Latest 3 Series Continues Strong Dynamic Pace

By Lee Pang Seng

THE BMW 3 Series goes through a fairly long model span, thus facelifts keep its appeal fresh and updated technically to hold firmly against rivals, especially from its German counterparts. In the Malaysian scenario, it may only see one serious rival in the three-point star but in major markets like Europe, China and the US, its rival base is wider.

BMW has to try and stay a step ahead as it keeps an eye on developments that its rivals are making. The 3 Series is, after all, a big seller accounting for one in four BMWs sold globally to become this German carmaker’s most successful model. It has a model history spanning 40 years and over that period more than 14 million 3 Series models were sold.

The latest version maintains its stance as a sports sedan with new engines, stiffer suspension systems, better ergonomics, ‘state-of-the-art’ navigation system, among the fresh details that accompany its development. Perhaps, the more impressive note is to compare it with the second generation E30 and understand how the underlying character of sporty dynamic driving has evolved since then and endear the 3 Series to the growing legion of fans.

This impression had come about after we chose to take the E30 from the previous model range out for a spin during the global media drive of the new 3 Series in Germany-Austria last year. Our choice was based on the fact that the E30 was the first 3 Series to be locally assembled in Malaysia in the early 1980s, and which had impressed us from the outset.

Before we delve on this common sporty undertone, we would first look at the new developments that had gone into the latest 3 Series. First, the looks; this delivers the visual appeal that draws the initial attraction. The changes are subtle but no less important; in front there are new aprons with revised air intakes that help to accentuate the feeling of width, while the sensor for the optional Active Cruise Control (ACC) is integrated into the central air intake.

Likewise, the rear has the ‘sculptural’ apron design, which includes a Line-specific trim element, and standard LEDs (light emitting diodes) for the light assembly to emphasise the car’s width, which BMW says bolsters its sporting appearance. The newly designed front headlamps can be specified with full-LED units (which are more efficient than xenon lights) to complement the LED daytime running lights.

Stepping inside the latest 3 Series, BMW says it has given the interior a classier ambience with new materials, high gloss and additional chrome highlights for the controls, air vents and central control panel. The newly crafted centre console with sliding cover for the cupholders is said to allow better use of the storage surfaces forward of the gearshift lever and improve ergonomics to a higher level. We found that practical and the ambience appreciable.

Of course, it’s the heart of the car that gives it the soul and BMW has graced the latest 3 with new engines; All the three-, four- and six-cylinder petrol engines and four-cylinder diesel units in the 316d, 318d and 320d (which are now relevant to the Malaysian scenario with the progressive introduction of higher quality diesel) are sourced from the newly developed, modular BMW EfficientDynamics engine family.

You probably would have noticed that the three-cylinder petrol engine is now available in the 3 Series as a new addition to the range and the segment as a whole. Also making its 3 Series debut is the four-cylinder petrol engine in the 320i that boasts improved fuel mileages and lower CO2 emissions. There was also a world premiere in the four-cylinder unit in the 330i and six-cylinder petrol unit in the 340i (which we drove from Munich to Austria).
The 340i is the first model in the entire BMW line-up to be powered by this all-new six-cylinder 3.0-litre engine (it’s undersquare with long 94.6mm stroke and 82.0mm bore to displace 2998cc). It tops the 3 Series petrol line-up and develops 240kW (326hp) between 5500 and 6500 rpm, a 15kW (20hp) improvement over the previous model. Peak torque is equally impressive at 450Nm and is available from a very low 1380rpm to 5000rpm.

The common engine blueprint is an in-line cylinder arrangement, a displacement per cylinder of 500cc and very lightweight, thermally optimised all-aluminium construction. The crankcase is very rigid with its closed-deck design – which means that the cylinder water jacket is closed at the top – while thermally joined, high-strength cylinder liners with twin-wire, arc-sprayed coating save weight and reduce internal friction. All the engines are said to have a very short warm-up phase, with significantly reduced fuel consumption as a direct benefit.

Features also include revised exhaust-manifold-integrated turbochargers to give the new four-cylinder engines sharper responses. Another change is the switch from direct to indirect charge air cooling. With the compact design offering a significantly reduced volume and reduced pressure loss in the charge air cooler, the charge pressure can build up more quickly.

The SYNTAK (Synergy Thermo-Acoustic Capsule) technology in the four-cylinder petrol engines is said to underpin a further reduction in fuel consumption. This new engine encapsulation innovation allows the engine to cool more slowly, maintain a much higher temperature for up to 36 hours and endure fewer cold start phases as a result. BMW says SYNTAK also enhances comfort by reducing engine noise and enabling the heating system to reach its target temperature more quickly.

Generally, the combined development efforts towards achieving higher engine efficiency are said to provide fuel consumption and emissions that are improved by up to 11 per cent. Needless to say, these new engines are all EU6 compliant.

The transmission systems were also improved; an example for the six-speed manual gearbox is that the engagement speed control function automatically blips the throttle on downshifts (we didn’t drive the manual transmission model to experience this). The eight-speed Steptronic transmission, meanwhile, allows multiple sequential downshifts, which has a positive effect on smoothness and acoustics. BMW says its improved efficiency, wider gear spread and reduced torque converter slip during gear shifts reduce CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions by three per cent. The coasting function is also said to increase efficiency by another notch.

To complement the higher performance of the improved engines, the next step was on improving the car’s dynamic agility; stiffer suspension, more rigid bodyshell mounting and a more finely honed steering set-up. The retuned suspension involves further developed damper technology and improved transverse and longitudinal dynamics under all payload conditions. What that means is a reduced body roll, ‘unwavering’ directional stability and an ‘exceptionally’ high level of steering precision.

If you want more and can pay for it, you can opt for the M Sport and adaptive suspension. The latter offers electronically controlled dampers and allows individual adjustment of the car’s dynamic responses. Continuous sensor monitoring of longitudinal and lateral acceleration, speed and steering angle allows the damping to be optimally matched to road characteristics and the driving situation. Rear-wheel-drive variants also feature a 10mm drop in ride height. There is also the Driving Experience Control switch to choose between a more comfort-biased setting and more sporty characteristics.

We would have enjoyed the Munich-Austria drive more by gaining a sampling of these dynamic updates if we weren’t caught in the high summer traffic that was compounded by light continuous rain and taking a wrong route. The 340i gave a good account of its ability to open up on the autobahns when traffic was light, hitting 200km/h briefly before having to slow down.

We were also confident taking this 3 Series through the few tight corners we came across despite the wet tarmac as the car’s active dynamic systems – Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) encompassing Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) and Cornering Brake Control (CBC) – helped to maintain good road traction through the four wheels. The car’s level poise was good as we had come to expect of Beemers after driving so many versions of them.

This was where we could compare old and new in terms of driving fun; with all these electronically controlled systems in place, it doesn’t mean one couldn’t lose control of the car on the road if driven recklessly. Driven prudently, yet quick, the new 3 Series would reward one with a reasonably engaging drive, as we had experienced with the M3 on a race circuit in mid-2014.

We realised how much that dynamic control was in our hands when we took the E30 for a 50km drive under almost similar conditions; the winding route alternated between slightly damp and dry. The big difference was that the E30 had no electronic dynamic controls and all that stood between the car holding its lines and losing control through a corner was basically its suspension and steering engineering.

The model that was provided for the media drive – each previous 3 Series generation was represented by a selected model – was a 320iS two-door sedan. This particular 3 Series was tailored for the Italian market with its engine displacement tweaked to be below 2000cc (to 1990cc) to meet tax reasons so that a lower car price could be achieved. Touted as the Italian M3 of its era, it was powered by a short stroke four-cylinder BMW M Power engine that delivered 192hp and 210Nm, which was considered very powerful back then, especially when the kerb weight was below 1300kg (the 3 Series today weighs 1400-1500kg).

We were immediately enthralled by the throaty rasp of the exhaust and engine intake roar as we set off, selecting the gears through the fluid and positive feel of the six-speed manual transmission. It was this audible engagement that added to the heightened senses of driving a fast car; although it was relative in this case, the E30 was no slouch being driven through the winding sections.

It gave us the steering feel and direction to explore the limit of the M Power engine as much as we dared, given the somewhat greasy road conditions. We were fully aware that car control was directly in our hands but this E30 behaved so well and predictably that we had to keep our confidence in check and not push our luck.

We could revel again in the car’s sporty character and at the same, experience how it has evolved to that in the modern 3 Series. The big difference is that you hear less of the engine and exhaust in the modern interpretation and that alone could decide the fun factor in driving them. It was a tough choice but we were biased towards the 8-speed Steptronic transmission; in Sport+ mode, you can drive a Beemer as hard as you would in a manual transmission model and that won the vote for us.

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