Most editors will tell you that a car review should not focus only on how the new model compares to the last one. If there's ever an exception, though, it's with the 2019 BMW 3 Series, a car for which we waited with crossed fingers for quite some time.
You see, the last 3 Series -- the F30 generation sold from 2012 through 2018 -- was a bit of a letdown. Don't get me wrong, it was still a very good car, but it just didn't drive with the same sparkle and verve as the 3 Series sedans we loved in the 1990s and early 2000s. And that had people (including me) moaning that the 3 was no longer the sports sedan to beat.
BMW promises it took that feedback to heart in developing the new, G20-generation 3 Series. And it takes only a few miles behind the wheel of a 2019 330i to suss out just how good the new car is to drive.
Yes, it's fun!
Our video-shoot location happens to be at the end of quite a few winding, traffic-free roads, giving me a chance to wring out the BMW on the types of roads where the 3 Series made a name for itself. First of all, it's quick, with 60 mph attainable in a claimed 5.3 seconds -- quite brisk for what is the base 3 Series.
Power comes from a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, rated for 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The engine exhibits little in the way of turbo lag and delivers strong, consistent power all across its rev range. With the car in Sport mode (the other choices are Comfort and Eco Pro), right-now throttle response and crisp reactions from the paddle shifters make for tons of driving enjoyment.
Need more speed? Don't forget, there's also anwith a six-cylinder turbo engine good for 382 hp.
As to corners, the 330i takes them in its stride, with well-controlled body motions and loads of grip. Bumpy curves and last-minute line adjustments do not upset the chassis. Where the old 3 Series could feel distant and disconnected on a back road, this car makes me part of the action. Part of the credit, of course, goes to a new chassis that is not only lighter but also significantly stiffer.
If only the same improvements were present in the steering, which remains a let-down compared to competing sedans in this class. There's vagueness off-center that saps confidence, and the car doesn't feel very crisp on turn-in. And sometimes, on quick direction changes, there's the sensation that the rear axle takes a bit to react and then overcompensates; the 330i can feel a tad twitchy. While the BMW is very quick on a back road and very involving, there are other cars with better steering feel and more fluid cornering manners.
Still impresses as an everyday luxury car
Back in Comfort mode, the 330i comports itself with all the peace and quiet expected of a car in this segment. Wind and road noise are muted -- perhaps, though it's hard to say without a back-to-back drive, as quietly as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Also really noticeable is how much better noise, vibration and harshness from the four-cylinder engine are controlled. No longer does the car shudder and rattle when the stop-start system reengages the 2.0-liter. On the outside, though, you'll still hear an almost diesel-like clatter and patter as the car idles.
The 3 Series is at home in the city, with ultra-smooth shifts from the eight-speed automatic transmission, reasonably light steering and an abundance of safety systems (more on them later) to ease navigating and parking. Sightlines are good in all directions, with a great view forward over the low dashboard and hood.
Being an M Sport model, this 330i has a stiffer and lower suspension than the standard Sport and Luxury trim levels, and the result is what I would call a "European" ride quality. That means that while the BMW is compliant and soaks up major impacts from cracked and potholed roads, you do feel every single crack and bump. Non-M Sport models would, of course, ride a little more gently. But there's nothing unpleasant about driving this car even on the Midwest's least-maintained pavement, and overall the car strikes a good balance between ride quality and handling sharpness.
BMW equips the 3 Series with all of its latest and greatest technology, although many of the features on my tester are part of option packages. Still, I've got a 12.3-inch Live Cockpit Pro digital instrument cluster ahead of me, with funky geometric bars on either side for the tachometer and speedometer. A monochrome (and relatively low-detail) map sits in the center of the screen, while on the right-hand side I can pull up details like fuel economy info, G-force readouts or even the currently playing song's album art. A color head-up display offers even more info right in my line of sight.
Atop the dash is a 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system running BMW's iDrive 7 software. Though it's got a new layout to older iDrive systems, the infotainment menus are simple to navigate and crystal-clear in their presentation of the car's many, many, many settings. Although some of those features are buried deep into menus, the primary displays pages, for navigation, music and phone calling, are self-explanatory and have a very easy learning curve.
Though the touch-sensitive screen works well, I find it even easier to navigate iDrive through the jog controller and shortcut buttons on the center console -- though it's a pity there's no volume knob adjacent to that control knob (though there is on on the center stack). You can also say "Hey, BMW" (or any other hotword you program) to make verbal requests to the Intelligent Personal Assistant voice recognition system.
Gesture controls are also included, and in general I find them silly -- why waggle my finger in the air to change the volume when there are steering wheel-mounted controls? But there's one quite nice one for skipping tracks or presets by making a sideways thumbs-up and jerking your hand toward the passenger seat. It's a satisfying way to skip past, say, an unexpected Ed Sheeran song.
Connectivity includes USB ports of both the Type A and Type C variety, optional wireless phone charging, a Wi-Fi hotspot and wireless Apple CarPlay support -- though Android Auto remains unavailable.
Plentiful safety tech, too
Along with entertainment tech, the 3 Series has a long list of features to make driving easier and safer. However, only precollision warning and braking (with pedestrian and cyclist detection) comes standard, with other features optional. That options list, however, is extensive: lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
The optional Driving Assistant Professional feature adds adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, as well as lane-centering steering -- but it's not a hands-off autonomous system. Extended Traffic Jam Assistant can accelerate, steer and brake in heavy traffic at speeds below 37 mph, and it has a camera in the instrument cluster that "watches" to ensure the driver is still looking at the roadway; if so, he or she won't even need to touch the wheel. That'll be a welcome feature for anyone who commutes in bumper-to-bumper gridlock.
Familiar on the inside, different on the outside
It takes no time at all to figure out the layout of the 3 Series' dashboard because, well, this feels like basically the same interior we've seen in BMWs for quite some time. There's nothing wrong with sticking to a proven script, but rivals like Volvo and Mercedes are doing far more creative, more modern-looking things in this class. Likewise, while the 3 Series has lots of very nice-feeling and nice-looking materials, there are also big expanses of plain, hard plastics that don't exactly scream premium. That's not to say this is a bad place to spend time, it's just not quite as fresh as some competing sedans.
On the outside, the car is recognizably a BMW 3 Series, but it's not as immediately attractive as prior models. It could be the wide and flat taillights, it could be the plain body surfacing, but it took me a while to warm up to this car's design. Still, this particular car -- blacked-out trim, lowered suspension, 19-inch wheels and Sunset Orange paint -- has a properly sporty appearance.
The practical numbers
As you'd expect from an all-new model, the 2019 3 Series is more fuel efficient than before. The rear-drive 330i scores 26 miles per gallon city and 36 mpg highway in EPA testing, up from 24/34 mpg last year. My 330i xDrive tester, meanwhile, is rated for 25/34 mpg, versus 23/33 mpg for its predecessor. Hitting those figures in real-world driving is easy, too.
Pricing figures have unsurprisingly crept up, with the 2019 BMW 330i starting at $41,245 (with destination) in rear-wheel drive form and $43,245 for the xDrive variant. Also unsurprising is how quickly those figures can ramp up as you load up on options, with my tester boasting a list price of $58,770. That's quite a big number for the entry 3 Series with a four-cylinder engine; while it's easy to be drawn in by the many toys on the order sheet, I wouldn't equip my 3 Series quite so expensively.
A return to form
The BMW 3 Series is back. It's not just a new car, it's a new and much improved car. Of course the G20-generation sedan receives bonus points for being such a marked step forward from the last 3 Series. But even judged alone, this 330i is an excellent luxury commuter and an exciting sports sedan. It's well worth the money, and you're going to love driving it.