2019 BMW 3 Series first drive review: Comeback kid

At one time, the BMW 3 Series was the benchmark of the compact luxury/sport sedan segment. It was the car every premium automaker tried to replicate -- the champion of magazine comparison tests, a poster child of dynamic balance and poise with unassailable cachet.

BMW sort of lost its way in recent years, its longtime Ultimate Driving Machine mantra moving to the back burner. The most obvious example of this was the German automaker's most recent F30-generation 3 Series, a car plagued with uncharacteristically vague steering and underwhelming chassis tuning. Against a growing crop of great-to-drive sport sedans from longtime rivals Audi, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, not to mention newcomers like Alfa Romeo and Genesis, the 3 Series' shortcomings became harder and harder to overlook.

Amid that backdrop, I'm very happy to report that the 2019 3 Series is once again on top of its game. A brief test of a 330i prototype earlier this year gave me high hopes, and a recent drive of the final-spec 3er in Portugal truly sealed the deal. It's not without fault, this new G20-generation 3 Series. But the former hero of the luxury/sport world is back and entirely worthy of your attention.

Stronger bones

The new 3 Series is a complete redesign from the ground up. Everything is new, all components designed to achieve a perfect, 50:50 weight distribution in a car that's stiffer and lighter than before. The new 3 Series sheds some 120 pounds versus its predecessor, yet it boasts a 25-percent improvement in torsional rigidity. That's despite a body that's 2.9 inches longer, half-an-inch wider and half-an-inch taller than before.

US customers will initially get the 2019 3 Series in 330i guise, with rear- or all-wheel drive, starting at $40,250, excluding $995 for destination. The more powerful, $54,000 M340i will follow next summer as a 2020 model, and BMW promises a 330e plug-in hybrid will launch several months after that.

After testing both 330i and M340i models over the course of two days in Portugal, I can say it's the less powerful, less costly of the two sedans that impresses me most. The 330i uses a massaged version of BMW's existing 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine, with 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque (increases of 7 and 37, respectively, over the outgoing 330i) mated exclusively to an eight-speed automatic transmission -- sorry, stick-shift fans. But it's not the engine that makes the 330i great. Sure, there's no turbo lag to speak of, and the transmission will eagerly kick down a gear or two when provoked. It's how the 330i handles, whether cruising on the highway or blasting along mountain passes, that matters most.

I spent a lot of time detailing (and applauding) BMW's new hydraulic lift dampers when I tested them in the 330i prototype earlier this year, and thankfully, the final-spec setup is no different. This new suspension tech adjusts damper firmness progressively, with the goal of reducing body movements over impacts. Not only does this provide excellent comfort for everyday driving, it's taut enough to keep the 330i flat and confident when driving with gusto. There's no floaty or disconnected feeling at high speed, and because the hydraulic setup absorbs impact energy, the car responds to quick jolts -- like, say, from a pothole -- with more natural-feeling rebound. This setup works to keep the 330i as balanced as possible all the time, even on upsized 19-inch wheels and sticky, low-profile Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires.

You can order the 330i with Adaptive M dampers, but considering how good the standard setup is, why would you?

BMW

The best part? This isn't an optional chassis setup. The base 330i comes with this tune, with a sport pack lowering the car by about half an inch. An Adaptive M suspension setup is optional on the 330i, but if my experience in the M340i is anything to go on (more on that in a minute), I promise, you don't need it.

I wasn't totally sold on the 330i's steering tune when I tested the prototype earlier this year, but it appears BMW addressed some of my concerns in the time between development and production. The final result is steering that's quick to respond to driver inputs, with great on-center feel and progressive buildup of weight as you move left or right. The steering feels best in Sport mode, where there's ever-so-slightly more heft to its action. I'll admit, I'd still like more feedback through the wheel -- better communication of what's going on at road level -- but this is a characteristic trait of most modern electronic setups. As far as steering responsiveness and directness are concerned -- areas where the last-generation 3 Series faltered -- the G20 330i boasts big improvements.

M power

Not long after the 330i arrives, we'll get the M340i, again, with rear- or all-wheel drive. And even though BMW showed the car in the metal at the Los Angeles Auto Show earlier this month, the examples available for testing in Portugal -- on the incredibly fun and endlessly pretty Algarve International Circuit -- still wore camouflage.

The big upgrade for the M340i is its engine: a turbocharged straight-six with 382 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Considering that's an extra 62 horsepower and 39 pound-feet of torque over the outgoing 340i, it'll make BMW's range-topping 3 Series better suited to compete with the likes of the Audi S4 and Mercedes-AMG C43. Once again, an eight-speed automatic is the only transmission available, and BMW says the M340i will sprint to 62 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds. (The current 340i, for reference, hits 60 mph in 4.8 seconds.)

You definitely notice the extra power, accompanied by a more robust sound (even if it's electronically piped into the cabin). You'll feel a little more confident driving this version of the 3 Series aggressively, too, largely thanks to its raft of M-specific goodies, including the M Sport suspension, an M Sport rear differential, variable sport steering and larger brakes. You can opt for the Adaptive M suspension instead of the standard hydraulic-lift dampers, but in the words of one BMW engineer, "Why bother?"

Following a few laps around Algarve, I can say this for sure: The M340i is fast, and delightful to toss around. You get the same great steering characteristics, and the sedan remains very flat and nicely composed in corners. Put the traction control in its sport setting and you can execute a playful slide around some of Algarve's tighter corners, easily corrected with a quick bit of countersteer.

That said, without driving the M340i on public roads, I can't say if it's so much better in any one way that it's worth the considerable $13,750 price premium over a 330i. The extra power and sportier handling are nice, but considering how wonderful the 330i is, I can't imagine needing it day to day. You might desire the M340i if track days are in your future, but even so, how many brand-new 3 Series buyers will actually do that?

With a lot more power and sharper handling chops, the M340i is better suited to battle the Audi S4 and Mercedes-AMG C43.

BMW

Instead, most folks will undoubtedly press their 3 Series into commuter duty, and BMW's got a new bit of tech to help with that. Lane-departure warning, collision and pedestrian warning come standard, with adaptive cruise control, lane-change warning, rear collision prevention and cross-traffic alert available as options. BMW also offers its Driving Assistant, which combines adaptive cruise and lane-keeping assist, allowing for brief moments of semiautomated driving. This is still very much a hands-on system, but BMW says the goal is to someday offer "unlimited" hands-free driving.

A final cool piece of driver-assistance tech is BMW's new Reversing Assistant. This tech, which debuted in the new 2019 X5 SUV, memorizes your most recent 164 feet (50 meters) of travel, steering it along the exact same line you just did. For folks who often have to negotiate tight garages or tricky parking spaces, this will be hugely helpful. In a brief test around a cone course, the system worked flawlessly every time -- just remember that you operate the brake.

Less refinement, inside and out

The 3 Series is a hunky-dory driver, but other aspects of this car reveal weaknesses. For starters, I'm having a hard time warming up to the design. The headlights have a small kink on the bottom between the LED lamps, and while BMW calls this a throwback to front fascia of the fourth-generation E46 3 Series, the result just looks like styling for styling's sake. The new car's profile is relatively unassuming, its wheel wells nicely filled out with 19-inch alloys on my 330i tester. Around back, the taillights have three-dimensional sculpting, with prominent L-shaped brake lamps. I want to like the 3 Series' rump, but at first blush, it just kind of looks like a Lexus. (That's not a compliment.)

The interior is far less polarizing, and in fact, wholly familiar. If you've seen the cockpits of the new BMW 8 Series, X5 or Z4, the 3's cabin won't offer any design surprises. A large-diameter, thick-rimmed steering wheel offers paddle shifters, though I find the three-spoker's diameter a little too big for my hands. A 10.2-inch infotainment display sits atop the center stack, curving inward toward the large gauge cluster. Climate control information is displayed digitally between two stylized air vents, with a simple line of buttons below. Brushed metal trim lines the center console, with a sliding cover over a storage compartment that houses a pair of cup holders and a wireless phone charging pad. The small gear shifter has rows of drive setting buttons to its left, and a large iDrive infotainment controller to the right.

The 3 Series' cabin looks good and is nicely appointed, but on closer inspection, you'll find some uncharacteristically poor materials.

BMW

Passenger space is more than ample, with plenty of head and shoulder room for a 5-foot, 8-inch driver like myself. You can sit three-across in the back, albeit snugly, and again, headroom is adequate, with good enough legroom for average-sized adults.

What concerns me is that the 3 Series' interior doesn't feel as premium as it ought to -- not just for a car in this segment, but for a company like BMW. Sure, the seats are comfortable and a vast majority of the switchgear feels as nice as it looks, but there are far more instances of hard plastic in the G20 3 Series' cabin than I can recall in previous generations. Touch the door toppers or run your hand along the sides of the transmission tunnel. If there's any evidence of this cost-cutting in the new 3, it's here.

iDrive 7 tech, with a new virtual assistant

The 3 Series can be had with the digital gauge cluster found in other new BMWs, with the speedometer and tachometer flanking either side, and navigation or other useful vehicle data housed in the center. But the more I see this display, the less I like its design -- it all looks too angular and over-styled. That said, the resolution is crisp and the information easy to read. It just isn't as pretty as Audi's Virtual Cockpit or even Mercedes' new digital display.

While the base 3 Series comes with an 8.8-inch center infotainment display, you'll want to upgrade to the 10.2-inch setup seen here, running the latest iDrive 7 software. In addition to a redesign, the real improvement for iDrive 7 is the ability to reconfigure the home display, and to operate the system by touch. Redundant controls on the center console offer familiar action for folks who'd rather not touch the screen, and gesture controls are once again part of the iDrive system, though they're just as silly (and decidedly useless) as they've ever been.

The 10.2-inch iDrive 7 infotainment screen can display a number of cameras, which are especially helpful while using the 3 Series' new Reversing Assistant.

BMW

BMW is also jumping on the artificial intelligence bandwagon, premiering its new Intelligent Personal Assistant in the 3 Series. It works a lot like Benz's MBUX setup: Say "Hi, BMW" or "Hey, BMW" or "Hello, BMW" at any time to activate the AI, and use it to control myriad vehicle functions like climate and entertainment settings. Even more useful, you can access important vehicle information through the personal assistant -- ask it about your fuel range, oil level or tire pressures, and it'll be happy to tell you what's what. It works with navigation, too. Say, "Hey, BMW, take me to the closest burger place," and you'll be at your local Shake Shack in no time.

Where its rival's MBUX has the upper hand, however, is in its ability to provide online search information. Ask a Mercedes to define a word or tell you about your favorite author, and it'll rattle off whatever details it can find. Ask your BMW to do the same, and it won't know what to do.

One cool thing about BMW's AI is that you can change its name, or "activation word." Instead of saying, "Hey, BMW," you can replace the automaker's name with anything you want, like you might with your Amazon Alexa. Call it Dave. Call it Maxine. Call it a four-letter word my copy editors probably won't allow me to print. Plus, even if you do change the activation word, the system will still respond to its usual "Hey, BMW" command. Me? I chose the phrase "Now you're an all-star." So I could say, "Hey now, you're an all-star." And now you have Smash Mouth stuck in your head. You're welcome.

But I digress, my experience with BMW's personal assistant isn't all fun and games. During a day of testing, both my co-driver and I could only get the system to work about half of the time. I'm not talking about getting it to respond to commands, either, I mean it flat-out wouldn't respond to "Hey, BMW" on many occasions.

Furthermore, without an online search component, I'm not sure BMW AI really enhances the infotainment experience. Sure, it's super helpful to have the car know about tire pressures and oil level, but why would I say "Hey, BMW, turn on the heated seats," in the hopes of it maybe understanding me, when I could just reach over and push the button? Why ask it to increase or decrease the volume when there are controls on the steering wheel right next to my thumb? Don't even get me started on the hilariously weird response to "Hey, BMW, I'm tired," in which the system goes into its "revitalization mode," where it plays loud techno music, turns the ambient lighting green and pulses the air conditioning. Who's asking for this feature -- or, more importantly, using it?

It's not perfect, but the new 3 Series is once again on top of its dynamic game.

BMW

The driver's choice, once again

So no, the 2019 BMW 3 Series isn't perfect. But it's a far more competitive product than before.

An Audi A4 will still get you better onboard tech, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class truly feels like the most luxurious car in this space and only the Genesis G70 offers a manual transmission. But none of those can out-drive the BMW, and while an equivalent Alfa Romeo Giulia comes close, the 3 Series has the upper hand on chassis refinement and balance (and likely reliability, just saying).

Earlier this year, BMW engineers told me their goal was to create "the best sport sedan in the world" -- or, more realistically anyway, the best-driving car in its class. In that regard, mission accomplished. The new 3 Series is a proper return to form.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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