The verdict: The redesigned BMW 3 Series comes with a renewed focus on technology and luxury, but it loses some of its driving character in the bargain.
Versus the competition: There are other options in this class if you want to have fun behind the wheel, but the 3 Series’ technology credentials and excellent cabin hold up well against the field.
After I finished testing the redesigned 2019 BMW 330i, I took a look at the headlines of the 3 Series stories I’ve written over the past year: “Is the Mojo Back?” “Can BMW Lift the Crown Once Again?” All my 3 Series stories have been about the past as much as the future because I’ve been hoping for the sports sedan to hark back to the BMW of old — the one that led the field in driving dynamics and was a blast to pilot everywhere, from an autocross to any mountain road you could find.
But the new car isn’t the analog, canyon-carving 3 Series I longed for. Time and a shift in market demand seem to have driven the newest generation of the 3 (codenamed G20) in a different direction. In that regard, it has succeeded. Layers of technology drape over both the cabin and the driving experience, and while that’s made the car more modern and luxurious, it’s also lost something in the balance.
Small Engine, Big Power
There is one place, however, where the BMW hasn’t lost a step: under the hood. The 330i comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 255 horsepower and 295 pounds-feet of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. (Regrettably, BMW has discontinued the manual transmission.) Rear-wheel drive was standard in my 330i test car; all-wheel drive is optional in the 330i xDrive. The new 330i’s power numbers represent modest increases of 7 hp and 37 pounds-feet of torque over the 2018 car without changing displacement.
It’s an impressive engine for a turbo four. The power band is wide and kicks in early; maximum torque opens up at just 1,550 rpm, and the transmission is adept at finding gears quickly when you press the accelerator. Flip the 330i into Sport mode and the powertrain jumps up eagerly. I mostly left the transmission to its own devices while driving hard, and it was adept at holding onto gears to give me a good boost of power on corner exits, as well as downshifting under harder gas-pedal inputs. The powertrain’s instant responsiveness was the best part of the 330i driving experience — in sharp contrast to the steering and suspension’s lack of communication.
The Things We Left Behind
In the previous-generation 3 Series, the addition of the optional M Suspension and steering really shored up the car’s dynamics, and I’d hoped the same would be true here. My test vehicle came with all the performance boxes checked: M Sport Package with sport steering, Track Handling Package with M Sport brakes and differential, and an Adaptive M Suspension, all of which added $8,150 to the 330i’s price tag.
Given this is pretty much the sharpest 330i you can get, it was disappointing. My initial impression was that the suspension and steering vagueness were noticeable but not an impediment, but after a week in the car, my mind changed. If you’re looking for a vehicle in this class that emphasizes driving enjoyment, you’ll have to look elsewhere (I’d recommend going in the direction of the aforementioned G70 or the Alfa Romeo Giulia).
The BMW’s steering really lets you down when you push the car. I could feel the body rolling around behind me when I put the 330i through a dynamic lap in the canyons above Malibu. The steering’s weight isn’t really the issue — it firms up in Sport mode to provide enough resistance — it’s just missing any sort of feedback as the car’s speed increases, which is exactly when you most need to know what the front wheels are doing.
As a counterpoint to this, the 330i rides well on the road and has excellent highway manners — as it should, given the car’s lack of dynamism. It’s apparent that the 330i was tuned for comfort, not hijinks. It’s just grown up a bit too much for my taste; those qualities don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, though it is difficult to build a car that can do both things well.
The last hope for the 3 Series is its second version, the M340i, which will debut as a 2020 model later in 2019. It has a 382-hp, turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder that makes 369 pounds-feet of torque and goes like stink. Zero-to-60 flies by in just 4.2 seconds, BMW says. I tested one on the track, where the engine proved well suited for that environment.
EPA-estimated fuel economy for the 330i is 26/36/30 mpg city/highway/combined for RWD models, with AWD 330i’s coming in slightly behind that at 25/34/28 mpg, both on required premium gasoline.
Interior and Technology Improvements
The new 330i is a technology powerhouse. My test vehicle came equipped with both a 12.3-inch digital instrument panel and a 10.25-inch multimedia touchscreen (an 8.8-inch screen is standard), giving the driver’s side and center of the dashboard a futuristic feel. BMW gives you a lot of options for how you can interact with the car’s multimedia functions: via touchscreen, using a rotary dial by the shifter, with voice commands or even via gestures.
If that all sounds overwhelming, that’s because it is — at first. There are definitely more efficient ways to use the system in different situations, and I was thankful I had tested a few other BMW products with this version of iDrive before I had the 3 Series; without that, I would have felt much more lost. The good news is that once you get it down — including the best cadence for the voice controls — it all works quite seamlessly. But again, if you’re not tech-savvy or prefer a simpler setup, it will be a lot to take in.
One thing to watch out for: You can get Apple CarPlay connectivity (wireless, at that), but it comes at a cost. The first year will be free, but using it thereafter will cost $80 per year (you can set up and pay via the car’s multimedia system). Android users like yours truly will continue to be completely out of luck.
The 3 Series has grown in this redesign. The wheelbase has stretched by 1.6 inches, and that spaces out the cabin a bit. According to the official specifications, there’s only 0.1 inch more backseat legroom, but when I hopped back there it felt like more than that. It’s still not the biggest backseat in this class, but now I can at least sit behind where I set the driver’s seat somewhat comfortably (I’m 5-foot-11). It also offers enough support for longer trips, as well. The trunk provides 17.0 cubic feet of cargo room, up from 13.0 last year. This gives the 3 Series a big advantage over its competition: The A4 has 13.0 cubic feet, the C-Class has 12.6 and the G70 falls way behind, at 10.5 cubic feet.
The 2019 330i’s technology upgrades aren’t limited to multimedia. It offers a ton of optional safety technology, as well, and my test vehicle had it all. The requisite luxury safety features were present, like forward automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, blind spot warnings, and front and rear parking sensors. But the 3 Series goes above and beyond the requisite, particularly with two features: Extended Traffic Jam Assistant and Backup Assistant.
Extended Traffic Jam Assistant works at speeds of less than 37 mph on limited-access highways, and it doesn’t require the driver to touch the wheel. A small camera in the instrument cluster makes sure the driver is paying attention, and as long as that’s the case, the system remains activated and guides the car down the highway in one lane. The system can be a bit tricky to turn on and keep on, but it made the Los Angeles traffic I had parked myself in much more bearable once it was up and running. Backup Assistant is similarly impressive: If you have to pull forward into a tricky space, the car remembers up to 50 yards of the path and can recreate it in Reverse, steering automatically on the way out to avoid obstacles or bushes.
It’s also worth noting the myriad camera views offered, from a 360-degree view to a simulated view that rotates around the car. For example, if you slowly approach a curb while parking, the camera will automatically shift to show you a top-down view of the hood so you can see exactly how close you are to objects in front of you.
Value and Pricing
The 330i I tested was pretty much fully loaded. It starts at $41,245 (including destination charge) for RWD models, while AWD versions start at $43,745 — a $2,000 premium. Adding all the multimedia and safety technology I mentioned earlier, plus leather upholstery and a fantastic Portimao Blue Metallic paint, drove the price tag for our tester up to a dizzying $59,920.
That isn’t to say the BMW is alone in reaching such dizzying price heights; you can option competitors in this class to similar places. But there are also much better deals to be had, particularly in the G70. It may not offer the same level of technology, but for much less money you get a larger engine, all-wheel drive, Nappa leather and a much better driving experience (and don’t forget Android Auto). If you want to price the 330i to match a G70, you’ll have to give back many of the features that earn it distinction.
After my week with the 2019 330i concluded, I hadn’t embraced the new paradigm. There was still some wistfulness for the 3 Series of old, and I think it might always be there for me. Perhaps one day the sedan will be both a technological and driving powerhouse, but the current iteration’s delights come more through your eyes than your hands.
(Disclaimer: The wheels and tires in these photographs don’t match; the 330i I tested came equipped with the Track Handling Package, which normally adds black wheels and conventional (not run-flat) tires. The car I tested has bi-color wheels and originally came with run-flat tires, which BMW swapped out to non-run-flats so performance would be as intended. BMW did say this combination will be available for order in the 2020 model year.)
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