One would have to be an ardent worshipper of the blue roundel or a certifiable car nut to immediately pick out the differences wrought on the face-lifted BMW 3-Series. The most obvious signs are the smoother grille design and a set of extra slashes on the bonnet. Aside from this, the head- and tail-lights have been given a slight tweak, both gaining swish-looking LED indicators and running lights.
Our review car was fitted with the optional bi-xenon headlights (AU$2200 by itself). These not only come with a self-levelling feature, so that other drivers aren't unduly blinded by the car's bright beam of white light, but can also be optioned up so that they'll swivel to help you see around corners (AU$940), a feature which country drivers in particular should appreciate. Also fitted was the AU$320 high beam assist feature which, if enabled, will automatically flick between high and low beam depending on the lighting conditions and whether the car believes there's any oncoming traffic.
While it worked accurately about 75 per cent of the time, our left hand was always poised over the indicator stalk, ready to turn the feature off for fear of inadvertently blinding someone. Likewise, the auto wipers work well in consistent rain, but for light sprinkles and erratic showers the performance becomes a bit of a lucky dip. More impressive were the anti-glare side mirrors and auto-dimming rear view mirror.
Except for the new iDrive system — more of which later — even fewer changes have been wrought on the inside. The soft touch plastics, rubberised hand grips, smoothly damped glovebox and the swathes of luscious leather adorning the seats and armrests all give the car the requisite upmarket feel, although we'd give our review car's tan-coloured leather a wide berth. We did, however, love the brushed aluminium accents (AU$920) and couldn't stop giggling deliriously with joy every time we showed off the spring-out cup holders.
As long as you're not trying to cram a team of basketballers into the 3-Series, seating comfort is fine. The front seats are grippy without being being bear-hug tight and comfortable enough that our bums barely noticed the number of kilometres they were being asked to cover. Although the front seats have powered adjustment for height and backrest angle, the sliding mechanism, while completely stepless, is manual. Rear seat passengers are treated to a set of adjustable air vents, while the rear seat itself splits 60/40 and folds flat.
In the boot, there's a handy 12V power socket, as well as a pair of flip-out luggage hooks and a bevy of nets help to keep shopping and the like in place. Although the rear tailgate is quite heavy, the windscreen lifts up separately and is, in a neat touch, connected to the luggage blind. So if you lift up the rear windscreen to pop in a few bags of shopping, (hey presto!) the luggage blind automatically retracts; you'll have to manually reset it afterward though. There's also a vertical net that can be raised to partition the boot off from the passenger space and, presumably, protect them from large flying objects.
Nowadays it's a slight exaggeration to say that the only thing standard on a European luxury car is the long options list, but tick every feasible box when purchasing a 320i wagon and you could end up wearing an extra AU$30k debt. In terms of safety kit, standard features include anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control; assistance for emergency braking (Dynamic Brake Control in BMW speak); Cornering Brake Control, which attempts to prevent oversteer when braking and cornering at the same time by braking individual wheels; and no fewer than six airbags.
Externally the 320i comes standard with a set of 16-inch alloy wheels, headlights that can automatically switch themselves on, and fog lights and roof rails but no roof rack (that's an option, obviously). In addition to interior lighting, which slowly fades in and out, and headlights that stay on for a short period after you leave the car, BMW has added puddle lighting that emanates from the bottom of the door handles every time you unlock the doors — it's oh so nice, but ever so slightly useless.
Also standard is a dual-zone climate control system and rear parking sensors, which if you have iDrive installed will display a proximity graphic on the screen. It's an improvement on the usual distance display and array of LED lights, but still no substitute for a reversing camera. When retracted, the panorama sunroof bathes all passengers in natural light and air, but the good case it makes for itself on sunny autumn days is undone by its AU$3080 asking price.
A single CD in-dash player, an auxiliary jack and USB port for MP3 players, and Bluetooth hands-free are all standard fare on all 2009 3-Series models. Want satellite navigation, hard drive music storage or DVD/TV playback? You'll have to stump up for iDrive and, confusingly, there are two iDrive versions available on the 3-Series: a Business Navigation system that features a 6.5-inch screen (AU$2650 stand-alone), and a Professional Navigation system that includes an 8.8-inch screen (AU$6750 stand-alone).
Before you start thinking that AU$4100 is a lot to pay for 2.3 inches of extra screen, the Professional system includes a TV receiver (both digital and analog), voice-activated commands and a hard-disk-based navigation system with 3D view, as well as music storage. Just as importantly, the Pro system, fitted to our review car, comes with BMW's second-generation iDrive system. Boasting a reworked menu structure that no longer hides new functions in obscure locations, the new iDrive is much easier to use.
Using the reworked iDrive controller located behind the gear stick, drivers can sit back at traffic lights and tweak their car's settings, chart a new course on the sat nav or rip a CD to the car's hard disk. Additionally, there's a row of shortcut buttons underneath the CD slot, which can be assigned to a radio station or any menu item. In a neat twist, lightly touch any of the shortcut buttons and you'll get a preview of what that button is assigned to.