Prototype Drive: 2019 BMW 3 Series Sedan
Catch it if you can: The latest version of BMW’s signature sedan is almost ready for its debut
NÜRBURG, Germany — Our heroes are exhausted, hot exhausts crackling like tiny fireworks, dust-coated brakes emitting the aroma of hard use. Four pre-production examples of the next-generation 2019 BMW 3 Series, codenamed G20, are lined up in the M division's Nürburgring workshop, ready for fuel, clean windshields, and adjustments to their tire pressures. Here and there beneath the track-marred camouflage vinyl, the body color shines through—its soft disguise no longer leaving much to the imagination.
Peter Langen, a BMW veteran in charge of suspension development, gives car No. 3 a friendly pat on the roof after its latest flogging. "The new 3 Series celebrates the evolution of driving pleasure," Langen says. "After all, the new model is lighter and yet more rigid, more powerful as well as more efficient, puristic, and innovative. It is a notably more advanced piece of kit, but is still a BMW through and through."
A half hour later I'm on my own in a BMW 330i prototype on the approach to the Nürburgring, free to play with every switch within reach of my fingertips. But I can't lose sight of the rabbit in front of me—Jos van As, BMW's chief engineer of driving dynamics, part-time racer, and one of the quickest men in the pool of BMW pros. Van As knows the 'Ring from experience. I know it primarily from the video games nicked from my sons. My heart's beating out of my chest as we bypass the entrance to the grand prix circuit and dive in tandem toward Hatzenbach, attempting to build up grip and self-confidence early.
"Everything okay?" Van As asks over the radio. "Everything okay," comes my response. What feels to me like the final qualifying lap for the next 24-hour race is probably is no more than an easy eight tenths to someone like van As. All I know is we're going very fast, and the 2019 3 Series is fantastically stable even through spots where the Fast and Furious joystick jockeys would regularly end up in the ditch. The new 3 sedan sticks to the tarmac like the proof of origin labels on fresh fruit and puts the power down in a progressive, fuss-free manner. It refrains from exaggerated body motions, dives through dips with magnetic stoicism, and flies over crests like a fighter jet practicing touch-and-gos.
Its buttoned-down behavior is somewhat surprising given the new 3 Series lacks such high-tech ingredients as air suspension, active anti-roll bars, and rear-wheel steering. In fact, the base version comes with a passive suspension that trades sportiness for relaxation. The optional sport suspension is quite a bit tauter and commensurately more agitated over the rough stuff. If our play-day on the Nürburgring was anything to go by, your best bet is probably the Adaptive Drive dynamic suspension, which spreads its talents over a wider range than the current system. The familiar driving dynamics control switch invites you to choose between Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, Individual, and Eco Pro.
On the long, full-throttle uphill section between Bergwerk and Klostertal, a little more grunt wouldn't hurt. Despite an increase of power and torque to roughly 260 hp and 295 lb-ft for the 330i's 2.0-liter turbo four—making it the most powerful BMW four cylinder ever—it still lacks the some of the force of BMW's 3.0-liter six. On the plus side, the engine revs happily, tip-in is super-brisk and tip-out is nicely laid back. BMW says fuel economy for the 2019 3 Series will be marginally improved thanks in part an overall weight reduction of as much as 121 lb and in spite of the addition of an artery-blocking exhaust particulate filter. Acceleration to 60 should happen one or two tenths quicker than the outgoing 330i, though top speed is again restricted to 155 mph.
At Hohe Acht, a lap of the 'Ring enters its most challenging phase. From here on, every move must be spot-on: braking point, turn-in, line, gear, throttle. Some corners invite you to clip the apex, others for a wider radius. With the exception of occasional gravel traps, the runoff areas are strips of grass lined with triple-stacked Armco barriers. During lap two, the tires begin to feel the heat. They still hang on, but the grip is a little soapier now, more lock is required for the same effect, understeer becomes more prominent, and pushing the extra-wide rears past the DSC's happy zone takes less and less effort. Still not enough drama? Summon the DSC sport handling mode and brace yourself for a family-sized helping of lift-off or power-on oversteer.
Unlike the 5 Series, the 3 Series still uses the trademark strut-type front suspension. A disadvantage? Not in this case. "Mechanically, this is a totally honest piece of kit," says Langen. One particularly interesting feature is BMW's new progressive damping system, which is making its debut on the 3 Series. BMW says it helps the car strike a more precise balance between sport feel and ride comfort in large part by deploying lift controlled as opposed to electronically controlled dampers. "Drive the car on public roads, and you will quickly get the gist of it," says Langen. No sooner said than done. This time, van As straps himself into the passenger seat, puts on his sunglasses and gives me the thumbs up. The roads are narrow and winding, with poor sightlines and pocked surfaces. "A car that does well here does well everywhere," says van As, grinning broadly.
As for how it looks under the camo, though the G20 3 Series is an evolutionary design, it's a prettier car all round. The top edge of the kidney grille slants back onto the hood, the wider and slimmer headlights trade the trademark corona ring signature for LED hockey sticks, the more sculpted front bumper comes with three enlarged air intakes, and the sickle-shaped taillights are neatly integrated in the more muscular rear end. Since the 2019 3 Series will be available with just about every conceivable assistance system imaginable, there are plenty of dots, warts, and blobs giving away cameras and sensors.
The interior, on the other hand, has been redesigned from scratch. It's hard to fall in love with the barely legible, over-styled instrumentation, but the three displays work quite well together. The center stack is more clearly structured, and the controls grouped around the shifter are easy to decipher. Those of you who love to zoom, scroll, and swipe, and who consider voice control the most failsafe man-machine interface will feel instantly at home in the new 3 Series—even if gesture control and semi-autonomous driving features are so far conspicuous by their absence.
After a brief coffee stop, we're back on the road, having just switched from a six-speed manual equipped rear-drive model to a 330i xDrive with the eight-speed automatic. Thanks to its AWD setup the car runs on rails through the twisties, and the self-shifter feels quicker and more eager. Counterintuitively, working the paddles instead of the manual gear lever makes this variant a more involving drive. But after having tried three different gearbox and suspension configurations on two dramatically different terrains, we found it difficult to tell Sport apart from Sport Plus, to take into account the different tire formats, to properly assess Comfort versus Sport.
Van As exhibits a coolness that encourages me to inch the car closer and closer to the limit. Even when a change of tarmac triggers snap oversteer, when turn-in and front end grip are two or three tenths of a second apart, the Dutchman pairs pastoral calm with casual comments like, "Never lift. That's it. Good man." The man is fearless. Confidence grows from one corner to the next, trust follows suit, and together we explore new levels of lateral g-force and deceleration. Once more, it's the steering that makes all the difference—especially in Sport, when the tactile blend of effort, weight, response, self-centering, and damping puts the road right into your hands. The suspension, too, works best in Sport because the extra firmness barely affects compliance, allowing the new 3 Series to remain quite supple and balanced. Having said that, the G20 is another BMW that doesn't deal especially well with transverse ridges, sharp potholes, and deep longitudinal ruts. In terms of overall chassis-related systems integration, however, this could very well be the new king of B- and C-roads.
The final model I slip into is a 330i with the M Sport pack, an automatic transmission, and rear-wheel drive. Light-footed and feisty, this version is about 60 percent sedan and 40 percent sports car. Upon turn-in, the slightly stiffer steering meets a pleasantly subtle stabilizing counteraction, the initially wooden ride improves with speed, the dynamic weight distribution maintains a fine balance, and the chosen line rarely calls for corrections. The upgraded brakes included as part of the M Sport pack use four-piston front calipers, larger-diameter discs, and a fast-responding integrated booster with a more clearly defined trigger point. While pedal feel and response are nicely intuitive, the actual stopping power didn't leave a lasting impression.
The deeper the route winds into the afternoon, the more mental notes gather in the back of my mind. Is the gap between Sport and Sport Plus big enough? Would Sport Plus not deserve harder and shorter upshifts? Why is there no switch to deactivate the irritatingly loud exhaust? Could the interaction between the diff lock and DSC be smoother and better-connected? Why is coasting only possible in Eco Pro and Comfort?
True, most of these issues are software-related and could be fixed before the car goes on sale early next year. And they're trivialities compared to the big picture, which shows a new 3 Series that can be an easy-going cruiser or a beastly tarmac peeler that still seats five in no less comfort than its predecessor. Given what we've experienced thus far during a very challenging and enlightening day on and around the 'Ring, we can't wait to get behind the wheel of what's yet to come in the form of the M340i or, better still, the next M3.