The BMW 3 Series has become practically synonymous with the term sports sedan. It didn't matter if you had the basic 316i or hard-charging M3; as long as a small(ish) sedan wore a roundel on the hood, you can expect some joy behind the wheel.
That, however, wasn't quite the case with the previous-generation model.
Maybe it was the diesel engine or the automaker's first attempt at electronic power steering, but there was something amiss. Yes, it was very dynamically capable but you had to dig deep to find some joy in it. Yes, it was brisk and yes, it handled well, but I expected more out of it. The fact that I had to keep it in Sport mode meant I had to put it in a specific setting to get some of that renowned 3 Series magic.
But BMW is adamant that the all-new 3 Series is still the same fun, dynamic, and practical sports sedan many have to come to know and love. As I got the key fob for it, the guy who handed it to me insisted that the fun is back.
This car's mission is to try to convince me that the 3 Series is back, and on form.
I have to say it's a good looking car, though you'll be forgiven if you mistake it for the previous-generation model. Styling can be best described as evolutionary and it seems BMW didn't want to push the envelope too far with this iteration. Larger headlights, even larger kidney grills are the main point of discussion with this car, but it's well-executed nonetheless. It doesn't look like a baby 5 Series from the front either as there's an interesting kink on the headlights themselves. For me, it's a bit of a throwback to the 1998 - 2005 3 Series, internally known as the E46.
What isn't a nod to the past are its taillights. Yes, it's still L-shaped but not like before. It's a sleeker evolution of the past model's lenses and it looks great for that. Looking at it, the inspiration for these lights must have come from the 8 Series. In typical 3 Series fashion, the trunk lip kicks upwards a bit, something BMW has been doing to their breadwinner since 1990.
As for the rest of the car, the profile appears largely similar to the past two versions. But it's a shame this particular tester came in silver though as there are neat highlights on its flanks. I also like how BMW applied the signature Hoffmeister kink on the rear windows, which gives it a more sporting appearance. I will admit that I wasn't a fan of it when the photos first came out but it's much better to look at in person.
Inside the 2020 3 Series, it ditches lines, curves, and creases, for flat surfaces and geometric shapes. The overall effect is a cleaner, minimalist piece of design that's easy on the eyes. Yes, the iDrive infotainment screen juts out in the center, but it's done in a more elegant way this time around. Sticking to tradition, the entire center stack is tilted towards the driver and some of the controls may look familiar to previous (or current) BMW owners.
A part of me is glad BMW Philippines didn't put the digital instrument cluster in the 3 Series. Yes, it's nice to have but I don't think I'll get used to the reverse orientation of the tachometer. The standard gauges are as good as it is with a clear, crisp, and straightforward display. I also have to say that the cluster of the 3 Series is perhaps the most digital-looking analog set of gauges I've seen. It's a nice little visual trick I say.
There are some quirks here and there though. If you've owned BMWs in the past, you might have to adjust to the interior of the all-new 3 Series. For instance, the start button is no longer near the steering column. Instead, it's been moved to the gear selector. Also, the dial that controls the lights have been replaced with a button panel. There were instances where my hands were going for the old button and dial locations, but I eventually adjusted to it. The new iDrive system, on the other hand, can now be controlled by touch, but I still found myself using the scroll wheel. It's still easy to use and comprehend too.
Interior space hasn't always been BMW's forte unless we're talking about their crossovers or the 7 Series. Fortunately, it's been rectified in the new 3 Series for the most part. It isn't what I would call stretch out room but you no longer have to rest your knees on the front seat's backrest. If you have to carry people at the back, they no longer have to squeeze themselves anymore. If anything, there's more room at the back than a 5 Series from the '90s.
Of course, this is a BMW, so the front seats are the place to be. Deep bucket seats hold you in place and even the bolsters can adjust to your preferred arrangement. Memory seats come standard too, which is good if you have two or three more other people who frequently use the car. With its driver-oriented dash, just about everything is in easy reach too.
However, I find it unusual that the plug-in ports in the car are mostly USB-C. See, most of us use the wide USB plug (like in USB sticks) and not this smaller, slimmer arrangement. Is BMW forcing us to go Android? There were three of these USB-C plugs in the car and I can't help but wish BMW put in more standard USB ports in there instead. If they insist on going for this kind of arrangement, perhaps it would have been better if half were standard USB ports, and half were USB-C.
What we have here is the 320i and, yes, the engine is true to the badge. The 320i powered by a 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbo and not two turbochargers as the TwinPower Turbo tag would suggest. It's good for 184 PS and 290 Nm of torque, which are the same figures as the bigger 520i. Shifting is done via the eight-speed automatic transmission with Steptronic manual mode. Three drive modes are selectable, namely Eco Pro, Comfort (the default setting), and Sport. Eco Pro and Sport can also be configured by the driver through their respective Individual modes. From there, you can change the transmission shift points, engine response, and even steering setting.
Having driven the 520i, I was expecting the 320i to behave similarly, but that just wasn't the case. Perhaps I'm more used to the more laid-back nature of the 5 Series, but this 320i just lurches off the line. Even with a light tap of the accelerator, this 3 Series pulls with ease and gusto, squatting the rear suspension in the process. It's not shy using the rest of its power either, and I have no doubts about BMW's claimed 0 to 100 km/h time of 7.2 seconds. In comfort mode, there is a hint of lag but it's not bothersome. In Sport Mode, however, the 320i can pin you to your seat. I can only imagine what the more powerful 330i will be like, more so the M340i with its boosted 3.0-liter inline-six.
Curiously, fuel economy is similar to the heavier 520i and that's probably due to, erm, my slightly exuberant driving style when the car was with me. With a mix of standard (Comfort) and Sport mode, the car registered 8.1 kilometers per liter at an average of 18 km/h. That said, more sensible driving yielded 8.6 kilometers per liter in similar conditions. It does trounce its much larger sibling when traffic gets lighter though, with the 320i registering 12.7 kilometers per liter while averaging 23 km/h, which is a good showing for a 2.0-liter engine. Setting the cruise control at 95 km/h, the trip computer showed 17.1 kilometers per liter. During the car's stint with me, Stop/Start and Eco Pro were never used.
As for its ride, it does live up to the Sport name. I have to point out that its rivals, such as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4, do ride better at low speeds. Yes, it's firm, but it won't cause any spinal compressions. It's still comfortable in there though, thanks to the seats that offer buckets of lumbar and side support. Once you pick up the pace though, it seems that the 3 Series' ride becomes more supple, but it doesn't feel like it's wallowing all over the place.
But now, the moment of truth: does the new 3 Series bring back the magic of the past models from the '90s?
After spending a day with it on winding roads, I can confidently report that it's much better than the previous-generation 3 Series. The 320i feels buttoned-down and confident around the bends. Bumps and undulations don't fluster the car, even while it's taking on a corner. Road holding is excellent despite the stiff run-flat tires, which makes that feat all the more impressive. Handling then inspires loads of confidence, but just because a car handles well, it doesn't necessarily mean it's involving.
Thankfully, feel and feedback is, well, back in the 3 Series. Even in Comfort mode, the steering weighs up less artificially, feeling more natural as speeds progress. That's something that can't be said with the model from two years ago and it's great that you can smile behind the wheel of a 3 Series again. However, it has to be said that it's not like the 3 Series from the early 2000s, but it's getting there.
But that's the thing about the 320i of the present. Fundamentally, it's not just a good car but a great one. BMW die-hards will always and inevitably compare it to the classic and neo-classic variations, but in terms of powertrain, refinement, and dynamics, the new car is subjectively better. When it comes to charm and character, the older ones still have it. Still, I'm pleased that some of its former glory is back as this is a 3 Series that's genuinely fun to drive.
The price? It starts at Php 3,890,000 which seems a lot for a sport sedan, especially if you consider the limited-run Malaysian-built 520i is 'just' Php 100,000 more. So why is it priced that way? That's because the 320i comes straight from Germany. Sure, it's good news for the purists, but there is a cost attached to that German-made pride. This then, like most luxury vehicles, will be a somewhat an emotional purchase.
If BMW Philippines wants to compete on price, perhaps they should consider bringing in the 318i here eventually. But there's another way of looking at this. It may be more expensive than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4, but the local-spec models are equipped with entry-level engines. That makes the 320i more powerful than both of them, plus, it feels more dynamic than its German rivals. The only thorn on the 3 Series' side then is the Lexus IS350 with its V6 engine, but that's a story for another day.