FARO, Portugal — Look for the squiggliest line on the navigation screen, and then go there. It’s a great system for finding a road worthy of testing a new sports car—a road where you can prod and poke a vehicle into revealing its strengths and weaknesses. The car on this day is the seventh generation of BMW’s most important sedan, the 3 Series.
Considering this car’s historical pertinence, the road itself is doubly important. The nav-system squiggle reveals itself in real life as a single lane of asphalt gouged into a mountainside. It is open to two-way traffic but offers few pullouts and zero guardrails; a poorly placed tire will drop you into the abyss.
The four-cylinder 330i sails up the switchbacks and quickly demonstrates that worries about misplaced wheels are unnecessary. The chassis is surpassingly easy to aim, even in tight spaces. There’s lightness to it, something the previous generation lacked. Not that the footprint is smaller, as the car has grown slightly in all proportions except weight. But it’s easy to find a satisfying rhythm through undulating turns.
More than a few pundits and purists have found the traditional joys of the 3 Series less present in recent years. The sports-sedan recipe BMW perfected and which every other automaker benchmarked—call it the E30 spirit—became muddled with conflicting demands: more tech, more comfort, and more performance. Call it mission creep. Or BMW bloat.
After two days driving around southern Portugal in the 330i and a brief racetrack foray in the M340i xDrive, we can say the 2019 BMW 3 Series has rounded a different type of corner. This is a sedan freed—mostly, anyhow. And this is fortunate timing: As demand for non-CUVs plummets, even longstanding sedans have to earn their keep, lest they go the way of Cadillac’s CTS/ATS and almost all of Ford’s four-door cars. The SUVs from BMW and every other maker are lurking, waiting for a slip-up so they can gobble more market share.
The 330i will be first out of the gate, coming to the U.S. as a 2019 model in March. Though it has more standard features, pricing remains the same: $40,250 for rear-wheel drive, and $42,250 for the xDrive. The $56,000 M340i xDrive will follow in the spring.
For this new generation 3 Series, dubbed G20 in BMW-speak, its maker reworked the 330i’s four-cylinder, gaining 7 horsepower for a new total of 258 and bumping torque by 37 lb-ft to 295. The M340i’s twin-scroll single-turbocharger straight-six got a similar tweaking, with 62 more hp and 39 more lb-ft of torque raising output to 374 hp and 369 lb-ft.
While BMW also redesigned the exterior and interior, and piled onto the list of digital and semi-autonomous features (we’ll come to that in a moment), company engineers say the most central tenets of the new 3 are the retuned suspension, and the calibrations between hardware and software systems. “Getting everything to work together more beautifully,” as one described.
Plying the 330i on Portugal’s open expressways and along backroads, those elements indeed come through brightly. The engine is plucky enough to make short, hard passes, but this is an automobile that likes momentum. It is tangibly lighter than the outgoing model, losing 121 pounds in some configurations; official curb weight is 3,583 pounds. Driving hard into corners, brushing the brakes, and then adding in light throttle around the apex is a treat and settles the car down nicely for the next turn.
The suspension, which includes hydraulic dampers on base models and stiffer bushings, results in greater fluidity but less of the bounce, chop, and harshness found with some of the outgoing 3 Series’s setups. Negotiating a roundabout is a telling exercise. In cases where you’re exiting straight across the other side, you can enter quickly, throw the car right to cut the half circle, and then flick the wheel sharply to the left to send it straight again. The BMW deftly handles these swift directional changes with no slough or front-end push. Zing! (The cars we drove rode on either Michelin Pilot Sport or Pilot Sport 4S rubber and thus had plenty of grip; the former are more comfortable.)
The revised turbo four never feels overly wound even when flogging it in low gears, and there’s little of the previous engine’s harsh vibrations. Torque is modest, but it’s a happy four-banger; even the sound from inside the cockpit is punchy, settling into a mid-range bass in Sport Plus mode.
And while there’s no way to bring to the present BMW’s magical steering feel from the days of hydraulic systems, this generation’s electrically assisted steering is neither overweighed nor rubbery. There’s a measure of feedback, and it allows you to position the car exactly where you want it. The narrow A-pillars help in this regard, too, while the greenhouse feels airy and the seating position is a pleasure.
All that makes a thin strip of mountain road far more fun than in any other present-day BMW other than the M2. Tires sing on the asphalt as my passenger looks out the side window down to the tops of trees far below. A manual gearbox might have made it better, but forget it: There are “no manual transmission plans at this time,” says a BMW rep. Happily we never meet an oncoming vehicle, which would have resulted in an uncomfortable and pucker-inducing reversing maneuver.
The path eventually tees into a wider, two-lane road. At the top of the mountain we come to a hard stop. A collection of milk cows and goats amble down the road, driven by a sour-faced herder. The goats split around the sedan, twisted horns just underneath our window sills. If they are impressed by the new exterior design, they give no indication.
They might not be the only ones who are a bit underwhelmed. The 3 Series’s head-on perspective is best, with a taut, creased hood that’s fronted by a double-kidney grille that actually folds back up along the roof. It’s three dimensional, but takes up less real estate than the average modern grille, lending it a focused appeal. The double headlights, available in standard LEDs or adaptive LEDs with a laser feature, are long and narrow and get a cool little kink in their bottom edge.
The 330i looks pleasant enough car in profile, but its shape is perhaps best described as benign. Inside, the interior is pleasantly reworked in philosophy and materials. Remember that BMW “luxury” plastic coating the dash in previous models? The stuff where all hope and delight went to die? Well, it’s still plastic, but in a far more pleasant and handsome treatment. And BMW generally reduced the level of superfluous design, resulting in cabin aesthetics that are far less busy and which flow more harmoniously.
Still, if you hoped for actual simplicity, and imagined German engineers could display forbearance and dump unnecessary tech, well, despair now. Many of the most annoying elements in BMW’s upmarket models are all still found here. The nonsensical shifter is one example; it makes you look down to figure out what gear you’re in. At one point, I watched my co-driver push the lever all the way up into reverse and prepare to exit the car.
Our test models also came with the gesture controls introduced on the 7 Series. This parlor trick allows you to turn on music or adjust volume by using Bollywood-dance-like hand motions in the space near the dash. The problem is that, if you’re a hand talker, unwanted music can suddenly—and very loudly—fill the cabin. When this was mentioned to an engineer, he shrugged and said in a very German Engineer Way, “You need to learn to control your body motions.” Conversely, our stance remains that a luxury vehicle should conform to its passengers’ desires, not vice versa.
BMW also proudly touts the new Intelligent Personal Assistant, its name for the advanced voice controls. You can adjust temperature and set locations on the navigation system. But the system will also answer questions for you. For instance, as per BMW press materials, one question you might ask is, “How does the High Beam Assistant work?” (We suspect nobody will ask that question, phrased that way, ever.) You start things off with, “Hey, BMW” or similar, and then hope for an Amazon Alexa–level of humanlike back-and-forth. What you will get instead is a stilted, robotic voice summoned from the cloud that will very occasionally respond in the way that you hoped. BMW promised it will be improved eventually via a remote software upgrade, but in the meantime you might find yourself most often suggesting, “Hey, BMW, can you contact me when your personal assistant isn’t super annoying?”
There is a spate of semi-autonomous features, including a nifty trick that will automatically reverse the car from a parking space the exact same way you drove in, and which also includes the ability to drive hands-off for long periods of time in highway situations. However, it didn’t work in Europe, so we weren’t able to test it.
There was yet another bright spot on the horizon: laps at the Portimão racetrack in the M340i xDrive. The prototype cars were not road legal, and they were still in camouflage livery. Still, it gives us an idea of the driving dynamics when pushed with vigor. The M340i gets an M Sport suspension and electronically controlled M Sport rear differential. Our test cars had 19-inch Michelins. Following behind ex-Formula 1 and current BMW Motorsport driver Timo Glock with the car set to Sport Plus with traction controls loosened, the 340 shows great willingness to pivot, allowing just enough lateral play. The front-end grip is tenacious and still offers lots of feel despite also receiving power from the all-wheel-drive system, a neat accomplishment.
Coming into one of the track’s slowest turns, which leads to an uphill, we slow way down and turn in early, and then give a wallop of gas just past the apex. The rear swings around neatly, pointing the nose in the direction we want, and the front wheels pull us out of the slide. It never feels less than controlled, but it is thrilling.
One of our favorite bits of the track is a long, sweeping downhill that leads toward the front straight. It is off camber and unsettles cars with an uncomfortable combination of overworked front tires, higher speeds, and shifting weight. “This corner was built to drift!” Glock shouts over the radio, and then he does exactly that in his M2 Competition pace car, leaving a plume of smoke in his wake.
The M340i’s front end shows its willing to hang onto the correct driving line, but the nature of the car telegraphs something else. I’m no Timo Glock, but the BMW is willing to play. And so we whirl the wheel just a bit, add in a bit of gas, and hang on. Because the 3 Series really is a sedan that’s free once again.
2019 BMW 330i Specifications
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4; 258 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 1,550 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine RWD sedan|
|L x W x H||185.3 x 71.9 x 56.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.6 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|