Since I’ve been in the world of motoring journalism, this is my first new BMW 3 Series review. I’ve driven and reviewed 3ers before but never an all-new model. That might sound inconsequential but testing a new 3 Series is a big deal. It’s one of the best-selling, most important cars in the world and it’s an absolute icon in the world of sport sedans. So when I had the chance to pick up a 2019 BMW 330i xDrive, the moment wasn’t lost on me.
It’s no secret that BMW fans were disappointed with the previous F30-generation 3 Series, which ran from 2012-2018. While a good car in its own right, the F30 lacked the engagement, the zing that always made the 3 Series so special. There’s a common automotive trope that a great car is more than just the sum of its parts. That rang true for every 3 Series except the F30. That car felt very much like just a sum of its parts. Good parts and a good outcome. But nothing particularly special or desirable. Nothing more.
Making matters worse for BMW was the fact that its competition had become good. Very good. Cars like the current W205-generation Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the B9-gen Audi A4 and, most notably, the new Alfa Romeo Giulia all seemed like better driving cars than the F30 3 Series in one way or another. At first, it seemed like blasphemy. Could anything be better than the venerable 3 Series? Turns out, they could. And they were. So BMW had to get back to work, back to the drawing board to make something that brought those old fuzzy feelings back for its bread and butter sedan. What the Bavarians came up with was this — the G20-generation 3 Series.
BMW’s R&D Boss Klaus Frohlich recently spoke about this to us in Paris, when he said that he took offense to the constant battering the F30 took from both the media and from customers. In fact, he was sick of it. So when it came time to create the G20-gen 3er, he made it a point to make sure it was the best driving sedan in the segment. The Bavarians went to extreme measures to fine-tune everything about the G20; from chassis rigidity and steering response to suspension compliance and sound insulation. Has it all worked? In a word — yes.
When it came time to pick up the BMW 330i xDrive, I was very excited. I’d driven it before but only briefly on some very boring, traffic-filled roads. So I didn’t really have the opportunity to really test it. I’d driven its bigger brother, the M340i, on track and really was able to test its driving dynamics. However, the BMW 330i is actually the more important car. It’s the one that most customers will actually buy. Plus, in generations past, even the entry-level 3 Series’ were fun and dynamic to drive. You didn’t always need to upgrade to the more powerful, sportier model to have fun. So I was very excited to see if the new BMW 330i returned to form.
Four is All You Need
The biggest difference between the BMW 330i and its more powerful sibling is obviously its engine. Rather than a silky-smooth straight-six, the sort of engine BMW is most known for, the 330i packs a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-pot. That little TwinPower engine uses a single twin-scroll turbocharger to help it make a respectable 255 hp and a very healthy 295 lb-ft of torque. Those figures might not blow your skirt up but — and believe you me — they’re far more than enough. When paired with an eight-speed ZF-sourced automatic and xDrive all-wheel drive, 0-60 mph happens in just over five seconds.
More importantly, though, is the quality of the powertrain. Speed and performance aren’t worth a damn if the powertrain isn’t enjoyable to use. But the 330i’s punchy power plant is shockingly enjoyable. Its inline-four churns out buttery-smooth torque with ease and the calibration between it and its gearbox is perfect. BMW has long been the best at calibrating the ZF eight-speed and it’s at the top of its game here. In automatic, shifts are perfect; exactly when you need them, regardless of driving style, as if the gearbox is controlled via telepathy. In manual mode, using either the paddles or the shift lever, gears bang home with dual-clutch-like enthusiasm.
If there’s a single complaint about the engine, it’s that it doesn’t sound brilliant. In its defense, it is just a turbo-four and I wasn’t expecting too much. It sounds fine and likes to sound angry as the revs climb but it’s not exactly sonorous. It’s a minor niggle, though, and one that quickly fades away after you realize how absolutely brilliant the engine is and how well it works with its transmission.
The Magic is Back
As great as speed and performance are, they’ve never been what defined the BMW 3 Series. Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Jaguar and Lexus all make brilliant powetrains. What’s always separated the 3 Series from the pack was its ability to simply drive better than the rest. When compared against its competitors, the 3 Series was like Barry Sanders in his prime; it just moved better than everybody else. The new 3 Series has that old magic back, the same magic that was lost just a generation ago.
Frohlich and his team worked especially hard on three very specific aspects of the 3 Series’ handling; chassis rigidity, steering and suspension. It all starts with the chassis. A rigid, well-balanced chassis is necessary for a proper driver’s car. That chassis rigidity, or lack thereof, was also on of the main complaints about the F30 3er. So for the new G20 3 Series, Frohlich and his team really stiffened it up.
They then gave it better steering. It’s still a variable rack but its gear teeth are far more progressively spaced, allowing for much more predictable steering response. When you’re driving fast, you want to be confident in what the steering is going to do, time and time again, in any situation. In the BMW 330i, you can be. While it isn’t the last word in steering feel, it reacts predictably, with nice heavy weighting and sharp accuracy. Some fans of more modern cars might find its steering ratio to be a bit slow, as it’s not razor sharp off center, but having driven its competitors which can feel over-boosted and twitchy, I appreciate the 3er’s more progressive steering. Though, it must be said, in Sport or Sport+ mode, it feels overly heavy without any noticeable improvement in steering feel or accuracy. So I always left it in Comfort, where the weighting was just right; still heavy but not artificially so.
The next aspect of the 3 Series’ handling dynamics is its suspension. The car I tested rode on the brand’s new passive “lift-related dampers”. BMW made a big deal about this new suspension when it was first revealed. The idea is that it’s a fixed suspension setup, without any adaptive modes, that’s been designed to be both more comfortable and more composed. Without getting into a thousand-word tech briefing, I’ll just tell you that it works and works well.
For years, I’ve been begging BMW to develop a suspension setup without any adaptive modes that’s just set up properly. Like the old days; no button pressing, no special modes it needs to be put in. Just get in and go. With adaptive setups, there’s never a Goldilocks mode. Comfort is always too soft and floppy and Sport modes are always too stiff and bumpy. The new standard dampers on the 3 Series are the Goldilocks setup. They’re more than compliant when cruising around but also perfectly composed, while offering excellent body control, when driving hard. Our BMW 330i had the M Sport package, so the suspension was a bit lower than the standard setup but it still rode beautifully. It must be said, I like suspension on the stiffer side and this is, so it might not be for everyone.
When all of this is combined, the BMW 330i is an absolute peach to drive. Its turn-in is sharp and unflappable, even on the Bridgestone Turanza T005 grand touring summer-spec tires. With a proper Michelin, we expect even better turn-in and grip. Still, it never had a problem with front-end grip. While it might be xDrive all-wheel drive, our tester always felt rear-driven. In fact, with traction in MDM mode, the BMW 330i will even let its rear end squirm a bit, before letting the all-wheel drive system reign everything in. More importantly, it has that old-school 3 Series balance.
It flows through corners like an athletic dancer, allowing you to string twisty turns together and build a rhythm. Is it an E46 3 Series? No but it’s the 3 Series most like it since. It’s so well balanced and so enjoyable to drive that it actually really surprised me. I even sampled it against one of its main competitors (comparison test coming soon, so I won’t spoil it) and what I learned was genuinely surprising.
Inside the BMW 330i, it’s not hard to find its cabin a bit too familiar. While it looks good and the build quality is bank vault-solid, its design is getting a bit tepid now that we’ve seen it on the rest of the BMW lineup. However, the benefit of that is the fact that it sports all of the best new technology BMW has to offer, the same tech that you’ll find on much, much more expensive Bimmers. So the same brilliant iDrive, the same natural voice recognition, in-car A.I., and the same digital instrument panel as the 7 Series and 8 Series have are all inside the humble 3 Series. That means my four-cylinder 3er tester had better tech than most six-figure luxury cars.
With all of that tech, along with the night club-like ambient lighting and solid build quality, even the humble BMW 330i feels like a proper luxury car, a genuinely premium product. When you’re spending close to $60k on a four-cylinder 3 Series you want it to feel as expensive as it is. And it does. That’s important because it helps make the 3er an overall better car than its competition. Will some of its competitors steer sweeter or ride better? Maybe, sure. But none combine that with the best tech in the business and nuclear-grade build quality.
Long Live the King
None of that tech or steering/suspension jargon matters if the car isn’t fun to drive. Thankfully, I can report that the new BMW 330i is fun to drive. In fact, it’s very fun to drive. It’s sharp, responsive, taut and quick. It just has that old-school BMW feeling of being connected to your hands and hips. You feel like you can wield it like a properly balanced weapon. It responds to your inputs accurately and consistently, never letting you down and never feeling out of place.
With the past-gen F30 3 Series, its competitors had passed it by in that regard. Compared to cars like the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Jaguar XE, the 3 Series never felt as connected, never felt as switched on. Some enthusiasts and journalists might argue which of its competitors was actually the king of the segment but the almost unanimous decision was that it was no longer the 3 Series. But this new generation Bavarian is different. It combines all of its excellent traits into one beautifully cohesive package that’s almost impossible to top. After having driven all of its competitors over the years, I can honestly say that yet another new king has been crowned — the BMW 3 Series. Long Live the King.