Here's a new version of the world's quintessential sport sedan and perpetual All-Star, the BMW 3-series -- the designated target for car manufacturers everywhere. There'll be sleek convertibles, sporty wagons and coupes, and clumsy-looking SUV variants of this design from BMW in the coming months, but the whole of this iteration's character is embodied in the first-out four-door, the volume seller. At first glance, the 3-series sedan seems softer, more consensual, and less idiosyncratic than the last couple of Bangle-body 3s, but there is a lot more to this car than jumps to the untrained eye. I can confidently predict two things: that it will be another best-seller, and that it will evolve considerably during its production period. The first because it looks very good, the second because it has been cleverly designed to be easily and inexpensively changed visually.
Both ends of the car, from the lamps downward and well into the wheel openings, have molded plastic skin that can be made to totally alter the appearance without the least change to the underlying structure, meaning that an extensive face-lift can be undertaken without the necessity of a completely new crash-safety test program. Variations among models, a useful gambit when there is as great a range of available powertrains as BMW employs, means that an economical four-cylinder-diesel model can have a different face from one housing the biggest gasoline six-cylinder. And although BMW likely won't do it, the company could probably afford to give the 3-series a different look every year without changing the upper section, glass, doors, or indeed any chassis elements.
As a matter of personal taste, I don't much like the headlamps touching the grille nor that patch of chrome on the sides of the grille, exposed as though some of the sheetmetal had melted away, but I do find the total composition more attractive than the last couple of generations. And I really like the fact that there is almost no decor on the body sides, around the windows, or all over the front and rear ends, just those small horizontal chrome bars low on either end. All the interiors I have seen, whether at the Detroit show or in photos, are pleasing. Were I to buy a 3-series for myself, I would surely not choose wood interior trim. I love wood as a structural material and think it definitely had its place as trim in cars during the first half of the last century -- but no more.
The nice thing about this midrange BMW is that it can easily be configured to suit the desires and requirements of almost anyone. It's big enough to be comfortable, small enough to be agile and easy to manage in urban situations, and has an available range of installed power that is really wide. Looks like another winner to me.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1. The puffy hood profile is all due to European pedestrian safety standards, still in flux but required to be met. There must be a lot of air between the inner skin and the hard bits, and this round centerline profile gives that, plus good aerodynamics.
2. Unusual for BMW is the extension of the light module all the way to the grille, so that the only painted surface is the separator bar between the twin upper inlets.
3. To transition from the full shape in the center, a whole series of sharp creases and linear surface changes gives character and direction to the overall volume.
4. The famous "kink" of Wilhelm Hofmeister is somewhat toned down in this model.
5. The separation line between expensive-to-tool steel stampings and less-costly-to-tool plastic parts is carried quite high, and in the rear quite far forward, making everything below the cuts easily modifiable.
6. The transition from front face to side panels is expressed by a sharp surface change that does not disturb airflow unduly.
7. The small round lamp is doubly recessed, first in its bezel, then in the trapezoidal corner openings below the bumper strike face.
8. The panel beneath the headlamps carries a sharp horizontal crease softening toward the "kidneys," then reemerging below the license plate as a less severe crease.
9. The lower air intake spreads all the way across the front, modulated by lamps, chrome bars, and variable highlights as the ribbed lower edge rises to meet the descending nose in the center.
10. Slight bends in the upper quarter of their length allow the vertical grille bars to provide a strong horizontal highlight, even in the models with black, rather than chrome, finish.
11. The outer elements of the transverse rib are angled downward, very much like the aerodynamic appendages on Can-Am cars of the late 1960s, for a sporty effect.
REAR 3/4 VIEW
12. More carefully studied subtlety in this dissociated pair of longitudinal creases. The one derived from the A-pillar dies in the deck, while another emerges to carry across the back via the spoilerlike lip.
13. There's a noticeable hollow just ahead of the crease defining the limit of the upper bodywork.
14. Yet another sharp crease, this one delimiting the upper edge of the bumper and sweeping up toward the taillights.
15. An unusual but very nice use of chrome, really low on the rear of the car, below the bumper proper. This negative surface below the lamps seems to be a cliche of the moment, seen on a wide variety of vehicles, from small and cheap to well up in price and prestige, like the Mercedes-Benz SL. It's boring everywhere.
16. The body side bulges outward to meet the wheelhouse, leaving a light-catching triangular surface that adds interest to the clearly not "flame surfaced" side panels.
17. Lining up the door handles along an extroverted rib is another current design cliche of multiple makers. At least the handles are highly apparent.
18. A solid indication of a driver's car, the dead-pedal footrest is big and well-placed.
19. The asymmetry of the tunnel is both interesting and highly logical, putting the iDrive controller closer to the front passenger, who has time to fiddle with it.
20. The overhead control panel flatters a driver's ego, letting him or her enjoy Walter Mitty-style airline-pilot fantasies.
21. This heavily textured, driftwoodlike panel is certainly interesting visually, but it's also hard to keep clean.
22. And one wonders how this would feel in the hand. At least the back side is finished smoothly.