BMW launched its latest 3 Series in South Africa in March this year – but as much as the event marked a momentous occasion, the car’s on-street presence hasn’t been as head-turning as previous generations. DEON SCHOEMAN drives the 335i flagship to find out whether that anonymity is merely skin-deep, or indicative of a more far-reaching malady.
It’s been five months or so since BMW launched the new-generation 3 Series, codenamed F30, in South Africa. The car is an important one for BMW SA, not only because it’s the brand’s volume seller, but because it’s also produced for export at the company’s Rosslyn plant. For now, the 335i is the sportiest member of the 3 Series clan – and the range’s flagship.
The latest three already had a reputation for being BMW’s most accomplished compact sedan. Of course, it’s only compact in relative terms: compared to the original E30 3, this latest generation looks almost gargantuan.
That said, the proportions of the newcomer are almost perfect, with the combination of swooping nose, the short raised rear deck and a wide, planted stance creating a sense of balance and purpose.
I say almost perfect because, from some angles, that extended bonnet looks a bit exaggerated, as if the designers had to make the curve more acute to make it fit. But it also adds some much-needed character to a shape that is almost too neatly sculpted in all other respects.
That it is strongly reminiscent of the larger, F10-generation 5 Series might please those who believe in a homogenous brand identity. But it doesn’t help the new 3 to stand out from the premium car crowd – and it’s that relative anonymity within the broader BMW fold that is one of its most serious handicaps.
But let’s not get carried away here: the new 3 is a smart expression of the current BMW design language. It looks sleek and athletic, with more than a bit of visual muscle in the way the coachwork is drawn tautly across the frame. Short overhangs, big wheels and deep bumpers front and rear add to the effect.
The interior seeks to find a similar balance between sporty flair and comfortable luxury. As this car features the Sport execution, it gets a crimson vanity line that stretches the width of the dashboard.
It’s a brave attempt to add some sporty flair, but one that, in my opinion, adds nothing more than an afterthought of colour.
In my books, an ambience of upmarket performance would be far better expressed with more exotic – and innovative – finishes such as carbon fibre or Kevlar, for instance. As it stands, the pale, brushed aluminium-look surfaces gracing the fascia only add to a certain disappointing neutrality. At least the black leather seats get red stitching, a treatment mirrored on the steering wheel rim.
Still, the 335i’s cabin does exude an upmarket aura, with a driver-focussed fascia that is true to the BMW ethos. The analogue dials and large pop-up LCD display provide all the at-a-glance information one could ever want, while the once clunky i-Drive control interface is now intuitive to use. Or perhaps we’ve just got used to it.
On the subject of information, one of the Sport’s neat little features is a so-called Sport display that shows a real-time readout of torque and power delivery. It may be considered a puerile distraction more suite to PlayStation than real-world motoring, but it’s fascinating, nonetheless.
Decent, sports-bolstered seats with adjustable thigh support provide good support and up front, and there’s plenty of space. In the rear, both legroom and shoulder room have become more generous, compared to the previous 3.
Standard equipment covers all the usual must-haves, from electric everything to auto headlights and windscreen wipers, from Bluetooth and USB-equipped sound to climate control, rear-view camera and cruise control.
One of the stars of the 335i show is the engine: a three-litre straight-six with twin-scroll turbocharger, direct injection and Valvetronic variable valve control. It might not sound as meaty as those glorious, normally aspirated BMW straight-sixes of old, but it certainly offers both shove and grunt in abundance.
The factory stats credit the high-tech six-potter with 225 kW of maximum power at 5,800 rpm, while a fat 400 Nm is already on song at just 1,200 rpm, negating any notion of turbo lag, and then sustained all the way to 5,000 rpm.
The eight-speed auto gearbox may not be a dual-clutch design, but its shifts are swift and incisive, and the shift paddles add to the pleasure of piloting the car – even if top gear is an overdrive ratio.
BMW’s fuel consumption claims are remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, the quoted 7.2-litres/100 km for the combined cycle is exceptional for a powerful, turbocharged luxury sedan weighing around 1.6 tons. Secondly, the automatic version, as tested here, is actually more frugal than the manual derivative.
However, don’t expect to achieve those claimed stats unless you wedge a tennis ball under the accelerator pedal and use only a fraction of the urge on offer. Our real-world consumption came to just over 11 litres/100 km, which is still pretty good, but a full four litres thirstier than BMW claims.
Still, who cares about fuel consumption in a car that’s priced on the wrong side of half a bar, and feels eager at the very first turn of the wheel? BMW’s reputation for creating driving machines comes to its full right here, and in dynamic terms, the 335i is hard to fault.
Don’t believe those critics who’ve described the latest 3 as anodyne or uninvolving: this 335i is anything but. With a power-to-weight ratio of around 140 kW/ton, it certainly has the muscle to post some decent straight-line figures.
The standing-start 0-to-100 km/h dash is effortlessly despatched in well under seven seconds, while an electronic nanny is the only reason why the BMW won’t run beyond 250 km/h if the road is long and open enough.
But the real talents of the 3 are centred around a rigidly configured chassis, a finely tuned suspension and BMW’s Driving Experience Control, which allows the sedan to be configured to suit personal preference or driving conditions.
You get to choose between Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus settings, with the latter two invoking a more aggressive throttle action, crisper engine response, more direct steering and tauter suspension.
At the other end of the scale, an Eco Pro mode focuses on efficiency and optimum fuel consumption with a softer throttle map, earlier shifts and on-screen fuel-saving tips. Maybe that’s the way to achieve those fuel consumption stats.
The differences between the modes are succinct and instantly recognisable. For enthusiasts, Sport should be the default mode because the entire car feels sharper and more responsive.
Like the larger 5 Series, the new 3’s limits lie well beyond the capabilities of most drivers, so it demands to be driven with a certain level of intent to reveal its true capabilities. But those prepared to press on will discover a thoroughly entertaining, invigorating sedan with exceptional grip and composure.
Acceleration is bullet train rapid and utterly effortless, while cornering is confident, with loads of composure and a tidy line. In Sport Plus mode, the stability control allows a little rear-end give, which leads to the kind of subtle oversteer that’s easily caught, but flatters and pleases the driver.
Of course, you could also opt to simply drive the 335i in full auto mode, and use the huge torque reserves of the engine to effortlessly propel you from destination to destination. In that sense, this is a Jekyll and Hyde machine, with the driver dictating just how suave, or how savage, the driving experience is going to be.
The BMW 335i represents the most technically advanced – and the most polished – expression of the mainstream 3 Series lineage to date. It’s almost indecently rapid, well equipped and extremely sophisticated. But it’s also very expensive and lacks the outright presence of some of its predecessors.
It’s that lack of individual visual character that is the biggest threat to the new 3’s vital success. But those prepared to truly experience the full extent of the 335i’s considerable dynamic talents will never want to let go of that steering wheel again. DM
BMW 335i AT Sport