Why has the BMW 3 Series grown in size?
This latest ‘G20’ 3 Series is the first to tip-toe over the 4.7-metre mark on overall length – and, within its own particular executive saloon niche, only the current Audi A4 is longer. The three-inch growth spurt that the 3 Series has been through is actually the second significant one in as many big redesigns. The car now sits between BMW’s second- and third-generation 5 Series on overall length. Interestingly, though, it has put on more at-the-kerb centimetres over the past two major model overhauls than it did cummulatively over its first five full model generations. So if you're inclined just to shrug and say "ah well; modern cars are just bigger, aren't they?", consider that this one has grown more in the past seven years of its history than it did in the preceeding 36.
It’s partly the existence of the 1 Series that has freed BMW’s hand to add inches to what remains its biggest-selling model globally – but it’s mostly one critical, commercial reality: that China has, of late, become the biggest market in the world for this car, and now approaches three times the size and importance of the car’s next biggest single global market territory. China clearly wants the 3 Series big (let's not forget there's also a long-wheelbase version pretty much just for that market). And China quite evidently gets what it wants, even if that means buyers elsewhere in the world, so familiar with the just-so proportions of the ‘E30’ and ‘E46’, get a new car that looks, in profile, just a little bit as if a foot pump had been taken to its cabin. At least, it does to me.
Might that also be why the ‘G30’ has slightly more dressy, busy-looking body surfacing than the last Three, I wonder, as well as a bigger kidney grille that's right on the limit of appearing deliberately oversized? Does BMW’s market research suggest China will prefer the car like that? Now I’m being unkind as well as pedantic, and also generalising, I know – but I rather suspect so.
What changes has BMW made to the 3 Series?
Perhaps it was partly as a diversionary tactic, then, that BMW quickly directed the attention of gathered European road testers towards the equally wide-reaching transformation that the 3 Series has been though under the skin.
Having been switched onto the same ‘cluster architecture’ platform used by the rest of Munich’s longways-engined showroom range, the car is now made out of a mixture of aluminium and steel, and is up to 55kg lighter, model for model, than the old ‘F30’ was. The 'G20''s body-in-white is also 25 per cent more rigid.
Below that body structure, BMW’s chassis engineers were given permission to bring the 3 Series back towards its sporting roots in a dynamic sense; by adopting wider axle tracks, stiffer springs and suspension mountings, and more front axle camber for all versions of the car.
Their biggest single innovation, however, are the new ‘lift-related’ dampers fitted to all versions of the 3 Series as standard (which you can swap out for adaptive dampers at extra cost). These clever shocks use structures within their reservoirs to provide extra damping support at the extremes of wheel travel, allowing BMW to fine tune the car for a slightly more fluent ride over the smaller imperfections in the road that all suspension systems most commonly deal with. They work quite well; the car doesn’t feel tetchy or aggressively damped – although it’s certainly now plainly a firmer-riding prospect than the average German saloon. But we’ll come on to all that.
What's the BMW 3 Series like inside the cabin?
Firstly, to the justification for adding so much bulk to the car: the new 3 Series' interior, which does indeed seem a more spacious, inviting and expensively hewn place than was the F30's. The car's driving position is low by default but generously adjustable, and is almost impossible to fault. The fascia materials both look and feel more rich and upmarket than those of its predecessor, with quite a lot more matt chrome garnish on display - but not so much that, unlike in some rivals, the ambience risks gaudiness.