There are smaller vehicles than the 3 Series in BMW showrooms — cheaper ones, too, designed to lure first-time buyers. This means the 3 Series needs to be nicer, more sophisticated, more luxurious and have more content than ever before so that buyers trading in the lease on their 2 Series will have something to look forward to.
Yet the 3 Series has been only mildly updated a couple of times since the current generation was introduced. This year's changes are powertrain-related, with new engines that prompted a model name change: I tested a 2017 330i, which was in 2016 known as the 328i (compare the two here). The new name is meant to draw attention to the all-new, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, replacing last year's 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The new engine has 8 more horsepower, at 248 hp, and gains a few more pounds-feet of torque, rising from 255 to 258 pounds-feet.
We're not sure why BMW's updated the engine for such a minor power bump (not to mention fuel economy went down 1 mpg on the highway), but we suspect it's in keeping with BMW's traditional strategy of changing to a new powertrain before changing the rest of the car in a major redesign a couple of years later (Toyota does this too).
Aside from a couple of color changes and the Sport Line trim now being called the Sport Package, the engine is the extent of the changes for the 330i for 2017. So how does the new engine do?
New Engine, Same Experience
Quite well, actually. My test vehicle was a new 2017 330i optioned up the way you'd most likely lease one if you lived in Orange County, Calif. (where this car is ubiquitous). It had an eight-speed automatic transmission (a six-speed manual is also available) and rear-wheel drive, but no sport packages or any go-fast bits, so I got a good taste of the entry-level sedan.
The engine itself purrs well, but that purring noise is deceptive — it's not actually coming from the exhaust, it's coming from all around you. The sound is piped in through the speakers, which explains why it sounds like a straight-six engine instead of a two-liter four cylinder.
I don't actually mind the sound. Plant your foot and the powerful little motor spins up quickly, propelling the car with authority and proving to be quite enjoyable to drive. It doesn't lack for power in any gear, but the default Comfort mode in Driving Dynamics Control makes it feel lazy. Pressing the gas doesn't make a lot happen unless you dig deep, and the transmission isn't eager to downshift under slower driving conditions. When it says Comfort, it means Comfort: the 330i is cushy, relaxed and even a bit ponderous in its powertrain responses.
Pop it into Sport mode, though, and the car wakes up considerably. Throttle response is much more immediate, and the transmission holds lower gears longer for better acceleration.
"This is what I imagine a BMW should feel like," I found myself saying after keeping it in Sport mode for a while. Problem is, driving like this all the time — with the motor revving higher while just cruising along — gets tedious. I would have liked a sportier Comfort mode and a more comfortable Sport mode, not a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation that forces you to choose one personality over another.
A Softer, Gentler BMW
One attribute BMW has dialed in well is ride comfort. Over a varying array of surfaces, very little upset the 330i regardless of what mode it was in. Chassis tuning is excellent, with little body roll, no impact harshness over bumps, and very satisfying sporty ride and handling.
Steering is much less communicative than enthusiasts will remember from previous generations of BMWs, reinforcing the idea that BMW is now going after more mainstream buyers in an effort to chase sales. Shoppers getting out of a Toyota Camry and into a 330i will be impressed as hell with how the steering feels, but those cross-shopping new entries, like the Alfa Romeo Giulia, will be disappointed at the comparably bland numbness the supposed "Ultimate Driving Machine" exhibits.
Chassis tuning is excellent, with little body roll, no impact harshness over bumps, and very satisfying sporty ride and handling.
Familiar, Outside and In
Inside, there's nothing new to report — and that's both good and bad. It's good in that the interior is still the same familiar, well-laid-out, comfortable and high-quality environment that it's always been. The materials are up to snuff, the multimedia system works better than it ever has, and the switches and levers all feel traditionally BMW — they'll be very familiar to anyone who's been leasing 3 Series sedans for the past 20 years. The gauges still light up orange at night in a unique and simple, highly visible arrangement that forgoes a gimmicky all-digital gauge screen, like the Virtual Cockpit in the latest Audi A4. The front seats are still comfortable, the rear seats are still a bit cramped (not unusual for this class), and the 3 Series still looks, feels and even smells like a familiar BMW 3 Series inside.
But that lack of change is starting to catch up to the 3. It still uses an annoying spring-back transmission shift lever that can be confusing for people not familiar with the type. Spring-back, European-style turn signal levers are present, as well. Leather upholstery is still not standard, even in the mid-$40,000 price bracket, and neither is a backup camera. Audi has updated its latest offerings nicely, and the latest Mercedes-Benz C-Class has a stunning interior with luxurious materials and state-of-the-art amenities.
At least the 3 Series is still one of the safest compact luxury cars you can buy, earning top scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
While it will help you survive the crash, though, it isn't as advanced as some newer models in avoiding the crash, according to IIHS' category report for mid-size luxury cars, which ranks the 3 Series lower than competitors due to lesser performance in automatic braking tests.
Not Getting Any Cheaper
The base price for the 330i I tested was $39,745, a fairly lofty price for a car that doesn't include a lot of advanced safety features. My test model added some popular and common equipment packages, like Driver Assistance and Premium, plus navigation, heated front seats, leather upholstery and 18-inch wheels for a grand total of $47,345. That's a lot of money for a car without forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control or even blind spot warning. So the 330i definitely doesn't win on value, but given that leasing is very strong within the BMW brand, that price often doesn't matter to repeat buyers — only their monthly payment.
The new 330i is ready for an update, a next-generation model to match some of the newer offerings on the market, but if tradition, familiarity and the badge on the hood are all more important to you, the latest 3 Series still delivers.