Words : Amit Chhangani (With inputs from Arjun Dharve)
Images: Amit Chhangani and Deepak Dongre
The world is fast becoming a bad place to live. Dumb phones which cannot last half a day are termed ‘Smart’. Hot looking celebrities are getting their assets removed fearing cancer and Youtube has become the no.1 tourist destination in the world. Like all of that was not bad enough, we heard someone say – ‘the new BMW 3-series is too soft to be driven hard’.
We’d better be dead than live in a world with soft, not fun-to-drive BMWs. And if we really had to die, we’d rather be caught dead testing the new BMW they allege as soft. So we left all our worldly belongings behind and headed straight into the cabin of a BMW 320d Sport to see whether our time here was over.
And since we’re still here tapping the keys and telling you a story, you should know that we care two hoots about those who discarded the new 3 as too soft. The new 3-series is a legend reincarnated, and all the ‘hard’ liners who think the new 3 is ‘Soft’, really need to read on!
The new BMW 3-series, or the F30 has grown in all dimensions in comparison to its predecessor, the E90. The Melbourne Red color we got on our test car only added the charm of the overall fresher design. The newly incorporated ‘evil eyes’ touch at the front makes the new 3 series look like a sinister creature, especially when viewed head on.
Like a typical 3 series, the F30 maintains short front and rear overhangs lending it the long wheelbase look. The trademark kidney grill is now slightly forward tilted and the wider headlights are of flatter rather than the round bangle design. They still maintain the corona ring feature albeit slashed at the top and bottom; these also double up as the daytime running lights.
The F30s engine hood has a straight cut akin to the Z3 and it no longer meets the top of the kidney grill to maintain a clean look. The Sportline version comes with a distinctly crafted front bumper which supports BMWs claim of improving the efficient dynamics. BMW claims that to improve the overall efficiency, they have gone to the extent of aerodynamically optimizing the wheel design, lower rolling resistance run-flat tyres and lowered the suspension to minimize drag. The overall design maintains tight surfaces with pronounced creases. The front apron having been aerodynamically optimized further aids the efficiency apart from lending sporty looks to the front end and giving it a dynamic character.
The wedge shape of the new 3-Series’ silhouette and its wider track (+ 37/47 mm at the front/rear) underline the sporting appearance of the new BMW. By clearly accentuating the width of the car, the multi-faceted surfaces of the expressive front end give the BMW 3-Series a sportier face than ever.
The BMW 3-Series replaces the central air intake of its predecessor with two larger intakes, which are positioned underneath the headlights to the outer edges of the front end and add extra depth to the car’s sporty styling.
In profile, the trademark BMW Hofmeister kink at the base of the C-pillar injects the silhouette of the new 3-Series with unmistakable brand identity. Alongside it runs a fine line from the roof into the boot lid, giving the roof an even lower appearance from the side. On the sides, the slightly rising shade line on the heavily contoured side skirt adds further sportiness.
The new 3 series has strong horizontal lines to emphasize its width. The treatment continues at the rear with the rear lights in customary BMW L-shaped design positioned at the outer edges of the back end. The traditional 3-Series design trait of slotting two lines between the spoiler and the rear bumper have been duly incorporated in the new version as well.
Drive, ride and handling.
Our experience with the 3 series was nothing short of mind-boggling as regards ride and handling. On our way to the proving grounds of Amby Valley, our thoughts about the handling being too soft were getting more pronounced, as the car simply wafted over undulations and even sharper edges. Coupled with a lighter steering wheel, the new 3-series almost had us commit suicide as we presumed that a car with such amazing practicality cannot quite match its luminary predecessor. Having been totally befuddled by its performance in the end, we decided to talk about the driving dynamics of this car before anything else.
The unrealistically balanced set of wheels on the new 3 series showed us what they were capable of as soon as we got out of the irritating city traffic and let the beautiful machine stretch its legs on the Expressway. Solid as a rock in a straight line with the steering firming up nicely in Sport mode, the 3-series managed to bring a smile on our face like it always has, even before we started our assault on the twisties.
Slightly cautious in the beginning, we were left bamboozled by the way this relatively ‘soft’ machine presented itself to be chucked around corners with disdain. Every passing corner, it inspired more confidence with its baffling balance and poise – the steering which once felt relatively lighter, feeling more and more natural with every passing curve. The 3 series is an incredibly balanced machine. It first invites, and then challenges to you throw it harder than perceptibly possible around corners. You’d be gobsmacken with the way it comes out of it every time! And in the rare instance of you going wrong, it doesn’t take more than a little flick of the wheel to bring it back in line from where other cars would have done an uncontrollable pogo dance all the way into a tree.
Not only is the chassis made of high grade components but also the suspension which houses double-joint tension strut at the front and Five arm rear axle shoulder the support duties. After throwing a few fast corners, couple of hairpins and endless camber changing fast left right bends, the doubts of the “softly sprung“ car quickly evaporate. Not to say that there`s absolutely no rolling around the corners, the fact that it’s so well controlled fools one into thinking it’s completely absent!
BMW has employed intelligent light weight construction which improves the fuel economy and needless to say works wonders for the handling of the car. Extensive use of aluminum at the front of the car viz, sub-frames, suspension components etc eventually add up to create one brilliant handling package. Use of highly advanced magnesium alloys for engine components, high strength steel for the monocoque and advanced plastics contribute towards reducing the body weight by upto 25%, impressive! What’s more, the dynamic brilliance comes from the 50:50 balanced weight distribution between front and rear axles. Hence, advanced components laden light weight front end and a rear wheel drive layout proves the perfect recipe for driving pleasure.
During our initial time spent in the car, even as a passenger we were specifically happy with the ride quality. It’s the right mix of firm and supple, even in the Sports mode contrary to our expectation, it never over stiffened. The engineers at BMW have finally managed to solve the contradiction of dynamic driving experience and luxurious driving comfort, and how!
The Sportline came shod with 225/50 R17 Run Flat tyres, the overall setup of the car made it very comfortable and suspension never crashed over ruts, they were dispensed with a mere thud. That to say, the magically sprung F30 handled the atrocities of our road conditions without a fuss. The car has a low 140mm ground clearance; however we never found overselves tip toeing over regular speed breakers unlike in the case of a Honda Civic which has 170mm ground clearance. Not a direct comparison, but speaks volumes about how the suspension is tuned to handle fast and slow bumps without inviting teeth clenching reactions from the passengers considering a 30mm clearance deficit.
The hydraulic steering which now comes with electronic assist (again in the interests of fuel economy) does a decent job and is way ahead of similar units found on other cars which feel completely artificial. The steering, though lighter than before has just about enough weight at high speeds while being effortless at parking speeds, a transition which it makes flawless.
Also, the 8 speed auto transmission works extremely well, except showing a wee bit of lag, especially in situations where you may have to negotiate a sharp uphill U-turn. This is one area where the 320d leaves a tiny room for improvement in the fun factor. That said it’s never a bother in the daily, real world conditions and only makes its absence felt when the car is pushed to the absolute extreme. The slight slack in shifts is more than compensated for by the oil burner which has enough torque at any point on the tachometer. Modern day diesels have this advantage over petrols for allowing the driver to go faster around twisty sections even with the lack of gearbox dexterity. The 2.0 liter BMW diesel excels as regards torque delivery by the bucketload across the rev range.
Cabin space and comfort
Stepping inside, one is greeted by the friendly and familiar BMW dash, which has been mildly and delightfully tweaked for the latest iteration of the 3-series. In the Sportline trim, the car came with black upholstery and red stitches which is synonymous with the word `sport`. The familiar dashboard is driver centric and is tilted 7 degrees towards the driver. What we instantly fell in love with is the combination of black piano finish accents with a matt Coral Red trim running across throughout the dashboard. The little touch lifts the aesthetic appeal of the cabin several notches
We couldn’t help but touch and feel the surfaces every now and then.The interiors suggest that they have been designed around the user by the way the controls fall within easy reach, makes me coin the term BMW Efficient Ergonomics!
The car’s larger dimensions (length + 93 mm, wheelbase + 50 mm) mean that there is more legroom for backbenchers than ever. There is as much as 15 mm of additional knee room and 8 mm of extra headroom at the back.
The front doors feature larger pockets and storage space and can store bottles up to one litre in size. Added to which, two large drinks holders are now integrated into the centre console ahead of the gearshift lever. If desired, the cupholders can be swapped for an oddments tray, which is stored in a designated area of the glove compartment when not in use.
The new 3 series offers 480 litres of boot space which is 20 litres more than the outgoing model. The 40:20:40 split rear backrests offer unbeatable versatility when you need to carry passengers and long items.
The i-drive controller is easily accessible by the passenger and the driver alike and works in conjunction with a high resolution freestanding Control Display above the air-con vents on the dashboard. For once you’d think the screen would flip inside the dash when you turn the system off, but it doesn’t. Even though the interior design stays traditional BMW-esque, it has never looked so much classier before. Rear passengers get dedicated air-con vents in the centre with temperature and fan-speed control, climate control is however missing. The centre armrest carries the press to open cup holders.
As mentioned earlier, the dimensions of the F30 have been increased which have led to a roomier cabin. The space and comfort at the backseat is amazing to say the least. Never does it feel cramped or claustrophobic despite its dark interiors. The front seats are in the form of racing bucket seats for everyday use, and offer fantastic support and sporty feel without being uncomfortable over longer journeys. There really are no grouses with the interior of the new 3-series, and did I mention I loved to see the manual handbrake not being replaced with an electronic unit. I wouldn’t mind a set of perforated steel pedals under my leg for this sporty machine though.
Engine and gearbox
In its 6th generation, the new 320d (F30) is supposed to be a 4 door saloon which combines the practicality of daily use and pleasure of driving. The popularity of a diesel car in India is proven from the sales, where the petrol powered cars are left behind of a diesel option is available. This wave has embroiled every segment in the car market today and we sampled the all new 320d Sportsline from the Bavarian car manufacturer, and were left astonished.
The 320d is powered by a new TwinPower Turbo 1995 cc four cylinder oil burner that churns out 181.5 bhp @4000 rpm to be precise and an impressive max torque of 380 Nm between 1750-2750 rpm. This translates into a 0-100kmph dash of less than 8 seconds!
As mentioned earlier, the 2 litre unit is the latest from BMW. The engineers have gone to lengths in order to make this not only an efficient oil burner, but also cleaner and fun to drive. In BMW speak; it is a Twin-Power Turbo charged unit.Even though we associate BMWs with inline Sixes, this diesel unit still retains the uncanny eagerness for revs like its petrol counterpart and redlines at 5500 rpm! We have had Bi-turbo engines from BMW before, but with F30 comes with a variable geometry turbocharger for boost across the wider rev range.
The performance is further aided by modern generation common rail direct injection technology along with aluminum composite crankcase. This brilliant and flexible unit is mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. As in any case, activating the sport mode alters the shift points for the gearbox and adds more weight to the steering providing a more direct feel. We love the appetite of the engine for revs and eagerness to build them, the engine itself sounds thrashy at higher revs.
While the transmission shifts are smooth, jerk-free, and fairly quick the dynamics of the car beg for a lightning fast tranny, a double clutch gearbox to be more specific. Clever electronics like the Eco Pro mode further economize the engine`s operations, it optimizes the gear shift points, the climate control with respect to the accelerator pedal position. Flick it back in to the sport mode and all the fuel efficiency parental advisory aids are barred.
As a part of the BMW`s Efficient Dynamics is the Brake Energy Regeneration which uses the braking energy to charge the battery taking the load off the engine (alternator) improving the overall efficiency, clever. Even though in the sport mode, the gear shifts can be manually controlled, the Sportline lacks steering mounted shift pedals which could have taken the sheer driving pleasure to the next level.
Price as tested: Rs 32.92 lak ex-Delhi
It’s hard to find flaws in the 320d and BMW has put in massive efforts in ironing out the key issues with the previous gen 3 series, namely smaller cabin size and stiff ride. It returns fantastic fuel economy which is in league with the small cars and is brilliant considering the performance on tap. Clever electronics help to push this even further. At the price mentioned above, the 320d Sport Line sits slam bang between the A4 2.0 TDi and the C250CDI, and in our humble opinion is a better car than the other two. The pricing is not a issue then.
Spacious cabin, well-appointed high quality interiors, frugal engine, fabulous transmission – it has all the bells and whistles which one would really make frequent use. Apart from the claims of aerodynamic efficiency and weight saving measures, the new 320d has a very elegant, pleasing design with a touch of sportiness without being overly so (remember what we said about the suspension set up as well?). It ticks all the right boxes to make it a totally desirable package. No wonder, it has gone on to compete with the top in its segment and won multiple Executive car of the year across the globe. With the 320d, we endorse this!
Tech Specs and Image gallery