It’s only an opinion, not absolute fact. But my opinion is that the latest incarnation of BMW’s 3 Series looks a lot better than the previous one. And the one before that. A lot of unnecessary complication in details and surfaces existed in models of the recent past, and a bit of that is still here; this design carries over quite a bit to provide marque-identity continuity. You know it’s a BMW, but given its greater size, you might think it’s a new 5 Series. BMW designers are well aware of this and are dealing with the problem.
For many years the Automobile staff, including me, very much favored the 3 Series, especially the M3. But enthusiasm began to wane a bit as both dimensions and prices got a lot bigger and options more diverse. BMW used to pretty much optimize all of its cars for the West German home market—for autobahns and winding country roads—and only one technical specification existed. An early 3 Series bought in California wouldn’t behave much differently from that same model delivered in Hamburg.
Legally required items like side parking lights or license plate mounting brackets might differ, but essentially a BMW was a BMW, and it behaved as expected, everywhere. EPA and CARB rules might have resulted in a bit less power in the U.S., but steering and braking feel were the same. Then customer attitudes changed some. In severely speed-limited markets—Japan and America, specifically—BMWs got softer subframe bushings for comfort, and the Ultimate Driving Machine magic began to fade. Will the 2019 BMW 3 Series be back to Ultimate standards? We’ll know once we’ve had a chance to drive the 2019 model, but until then we can concentrate on matters of appearance.
One thing BMW has had going for it was the ability to keep front overhangs really short, improving overall proportions. There is more mass ahead of the front wheels in this one, and the hood is puffier to deal with pedestrian safety requirements. But by angling the outer corners of the body back in plan view, there is less sense of that mass. Even in pure side view, taking a scallop out of the painted skin fools the eye a bit and leads to a sense that the car is not bigger. There’s still a kind of lower protuberance, rather like the cowcatchers on 19th century steam locomotives, but it manages not to shock, thanks to the big concave sections on the lower corners of the front end.
The cabin has been simplified, but the impression remains that it has all been shaped with the driver in mind. Sit in this car, and we doubt you’ll think only of taking the kids to after-school activities or commuting to work. Both are more than possible, but going fast is still the leitmotif for BMW. We only see that as a good thing.
1. There is a great deal of depth in the grille, with a break in the vertical bars defining a horizontal line aimed at the end radius.
2. The innermost hood-top break line aligns with the upper bend in the grille frame and carries through to the bright trim.
3. The second surface break, however, fades out entirely, leaving the headlamp “eyebrow” straight until it intersects the hood cut line.
4. The “eyebrow” trim piece really does overhang the “eyes” on this car. It’s unusual, interesting, and not at all unpleasant.
5. As in the extremely clever Alfa Romeo Giulia of the early 1960s, a concave section on the upper body sides reduces frontal area and justifies a strong shape line that adds thrust and visual length.
6. The “Hofmeister kink” here is either very short at the bottom or is broken into two separate elements resulting in a chrome point toward the rear.
7. This outward flow of the body side below an undercut from taillight to door handle gives a strong sense of a separate rear fender …
8. … and this little outward, dropping flare contributes to the look
9. This upsweeping line shocks me, not least because it was used years ago by Mercedes and is today in production for the Seat Ibiza. It will keep snow off the sills, at least.
10. A strong “muscle” line in the body side about halfway down the door skins implies strength.
11. The wheels are visually weak with no anchoring base for the radiating spokes, which seem to be mounted inversely to the loads they carry.
12. Daytime running lights are shallow “U” shapes, emphasizing the four-headlamp design.
13. This knife-edge outer fender profile is quite artfully done, rising out of the bumper-skin molding below the cut line then turning with a tight radius into a sweeping horizontal line across the whole front.
14. In this view, you get a clear sense of how radical this surface treatment is, unlike any other design that comes to mind.
1. The black detail on the lower corners becomes an element that extends the visual length of the car despite the actual fender being much shorter than the overall length dimension of the body.
2. One might think of this little indent as an homage to Chris Bangle, who used such lines on his Fiat Coupe and the BMW Z3.
1. A hard horizontal line across the trunklid is both curious and hard to understand.
2. The rear spoiler is a sturdy construct that overlies the license plate mounting area.
3. Designers have to have a lot of confidence in their manufacturing counterparts to put a gas-cap door across so many surface changes.
4. This represents a big change in the characteristic BMW rear side window profile.
5. This crisp, hard line points toward the upper corner of the headlight and fades before it reaches the hard transverse line that becomes the top spoiler line.
6. The hard line of the lower body feature line begins as a barely noticeable indent to the fender side surface …
7. … and becomes a huge excrescence along the body before fading in the rear door skin.
8. Starting as, and at, the bottom of the front fender at the wheel opening, this line fades before the rear wheel opening and picks up again behind it, while the surface below the line grows toward the rear wheel.
9. A hard, almost 90-degree surface change from body side to rear fascia defines the end of the rear fender, as on the Honda CR-V, but more subtly.
10. This “ice scraper” detail is set in a less pronounced negative surface than on the front end.
11. Handling of the exhaust outlet is very elegant, suggesting that engineers and stylists actually cooperated on the placement of the pipes.
12. This hard horizontal line leads the eye around the exhaust pipes and into the body side, visually increasing rear width.
1. The instrument panel is simpler and cleaner with fewer knobs and switches, but the driver’s door panel is stuffed. Time to improve your memory, folks.
2. More buttons on the steering wheel, where you can actually see them if you need to remember what each one does.
3. Instruments are digital, so it’s easy to afford odd, not-round shapes. Is that a good idea?
4. The shroud over the gauges ends abruptly and becomes sharp-edged. Looks good and should work well.
5. This data screen seems ridiculously small in the overall context of giant phones and other cars’ huge screens.
6. The symmetrically opposed vents at both ends of the instrument panel are very classically proportioned pentagons, suggesting underlying precision.
7. This crisp surface-change line flows into the upper corner of the small trapezoidal grille. Nice.
8. This textured panel is elegantly shaped, with a hard line fading away about halfway across its length, making it a handsome piece.
9. Center console panel is refreshingly simple.
10. Colored stitching for the upholstery is attractive and quite refined, and it’s essentially cost-free—always a desirable goal for designers.
1. In this view, the new 3 Series looks really wide. But then it is really wide.
2. Part of the impression of width comes from the classical four-headlamp layout in which the lamps are much wider than they are tall. The front-end graphics are excellent and cohesive.
3. The new one-piece grille is simpler and quicker to install than two separate units, and its proportions are superb, making it seem even wider than it is.
4. Four sharp surface-break lines on the hood and fender top, one as a vertical leading edge, increase visual length and have zero negative aerodynamic effect.
5. The “ice scraper” detail is interesting and could well become one of the 3’s identity marks if it does not show up on any of the other basic model lines.
6. Concavity of the lower front corners is bold, and its rearward bevel in plan view adds dynamism to the whole front end.