Tuesday, 20 March 2012


It was almost exactly 7 years ago (May 2005) when I first drove the now previous-generation BMW 3 Series, codenamed E90. Mostly it was on the old Wesbank Raceway in Germiston, partly on the freeway and byways. I quickly declared it class-leader. Incidentally its replacement, the brand new F30-coded car, was also launched on track, backways and freeways. Incidentally too, it is the new class-leader.

What makes it a class leader will become apparent as the story goes on. This is the latest chapter in the 3 Series story, a story that began six generations ago in 1975. One could say 3 invented the segment which it currently leads globally; compact, sporty, agile, luxurious. Not so compact anymore is perhaps more accurate. Scaling in at 1.4 tonnes unladen, 3 is the new 5 actually, where 1 is the new 3. F30 for example, is 93mm longer and is overall wider than E90. Having said that, BMW says it is up to 45kg lighter than E90.

And so the track experience would prove a lovely test bed for agility, power, handling and performance. With a dry Zwartkops Raceway being the backdrop, the short, stubby L-shaped track is almost perfect for this size car. As opposed to Khayalami, which is more twisty than a Sicilian bolognese (and possibly just as treacherous), Zwartkops is punchier, more finite. Plus you can see over 60% of the track from the pits. Good if you are scoping out stretched-out speeds on the second corner off the pits, just after the right-hand “hammer head”. 

It turns out flat-out is the way to go and the turbocharged 328i was just too happy to oblige. Screaming all the way up to the next sharp right, uphill to the 80km/h 90-degree corner, 3 felt extremely composed, and in charge. Admittedly, five laps in, the 225/50 R17 94W runflat tyres were beginning to squeal harder than a pig at an abattoir. Then again, this is not a racing car. It’s the new 3 Series compact sedan. Rear-wheel-driven, turbocharged and…automatic.

Yes folks, the 335i sold in Mzansi only comes in 8-speed automatic. But the 328i slapping Zwartkops around like snoek on a deck featured a 6-speed manual cog. Of the three initial models, only range-topping 335i does not offer a clutch option. Apparently South Africans aren’t too good at driving and taking care of manual gearboxes. Not my words.

Ok, so it takes off with slingshot confidence, handles with aplomb, is assured over apexes. But is it still a 3 Series? I first sampled the front passenger seat out of BMW’s Rosslyn manufacturing plant. “Space like Star Trek” I thought. That makes it very un-3 Series; its two main rivals have always boasted more legroom. This time it appears there are 3 aces up the BMW sleeve. I also sat at the back and again, very accommodating.

I said earlier that 3 is the new 5. It is. The 3 is about as big as the 1988 5 Series (E34 model). And it’s as luxurious as the current 5. Take the standard iDrive system which is now also class-leading as an example. Very easy to operate, a minimal number of buttons, iDrive has come of age since it made its debut in the old (E65) and highly criticised Adrian van Hooydonk-designed 7 Series. There’s furniture here to rival many home studies, materials straight from the 7 and technology also found in the Rolls Royce Ghost.

The driver-facing dashboard is one of the best designed in the business and also features some fine options, like high gloss finish and aluminium materials. These will depend on whether you chose the Modern, Sport or Luxury Line trim. A tour guide at the plant assured us that over a thousand combos were possible. Fact is, these cars have become so individualised that it’s actually possible to have a unique 3. Laughable but true. A first in the segment is full colour head-up display (HUD). Another first is the 8-speed automatic which is optionally available from the baseline 320i. Oh, you’ll also be able to access the internet in this car.

For the first time in its history, the 3 is being sold only with turbocharged engines, both petrol and diesel. This bodes very well for a turbocharged M3! Coming to a dealership near you in 2013. The baseline 320i features a 2.0-litre turbo motor delivering 135kW at 5000rpm, and a nice 270Nm of torque between 1250rpm and 4500rpm. Finally BMW gets to compete head-on with the Mercedes-Benz C200 CGI (135kW) and Audi A4 2.0 T (132kW). We reckon there ought to be an even lower 318i making 125kW. Even a 116i producing 100kW would be quite respectable. And it would sell like samoosas on a winter afternoon at Oriental Plaza. The 320i only arrives in Mzansi in May though.

The 320d on the other hand, is readily available. Its 2.0-litre diesel also kicks out 135kW at 4000rpm, with peak torque of 380Nm occurring between 1750rpm and 2750rpm. BMW says it will accelerate from 0 – 100km/h in 7.5 seconds and has an average fuel consumption of 4.4 litres per 100km. several measures were taken to ensure this figure, including the installation of start/ stop technology which switches off engine power as soon as the car comes to a standstill, restarting it just from driver’s pedal prodding. Also, the ECO PRO programme is fitted to delay throttle response for times when cruising is better than cracking. The low C02 emissions rating of 117g/km (automatic) just falls below Pravin’s ever-widening tax radar. On the 50km stretch where we got bonding, the 320d could pull away in sporadic bursts, crawl at traffic jam speeds and still return 5.7 litres per 100km, meaning a tank range of over 1 000km.

As for the 328i which is placed between the old 325i and 330i, it features same 2.0-litre turbo but with more thorn on your side. Making 180kW between 5000rpm and 6500rpm, as well as 350Nm between 1250rpm and 4800rpm, 328i is slated as the perfect in-betweener. With a 0 – 100km/h sprint time claimed at a highly ambitious 5.9 seconds and top speed of 250km/h, drivers will believe it can do both. Easily.

For the first few months of its road life few will recognise how different it is from the outgoing model. The main, clear differentiator is the front end which features a new bonnet, protruding slick-cut headlights, and a rear end so closely related to the 5’s that in passing you’d think you’d seen big brother himself. The price list is 8 pages long, so you’ll understand if we direct you to the official BMW website so you can see for yourself exactly what costs what on that list.

Rosslyn is one of ten world-class plants around the world where the car is manufactured. We will export to places like North America, Japan and Australia. Currently a production output of 53 000 per year is envisaged, but will increase to over 90 000 cars annually from 2013. As one of the “greenest” plants in the southern hemisphere, Rosslyn will soon be able to extract around 50% of its own electricity requirements from a nearby landfill. The mayor of Tshwane is understandably quite impressed and just as keen for the extraction to go ahead as soon as it is humanly possible.

BMW South Africa is very much interested in regaining its place atop the executive compact sedan segment where the C-Class is currently camped. With the new 3 Series only badge preference and pricing should stand in their way. Welcome back, master leader.

2012 BMW 3 Series prices start at R361 000 for the manual 320i.


Soldier Power said...

BMW has done justice to the design and kept it very elegant but not too controversial this time. Now we can wait for the M3

Anonymous said...

this car is bosss bossss!

Damian said...

I'll miss that 330i sound of the straight 6 motor But the 328i seems to be a good choice too.

x_to_power8 said...

the back is like 5 series and the front is like it's sulking

Anonymous said...

I like the front only