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The best just got better

Wednesday, 10th April, 2019 4:36pm

The thing is, this is the one the engineers love to work on most.

The BMW 3 Series has, since the model was first introduced way back in the 1970s, been a car whose reputation was built on its engineering. Rear-wheel drive, usually quite light, with excellent engines and a reputation for playful handling.

Down all those years, not much has changed for the 3 Series itself, but the world around it has changed utterly. We’re on a barrelling roller-coaster towards electric power right now, and having a stop-off along the way to buy as many SUVs as we possibly can.

Because of that, the market for four-door saloons is shrinking, even for cars as achingly desirable as the 3 Series.

So you might imagine that BMW, cutting its cloth to suit its needs, might put less effort, expend fewer resources on a new 3 Series, concentrating instead on its 4x4 models.

Not a bit of it, thankfully. BMW has thrown everything at this new 3 Series, because it’s still the centre around which the BMW brand orbits.

In spite of all the high-riding X-models, this is the car that most people think of when they think of BMW.

The engineers really do love working on it to, with one telling me how much more satisfying it was to tune and tweak the suspension and steering of the 3, simply because all of its weight is low-down, where you want it to be.

Mind you, there’s less weight this time around. The 3 Series might share its CLAR platform and chassis with the 5 Series and the X3, but it’s lost around 55kg, model for model, compared to the old version.

The structure is stiffer and safer too, and there’s trick new suspension that includes hydraulic bump-stops (rather similar to Citroen’s Advanced Comfort suspension design) that is supposed to generate less rattling of your fillings on a bad road.

To look at, though, you might find the new 3 Series a bit, well, challenging. BMW has taken it away from the clean, simple look of the current 5 Series and made it a bit more, shall we say OTT?

There are slashes, lines, and creases everywhere, and a very aggressive looking grille, too.

The rear actually looks a little similar to that of the Lexus IS300h (good thing or bad thing? You decide…) while the front, at least on this M-Sport spec 300i, gets a deep and menacing air intake and chin spoiler.

Don’t assume that a 330i badge means you get a 3.0 litre engine. You don’t — in fact this is a 2.0 litre four-cylinder petrol turbo engine, basically the same unit found in the more basic 320i.

If it’s a six-cylinder engine you want, you’ll have to upgrade to the 340i - not that there’s much need to. The 330i packs a 258hp kick, along with 400Nm of torque, so there’s never any lack of performance on tap.

In fact, given the 330i’s fairly trim kerb weight, this car has more performance than you’ll ever really need on the public road.

It can feel almost brutally quick at times, especially when you plant your foot from standstill, when the 300i can rip off a 100km/h dash in just 5.8 seconds.

You’ll be expecting it to be thirsty, because of that but actually no, it’s not too bad. Overall, we managed to squeeze just over 40mpg from the 300i during our time with it, which is pretty close to BMW’s claimed 5.8 litres per 100km (48mpg) claimed figure.

As a bonus, the engine is also rather refined and quiet, unless you’re revving it hard.

The thing is, you’ll want to rev it hard, because this is the best-to-drive 3 Series in at least a generation.

The steering is so beautifully, so almost perfectly, set up that it is an utter joy to drive. In fact, this is one of the best electrically-boosted steering setups I’ve yet experienced. In terms of the way it communicates what’s happening at the wheels, I’d say it feels more like a really sharp hydraulic steering system.

I swear, at times, you can feel the individual tread blocks of the tyres deflecting, and while I’m not sure if it’s genuine feel, or just incredible synthesis, all I can say is that it feels brilliant, and that the 330i is covering the ground with utter confidence and precision.

The odd thing is that the ride quality doesn’t feel all that great. Those hydraulic compression stops for the suspension, sound great, but on the optional sports suspension, with 19 inch wheels wearing runflat tyres, the fact is that the 330i still felt a touch too jittery and fidgety at times.

Now, it’s worth saying that those times were when covering seriously poor road surfaces, but I’d want to test a car on standard springs, with smaller wheels, before making a final decision myself.

Still, if a fidgety ride is the worst accusation we can throw at the new 3 Series, then that should give you a clue as to just how good it is.

No, it’s not cheap (prices start at €44,115), and the styling might make some baulk a bit, but this is a hugely desirable car.

It has a terrific engine, a lovely (and beautifully-made) interior, it has the name and the badge that so many of us crave, and above all it lives up to that old BMW credo of making ‘the ultimate driving machine.’

You want the best car around? Find the one that the engineers love best…

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