uses information from the navigation system to "anticipate" upcoming roundabouts, corners and junctions and select exactly the right time to change gear.
With this enhanced version of the seventh generation 3 Series, we've got the kind of car that BMW is best at making. We understand why the company has to make SUVs, People Carriers and Electric Vehicles, but it'll lose its soul if it ever stops making models like this one. Prior to the original launch of this 'G20'-series design back in 2018, previous 3 Series generations had dabbled with conformity, but this MK7 version has reasserted this Bavarian maker's dynamic dominance in the mid-sized sports saloon segment. No other rival serves up as deliciously rich a driving experience as this. This improved model has become quite expensive, but thanks to the updated hi-tech cabin, at least you now feel you're getting a very complete benchmark-standard product for that not-inconsiderable outlay. You might rarely use the added dynamic dimension it has over its rivals, but it'll always be good to know you have it. Within its segment, it really is the 'Ultimate driving machine'. Over the years, the 3 Series has changed a lot about the way we buy cars in this class, continually forcing its rivals to play catch up. This one's no different. As you were, people.