Review: G20 BMW 3 Series – Digital In Mind, Analogue In Soul

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Review: G20 BMW 3 Series – Digital In Mind, Analogue In Soul

Six generations of past 3 Series models (seven if you include the 02 models) spanning four decades and never once has it dropped the ball - that’s the reputation that the development team working on the G20 had to keep in mind.

It is easier to develop a new supercar than to design a new 3 Series. Instead of working towards a small set of highly defined objectives, a 3 Series has to satisfy everyone from housewives, to privileged kids, to eager driving enthusiasts.

The 3 Series is BMW’s most important model, contributing about 20 percent of its total sales - excluding the 4 Series derivative models. This is one car that BMW cannot afford to get wrong.

All 3 Series models, past and present, are often singled out as the segment’s benchmark. Yes, some might prefer a Mercedes-Benz C-Class for its reputation for reliability, or an Audi A4 for its interior space - but it is always a 3 Series that car collectors look for.

This all-new G20 3 Series’ focus is all about reinterpreting the sports sedan concept in this era of connectivity, and that means embracing new forms of human-machine interface while retaining the 3 Series’ signature agility – so is it a hit or a miss?

The following review was done with a left-hand drive, European-specification 330i, driven in Portugal. A more comprehensive review for our local-specification 3 Series – to be launched later this week - will be conducted at a later time.

Specifications for the BMW 330i M Sport (European market model)

  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged (B48)
  • Transmission: 8-speed torque converter automatic, rear-wheel drive
  • Power: 258 hp at 5,000 to 6,500 rpm
  • Torque: 400 Nm at 1,550 to 4,400 rpm
  • Safety: 6 airbags, ABS, electronic stability and traction control, autonomous emergency braking (City Braking), Lane Departure Warning, Lane Change Warning, Rear Collision Prevention and Cross-Traffic Alert, adaptive cruise control with stop & go function

The outgoing F30 generation was, for many, the best 3 Series ever. Its balance between handling and comfort was way ahead of its peers. It was a more inclusive car than the E90 but for many hardcore BMW fans, the F30 was a bit too soft.

The F30’s electric power steering was criticised for not being as communicative as the E90’s and fans didn’t appreciate the improved comfort – which mind you was better than the Mercedes-Benz W205 C-Class – that came at the expense of the E90’s excellent dynamics.  

The G20 appears to be a reaction to all that. BMW did a lot of work to improve the electric power steering and chassis controls, especially the curiously named lift-related dampers (basically a damper that also works in the reverse direction). More on that later.

Exterior

At a glance, the all-new G20 3 Series looks very similar to the outgoing F30, and this is intentional. The F30 had one of the best proportions for any type of car and it aged very well. Even at the end of its lifecycle, it still looks current enough and BMW could have easily continued selling it for a few more years.

Compared to the outgoing F30, the G20 is now longer (+76 mm), wider (+16 mm) with a comparable height (+1 mm). Wheelbase is now 41 mm longer. It’s larger than the C-Class but smaller than the Audi A4.

BMW geeks will centre their focus on the Hofmeister kink, which is now just plastic trim on the C-pillar. The change is necessary because the door aperture is now longer and maintaining the kink on the door would make it too sharp to be safe, hence the re-design.

Like the C-Class, the front grille now closes during low engine load operation for improved aerodynamic efficiency.

Interior

Recent BMWs have fallen behind Mercedes-Benzes, and even Volvos and Mazdas when it comes to interior design. It was the biggest weakness in the outgoing F30. 

We are happy to note that the G20’s cabin materials are now more fitting with its premium identity, but it’s far from class leading. The dashboard has reverted back to a driver-focused layout, with controls angled towards the driver. Oh, and it no longer has a mechanical handrake but an electrically operated one.

The signature iDrive controls have been moved forward, positioned next to the gear lever. We are still unsure if that’s a good thing. On the upside, the relocation has freed up more space on the centre console box, making it far more practical than the F30.

However the trade-off is that reaching for the iDrive’s rotary dial now requires more stretching. In the F30, you could rest your wrist on the centre console box while operating the dial. The way the dial and buttons are clumped together with the gear knob is also not very BMW-like. It lacks the F30 iDrive’s driver-focused layout.

The 10.25-inch iDrive infotainment screen is now a touch screen and runs on BMW Operating System 7.0. Thankfully, it’s still the easiest to use system in its class. It also now comes with the ‘Hey BMW’ contextual, natural language voice command, as well as gesture controls pioneered by the 7 Series. To use the gesture controls, the trick is to move your fingers in the area above the centre console box/arm rest. First-time users will have a tendency to point their fingers near screen but that's actually beyond the camera's scanning zone. 

Like Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX, how well the voice recognition works is highly dependent on availability of in-car Internet connectivity, which for Malaysia, can only be confirmed once the car is launched here.

The 12.3-inch fully digital BMW Live Cockpit Professional instrument panel is another controversial point. The opposite facing speedometer and tachometer dials are difficult to read and the only way to manage the information overload is to rely on the Heads-Up Display, which is crucial in the G20.

Unlike a Mercedes-Benz, you can’t select different forms of presentation. Selecting different drive modes merely changes the colour and information displayed.

Like the 8 Series, you can lock and unlock the car with the BMW Digital Key app on your phone (only on Android though, sorry iOS users). Oddly, the infotainment supports Apple CarPlay but not Android Auto.

With a longer wheelbase and a wider body, there is now more leg and shoulder room at the front and rear of the cabin.

Driving Experience

Now we get to our favourite part about the G20. It is without a doubt the most fun to drive sedan in its class. It is comforting to know that beneath all the digitization taking place in the cabin, the G20 still has a very analogue character. The 3 Series’ lineage is constantly being reinterpreted but at the core of the G20 remains a dynamic BMW character that’s immune to short-lived fads.

The 330i has just four cylinders but clever exhaust piping now sees the (updated) B48 engine sounding like glorious BMW six-cylinders from the ‘90s. At full thrust, the twin exhausts (now standard on all variants) fart and pop, but in a more subtle, less boy-racer manner. Excellent.

With 258 hp and 400 Nm (+6 hp and +50 Nm from F30 330i), the 330i has just the right amount of performance for one to explore the depth of its highly talented chassis.

The electric power steering now feels more natural, more organic. It handles and transfers feedback just like the E90’s hydraulic rack that Bimmer fans still rave about.

Carving our way through the twisty Portuguese countryside roads around Algarve - our test location - the G20 exhibited an unexceptional level of agility unmatched by its rivals.

Usually, agile steering tends to result in fidgety behaviour on highways but not with the G20. Thanks to an improved variable ratio steering, the G20 felt very calm and relaxed on long stretches of straight roads.

Debuting in the all-new G20 are the lift-related (passive) dampers - basically two dampers of varying stiffness integrated into one, tuned in such a way that the front and rear dampers can act in opposite directions. For example, when driving over a bump, the front axle lifts while the rear axle squats. The goal of lift-related dampers is to better control these opposite direction motions to maintain the car’s neutral position.

The rear-wheel drive chassis is always eager to dance, delivering a level of driver engagement not found in any of its peers.

The rear-wheel drive chassis is always eager to dance, delivering a level of driver engagement not found in any of its peers.

Ride Comfort

Compared to the F30, the G20’s ride is less cosseting, a direct consequence of its more driver-focused, sports-oriented chassis tuning. This is not to say that the car is uncomfortable, because it is quieter – thanks to use of acoustic front windscreen as standard (optional for front windows) – and it’s also more spacious than before. It’s just that the ride can get quite busy.

As a passenger, you get the sensation that a lot is happening underneath the car but to the driver, that’s a good thing because the car is always on its toes, always keen to dance a few beats faster. So yes, ride comfort has been traded away in small measures in return for more agile handling on the whole.

However we should also add that our test cars rode on 19-inch wheels, which is larger than our local specifications cars' 18-inch wheels. The thicker sidewall tyres should offer a more pliant ride.

Conclusion

The 3 Series’ direction has always swung between pleasing its core group of driving enthusiast fans or broadening its appeal. The E46 was slightly more American in character and the E90 was developed in heavy opposition to that, while the F30 increased focus on comfort came about because many said the E90 rode too harshly. This G20 is now bringing the pendulum back in favour of driving enthusiasts.

Whichever way it leans towards, the 3 Series has been, and still is, the segment’s benchmark and the favourite among keen drivers. It vehemently defends that reputation, even if the new iDrive layout and Live Cockpit digital instrument panel is a bit off the mark.

Still, nothing else in its class stirs a keen driver’s emotions as well as the G20 3 Series.  

The all-new G20 3 Series will be launched in Malaysia later this week.

Gallery: Review: G20 BMW 3 Series (Portugal)



Hans

Hans

As someone who appreciates cars not just for their horsepower value but also for their cultural significance, he is interested in the art of manufacturing and selling cars just as much as driving them. Prior to swapping spread sheets for a word processor, he spent his previous life in product planning and market research.


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