Everyone seems to have a story or memory about the BMW 3 Series. DTM racer Timo Glock shared with us that he recently purchased a 1988 3 Series, a special edition model, because it reminded him of his father’s Alpina White E30, a car that he remembers growing up in.
Engines: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 3.0-liter turbocharged straight-six
Output (2.0): 255 hp, 295 lb-ft of torque
Output (3.0): 382 hp, 269 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: TBA
Starting Price (USD): $41,245
Starting Price (CAD): $49,000
Starting Price for M340i (USD):$54,995
Starting Price for M340i (CAD): $59,150
Some memories are less positive, as the last generation 2011-2018 models left an impression that had us pondering if BMW still deserved the slogan the Ultimate Driving Machine. See, BMW spoiled drivers for so many years with vehicles that drive so well, offered luxurious interiors and lots of technology. But the competition had caught up, with fantastic offerings from Mercedes, Audi, and even Genesis leaving the BMW model feeling less impressive.
Until now, that is. Can we definitively say that the 3 Series is back? Well, they’ve come back closer to what we’ve expected from BMW — the vehicle is fun to drive, well equipped and features impressive technology.
It falls short in just a few hardly deal-breaking ways, most notably with the exterior design, which can be seen as a bit anonymous, especially when you view the car from the rear or the sides. The front is distinct, as any vehicle with the kidney grille will be. With the notches by the headlights, there’s an interesting call back to the popular E46 generation model of 3 Series. Around back, you see some non-descript L shaped taillights, and if it wasn’t for the roundel badge, you wouldn’t know whether you’re looking at a Genesis, Lexus, Audi or BMW. Time will tell whether this design ages as the other 3 Series cars have, but right now, it’s not the highlight of the new generation.
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On the other hand, the interior is much-improved thanks to a smart design that’s modern looking without being over-the-top or unergonomic. While the switchgear by the gear stick doesn’t feel particularly special, the rest of the cabin is nicely sorted, taking the high-tech motif from its big siblings like the 5 and 7 Series. There is a nice assortment of materials that match the sleek styling.
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One major addition to the BMW’s cabin is a personal assistant that takes brings MBUX “Hey Mercedes” concept to BMWs. Simply put, it’s like a smart home assistant, like Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana or Apple Siri, meaning you can just say “Hey BMW” to issue infotainment commands as well as control other settings in the car like the HVAC. The BMW interpretation of the technology allows you to rename the activation command. While we named our car “Charlie,” others were able to rename their cars anything just short of vulgar. The system also has a few responses to things like “I’m tired” where the car will pulsate the air conditioning, and play some upbeat music to get you back into the mood. Similarly saying “I’m bored” will lead the car to ask if you’d like to switch into the Sport mode. The future promises are a bit out there, as BMW says that next year the car will be able to chit-chat with you, I guess for those lonely road trips.
The system is good, although more work needs to be done to make it more natural like the Mercedes implementation. Some commands weren’t understood, things like “I’m cold” should trigger the heated seats or up the cabin temperature. On the other hand, one bonus is that the system can tell from which passenger the voice command is coming from, so if you ask the car to change the temperature, the dual-zone climate control will change either the driver’s side or passenger side settings depending on who issued the command.
That’s the highlight of the tech-filled cabin, but not the only thing to bring up. The infotainment screen is not only easy to use but features a gorgeously crafted screen that curves into the digital gauge cluster. One superb aspect worth bringing up is the digital cluster is perfectly placed so that the steering wheel doesn’t block the main information display. Our testers also featured BMW’s new HUD, which features handy information like upcoming speed limits and navigation instructions.
And although we spent most of our time on the roads of Algarve, Portugal, behind the wheel of the four-cylinder 3 Series, that speed limit information was a huge help. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine features 255 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, and is easily the benchmark of the segment, with a smoother and refined experience than the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, and Genesis G70. The feeling of putting your foot down is superb, leaving my driving partner and myself in awe that this car is being powered by “just” a four-cylinder. The motor is paired with a new eight-speed automatic, which worked without issue on the road. It features shorter gearing for the lower ratios, as well as better low-rpm cruising with no grumbling or lugging feel. Gear changes were slick and smooth, and when the car was in the Sports modes, it downshifted proactively and hung onto gears all the way to the top end of the tach.
The four-cylinder testers that were driven on the road were rear-wheel drive, while all-wheel drive, six-cylinder models were tested on the track. The straight six features an incredible 382 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. It too featured an eight-speed automatic, a powertrain combination that had us seeing nearly 230 km/h on the front straight of the Algarve Autodromo in Portimao. The track features a ton of elevation changes, with uphill segments that have you staring into the blue sky and downhill segments that connect sharp and sweeping turns. While xDrive with its rear-wheel drive bias is a known commodity, it is a perfect match on the track, instilling confidence in challenging situations.
Granted, the models we drove on the track featured M-Sport suspension used on M Sport line vehicles, that provided a great sense of how much more dialed in the chassis of the 3 Series is. The chassis apparently dropped 55 kg, even though the front and rear tracks, and wheelbase have grown. There’s a lower center of gravity, which is always a good thing. Stiff and communicative, even the base Sport line models feature surprisingly good suspension. BMW has incorporated a new suspension system with smart hydraulic stop dampers: at the front of the vehicle, the shocks limit upward tilt, so when you accelerate you won’t be staring at the sky. Conversely, on the rear shocks, the car limits vertical movement. It’s not only sporty but refined.
On the road, you’ll notice how much quieter the new vehicle is. The engine note sounds great from outside the vehicle, but you can’t hear much of it within the cabin. However, when you put the car in the sports setting, the engine note is amplified through the speakers. Some enthusiasts hate this, while others don’t seem to mind.
The last generation 3 Series was criticized for losing many of the elements that made the nameplate such a success. They weren’t fun, luxurious or innovative, but these issues have addressed in spectacular fashion. But what about the steering? Always a hard thing to judge when it comes to cars being billed as the “Ultimate Driving Machine” this BMW has perfectly enjoyable steering, a half step below the benchmark set by the 2 Series coupe from the brand.
There are so many ways the car can wow you now, even if it isn’t the exterior design. There’s a number of features like hands-free cruise control up to 60 km/h, an “eyes on the road” reminder, and even a reversing assistant that can retrace your last 50 meters, just in case you get stuck in a narrow dead end where you can’t pull off a three-point turn. Even your favorite gimmick, the gesture controls get updates too, which a pair of new gestures like a thumbs up, but to the left or right, so you can track up or down on the media system.
Even price-wise the new 330i seems to hit the spot. Buyers will appreciate the $41,245 price tag for a base, rear-wheel drive model ($49,000 in Canada, which comes standard with xDrive AWD), and there are some great features being included that used to be optional. You can expect items like adaptive cruise control with automatic brakes, acoustic windshield, rain sensing wipers, LED headlights and allow wheels as standard equipment. The M340i will be more pricey at $54,995 and $56,995 for AWD models ($59,150 for RWD and $61,850 for AWD in Canada), but following up on the M240 and M550, it feels like a vehicle worthy of that extra M-badge, inspired by the big-name M vehicles like the M2, M2, M3, M4, and M5.
The Verdict: 2020 BMW 3 Series Review
Following the last generation 3 Series, many thought that BMW lost their mojo and was no longer the benchmark for sports sedans and driving dynamics. This new model shows that BMW got the message, and has refocused and prioritized those elements for its entry-level sedan. While the exterior design may not grab your attention, the driving dynamics of this vehicle have been beefed up so much. It’s an addicting experience, giving the sports sedan new life as a truly enjoyable car that will excel in so many situations.