Cars

2019 BMW 3 Series first drive

At one time, the BMW 3 Series was the benchmark of the compact luxury/sport sedan segment. It was the car every premium automaker tried to replicate — the champion of magazine comparison tests, a poster child of dynamic balance and poise with unassailable cachet.

BMW sort of lost its way in recent years, its longtime Ultimate Driving Machine mantra moving to the back burner. The most obvious example of this was the German automaker’s most recent F30-generation 3 Series, a car plagued with uncharacteristically vague steering and underwhelming chassis tuning. Against a growing crop of great-to-drive sport sedans from longtime rivals Audi, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, not to mention newcomers like Alfa Romeo and Genesis, the 3 Series’ shortcomings became harder and harder to overlook.

Amid that backdrop, I’m very happy to report that the 2019 3 Series is once again on top of its game. A brief test of a 330i prototype earlier this year gave me high hopes, and a recent drive of the final-spec 3er in Portugal truly sealed the deal. It’s not without fault, this new G20-generation 3 Series. But the former hero of the luxury/sport world is back and entirely worthy of your attention.

Stronger bones

The new 3 Series is a complete redesign from the ground up. Everything is new, all components designed to achieve a perfect, 50:50 weight distribution in a car that’s stiffer and lighter than before. The new 3 Series sheds some 120 pounds versus its predecessor, yet it boasts a 25-percent improvement in torsional rigidity. That’s despite a body that’s 2.9 inches longer, half-an-inch wider and half-an-inch taller than before.

US customers will initially get the 2019 3 Series in 330i guise, with rear- or all-wheel drive, starting at $40,250, excluding $995 for destination. The more powerful, $54,000 M340i will follow next summer as a 2020 model, and BMW promises a 330e plug-in hybrid will launch several months after that.

After testing both 330i and M340i models over the course of two days in Portugal, I can say it’s the less powerful, less costly of the two sedans that impresses me most. The 330i uses a massaged version of BMW’s existing 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine, with 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque (increases of 7 and 37, respectively, over the outgoing 330i) mated exclusively to an eight-speed automatic transmission — sorry, stick-shift fans. But it’s not the engine that makes the 330i great. Sure, there’s no turbo lag to speak of, and the transmission will eagerly kick down a gear or two when provoked. It’s how the 330i handles, whether cruising on the highway or blasting along mountain passes, that matters most.

I spent a lot of time detailing (and applauding) BMW’s new hydraulic lift dampers when I tested them in the 330i prototype earlier this year, and thankfully, the final-spec setup is no different. This new suspension tech adjusts damper firmness progressively, with the goal of reducing body movements over impacts. Not only does this provide excellent comfort for everyday driving, it’s taut enough to keep the 330i flat and confident when driving with gusto. There’s no floaty or disconnected feeling at high speed, and because the hydraulic setup absorbs impact energy, the car responds to quick jolts — like, say, from a pothole — with more natural-feeling rebound. This setup works to keep the 330i as balanced as possible all the time, even on upsized 19-inch wheels and sticky, low-profile Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires.

 

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