AUTOMOTIVE success stories don't come much bigger than BMW's 3 Series.
As the Porsche 911 defines the sports car genre and Toyota's LandCruiser the 4WDs, the small executive sedan can be seen at its best with BMW's enduring Three.
Forty years since its introduction, and with 14 million 3 Series sold since 1975 (10 million being sedans), the latest four-door and wagon incarnations arrive with hopes of continued high achievement. It's a midlife refresh - "lifecycle impulse" in BMW speak - with minimal style changes, but introduces new engines, model names, specification and pricing.
Most intriguing is a new 1.5-litre three-cylinder 3 Series badged the 318i (don't get me started on BMW's current sea of confusion with its naming conventions), but we won't receive it until next month. For now we've got the 320i with a 135kW 2.0-litre and 320d with 140kW 2.0-litre diesel (badging makes sense); 330i with 185kW 2.0-litre (makes less sense); and 340i with 240kW 3.0-litre (getting silly).
The outgoing 328i was the model's volume seller with its blend of performance and value for not much more cost over lesser models, so BMW rightly expects the new 330i to continue the trend.
Testing the 320d, 330i and 340i over lengthy road tests, each is as you'd expect from a 3 Series: reassuringly brilliant. Cabin comfort and layout are superb; each engine has its own impressive personality, and across the range they retain the poise and rear drive reward - integral DNA in BMW's favoured son - that keep enthusiastic drivers coming back to the 3 Series.
Only minor cabin changes for the new cars so it remains a predictably pleasant cockpit, well laid out and efficient; sensible rather than showy.
BMW's Sensatec faux leather covers the 320i and 320d seats unless you tick the options box for Dakota leather, or move into the 330i or 340i. All look and feel superb, firm and supportive.
Driver and front passenger enjoy excellent space and multi-way seat adjustment, meaning for spirited drives you can sit low in the cabin. The steering wheels, especially in M Sport guise, are classily chunky with a dash of old 3 Series retro flair.
The curved dash top features a top-mounted screen, and personally I find the iDrive infotainment system an intuitive pleasure to operate; its quality a match for other touch points - switchgear, gear level, heater controls and more - in this superb if predictable cabin.
On the road
Reassured motoring joy has always come with a rear-drive 3 Series featuring BMW's silky smooth six-cylinder up front. It's a formula that's worked for decades now.
But as superb and tremendously quick as the 3.0-litre straight-six is in the 340i, the 330i's boosted 2.0-litre four-cylinder is so damn capable, dynamic and creamy as an all-rounder that it's arguably the only engine you'd ever need.
The huge amount of standard kit that comes with the (rather pricey) 340i does appeal, but the performance and drive satisfaction over the 330i isn't as big a leap as you'd expect.
But all the turbo powerplant offerings are winners, aided sublimely by eight-speed auto gearboxes (manuals are no cost options but only account for 2% of sales).
The frugal 2.0-litre diesel still offers handy performance (no 320i was available for test), but it's the petrols that are more engaging.
The new Three has received new two-way damping to minimise body roll - never a huge problem in the old car - helping its beautiful balance that rewards the more you push. Steering is weighty and turn-in superbly accurate, and powering out of corners allows the BMW's tail to slide predictably and satisfyingly.
A Sport setting on the cars quickens up throttle response and steering while holding gears longer, but leave the car in Comfort and it serves as an ideal everyday cruiser, the only slight grumble being tyre noise and occasionally crashiness felt through the run flat tyres, especially only 19-inch wheels.
What do you get?
Lots. Entry-level 318i gets a rear-view camera, head-up display, lane-change warning, driving assistant, surround view, LED headlights, ConnectedDrive, navigation, real-time traffic information, auto transmission and 18-inch wheels.
The 320i and 320d add electric front seats, adaptive M suspension and digital radio; the 330i then brings leather, 19-inch wheels, Luxury Line pack and Professional navigation, or hop in the halo 340i and it goes a bit crazy. You get oodles, with highlights being the M Sport package, Harman/Kardon surround sound system, leather-finished instrument panel, heated seats, adaptive LED headlights, active cruise control, parking assistant, concierge services and internet.
The sedan's 480-litres of boot space will suffice most needs, and while you don't get much more with the Touring's 495 litres, the wagon version does offer a handy 1500 litres with seats down - pushing it more towards lifestyle/family buyers.
Fuel economy is superb on paper; 4.4 litres/100km with the 320d especially so. The 330i's 5.8-litres/100km is also standout for such a genuinely quick car, but driving it, and the 340i, as Munich intends and figures climb rapidly north. We averaged over 10-litres/100km in the 340i on winding roads, but it was worth every penny.
Some may criticise BMW for not being bold enough with its 3 Series sedan design, and the minimal changes to the new model will do little to change that. But rightly in my eyes the exterior style boldness should be for the 4 Series coupe and M models: the sedans and Tourings suit looking somewhat more grown up.
The facelifted models do have a more 4 Series-inspired design for the front bumper; the rear takes some M3 cues; new LED headlights merge into the kidney grille, and rear L-shaped lights bulge out a tad more muscularly.
The usual suspects for the 3 Series, namely the Mercedes C-Class ($60,900) and Audi A4 ($55,500), but also throw in Jaguar's new XE beauty ($60,400).
The premium sedan class is full of quality, but the new BMW 3 Series is still the benchmark in many ways.
The new engine range is quite brilliant, and in the 330i buyers have a tempting package of performance, dynamics, economy and decent value.
All models impress as luxury tourers and sporting propositions however, ensuring the 3 Series legend will roll on for years to come.
Model: BMW 3 Series Sedan and Touring.
Details: Four-door rear-wheel drive small sedans and wagons.
Engines: (petrols) 2.0-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder with 135kW @ 5000rpm and 290Nm @1350rpm (320i); 2.0-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder with 185kW @ 5200rpm and 350Nm @1450rpm (330i); 3.0-litre twin-turbo six-cylinder with 240kW @ 5500rpm and 450Nm @ 1380rpm (340i); (diesel) 2.0-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel with 140kW @ 4000rpm and 400Nm @ 1750rpm (320d).
Transmissions: Eight-speed automatic as standard, six-speed manual a no cost option across the range.
Consumption: 5.8-litres/100km (320i); 5.8 (330i); 6.8 (340i); 4.4 (320d).
Performance 0-100kmh: 7.3s (320i); 5.8s (330i); 5.1s (340i); 7.2s (320d).
Bottom line: $61,900 (320i); $69,900 (330i); $89,900 (340i); $63,800 (320d) all before on roads.
What matters most
What we liked: BMW's ever-brilliant silky engine/rear drive combination, true quality feel throughout, added kit make all models look good value.
What we'd liked to see: Bolder design inside and out, less road noise and bumps through the run flat tyres, tick the options boxes and the price can get silly.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is conditioned based where the vehicle informs when servicing is required. Five years/80,000km BMW Service Inclusive package for $1240.
Driving experience - 19/20
Features and equipment - 17/20
Functionality and comfort - 17/20
Value for money - 17/20
Style and design - 16/20
Total - 86/100
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