Series 3 Round 4
Despite a quiet evolution in styling, the new 3 Series knocks its rivals back to the drawing board yet again.
The new BMW 3 Series is arguably the best compact sedan in the world. It sets new standards for ride, handling, refinement and performance in a class act that can only be described as pure synergy. The fact that it is clearly superior in every way to its predecessor, itself still dynamically the class leader, says it all.
It is certainly rare for a car to be a best seller at the time of its demise, but BMW's 3 Series sedan has managed to maintain its status as an icon even as it draws its last breath. The new coupe, cabriolet and touring are still many months away, ensuring the continued desirability of used examples. The obvious visual connection of old and new helps here, although some would say that it looks more like a scaled down 5 Series.
BMW's design chief, Chris Bangle, is the first to admit and justify that the new car, internal code E46, is an evolutionary statement. "When we make a revolutionary model change as happened with the jump from the E30 to the E36, its successor will be evolutionary," he said. "This keeps customer confidence and residuals high, and allows us to perfect the basic design. I can tell you now that the E46's eventual replacement will be revolutionary."
Selective engines apart, no major and few minor components are shared by the new car which is larger, heavier, safer, more powerful and more economical-model for model. What few components are carried over have been substantially improved.
Two engines are available for U.S. buyers, the 2.8-liter and 2.5-liter sixes in 328i and 323i guise respectively. Both engines have benefitted from further development, including aluminum blocks that help to bring weight down. Previously only the Z3 2.8s used the aluminum block in the U.S. Both engines meet California LEV (Low Emission Vehicle) standards. Fully dressed the engines weigh about 331 lbs.
As before, the star of the show is the 328i. Power is unchanged at 190 hp at 5500 rpm (The 323i develops 168 hp and 181 lb-ft of torque at the same engine speeds), but real world driveability is enhanced by the use of the double VANOS variable valve timing previously only found on the European-spec M3 Evolution. The peak torque of 206.6 lb-ft now arrives 500 rpm earlier at 3500 rpm, and is boosted significantly between 2000 and 3500 rpm, where previously there was a noticeable dip in the curve. VANOS continuously adjusts cam timing from lugging rpms all the way to redline to suit the situation.
On the road, the difference is felt immediately. Much more eager to get going from low revs, the revised engine also has better mid-range response if you are in a high gear in that critical rev band.
Driving the 328i on the limit round the Jerez Grand Prix Circuit, it is hard to believe that a car which rides so wen on badly maintained country roads can also handle so well on the track. Admittedly the non-sport suspension 328i rolls a fair bit at near race speeds, but it is linear and very progressive in its responses, exhibiting only mild stabilizing understeer in the dry. More than that, when you switch the DSC stability control out of the equation, you can still have some good old oversteering fun.
I did half a lap with DSC in and then elected to switch it off the rest of the time. This way, I could use rear-end slip to balance the car better through a fast late apex left hander which is taken in third. After that is the long right-hander which I prefer to take in fourth to carry more speed through the bend with the car more settled than if you are screaming it in third.
Through the left-right of the chicane in third, riding some of the first curb the compact Bimmer showed that it could be flicked from am lack to another with a clean transition and superb body control even on the ragged edge of grip. Cars with M-Technic suspension will follow soon and they should be very good indeed.
To demonstrate the practical worth of DSC (Dynamic Stability Control), BMW laid out a test circuit for us in the muddy car park opposite the race track. DOC applies the brake on the opposite wheel to the comer of the car which is starting to slide. The system is a safety net when the car suddenly encounters a slippery surface, unequal coefficients of friction on different road wheels or if the driver simply goes into a corner too fast.
Turning into a bend and accelerating on the loose surface, I could feel the system immediately rein back the throttle and apply the necessary brake or brakes to check the onset of terminal understeer. And even when I applied full throttle to kick the back out on a tight bend, DSC would take over and keep everything neat and tidy.
With the DSC switched off, the car was great fun and showed how good its handling is even on road tires in the dirt. But there is no doubt that the optional DSC system could be a life saver even for an experienced driver, fired and far from optimum concentration on a wet or snowy night. Initially, it is an option for the 328i only, and the DSC unit is housed next to the bulkhead. "It does not really matter where the DSC unit is placed in the car," an engineer explained, 11 so long as the pipes that go to each brake unit are of equal length."
Another chassis engineer enlightened me on the development of the new cars underpinnings. "We could have used the old E36 floorpan and developed that," he said, "but it did not take us long to realize that to beef it up to meet the passive safety standards we were seeking would have entailed so many expensive changes, we were better off starting with a clean sheet. In addition, we wanted to make the wheelbase 25mm (0.98 in.) longer."
With this new floorpan as the starting point, the engineers set about improving the already excellent suspension system. The kinematics are similar but the elastokineniatics are altered.
The front suspension remains the tried and tested strut system with lower L-arms and an anti-roll bar. Slight modifications introduce more castor for better straightline stability. Any chance that this could deaden the feel through the variable rate assisted rack and pinion steering has been countered by the use of carefully tailored bushes which are pliant in fore and aft movement but resistant to lateral movement. A slight change of spring and damper rates accounts for a five percent weight increase.
Weight savings are achieved through the use of aluminum front lower arms, while, at the rear vital pounds are trimmed with aluminum upper wishbones which are also larger than before. There was little point in using this material for the lower links as they we of much smaller section. BMW worked smaller this out as the best cost vs. performance scenario. The beefy subframe is still cast in steel but is now of round rather than square section and is much stiffer and lighter The front and rear antiroll bars of the new car are smaller and larger respectively to reduce understeer.
In all, unsprung weight has been reduced by 20 percent despite the use of bigger vented disc brakes. These brakes by the way, are extremely effective and BMW claim that the stopping distance of the E46 is beaten only by the Porsche 911. The standard ABS system also features Comer Brake Control reduces brake pressure to the inside wheel during cornering to reduce the chance of oversteer under braking.
From any angle, the new E46 3 Series is smoother, sleeker and more rounded. In isolation, the E36 still looks good, but when you see them together, you realize just how its more chiseled shape has aged. The new headlamps have clear plexiglass covers made from a new material said to transmit 30 percent more light. The twin semi-circles of their lower edge can be called styling rather than design, but it does give the car a distinctive look and more BMW-like "face." Xenon headlights are optional.
The black plastic inserts fend off bad low speed parking maneuvers without leaving expensive battle scars. Front fog lights are standard on the 328i, optional on the 323i.
If you think the exterior is merely evolutionary, the interior is the place where great improvements have been made. Ergonomically, the E36 was close to being perfect, but it had two key flaws. One was the driving position and the other was rear seat leg room . The former gave a great seat to pedals to steering wheel relationship, but the steering wheel in both left and right-hand drive cars was skewed slightly. This created a back problem for many people on long drives. These sufferers will be pleased to know that the steering wheel of the E46 is perfectly aligned.
The longer wheelbase and better overall packaging has given rear seat passengers noticeably more legroom, and the interior feels bigger even if it is still far smaller than a 5 Series. The choice of materials is excellent, and the trim feels expensive. A single section for the dashboard cuts the chance of squeaks and rattles. The cloth trim is good, but the leather is even better. Matched to the optional burr walnut veneer, it makes for a very classy interior.
The wider center console is part of the visual flow that leads you into the car. A built-in radio cassette is standard equipment in line with the practice started with the latest generation 7 and 5 Series cars. The navigation system fitted to all the launch cars is optional, though. Specify this, and you also lose a small chunk of trunk space on the left hand side where the CD changer for the navigation system goes.
The new 3 Series looks good. It has a fuller, broad shouldered stance, even on standard wheels and tires. Its interior room is now no longer cramped and it has built on the chassis strengths of the outgoing model. With leather and wood, it also has a classier interior than any of its direct competitors.
But is this enough to keep enthusiasts in the fold when the competition is getting better all the time?
The answer has to be yes, because while some rivals may match or even better the small BMW in one or two areas, none manage to quite achieve the overall balance that makes this car such a stunning achievement. The E36 was always a good driver's car. The latest 3 Series builds on this and rounds the package off by being a great car for passengers to enjoy too.
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