BMW enthusiasts often argue about which generation is best, the never-settled discussion generally focusing around the second generation E30 — and the fourth generation E46 — Through the generations, the 3 Series has grown significantly in both size, available technology, and power.
At the same time, the purists put the E46 on a pedestal against which any modern 3 series should be compared.
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It starts with the angular line leading from the lower grill to the shark-fin shaped intrusion into the G20 headlight, itself meant to mimic the lower shape of the old E46 headlights. Gone are any unnecessary cutouts in the bumper, to give the new 3 Series a cleaner old-school look. Chassis and engine engineers also went to work to build a more dynamic 3 Series.
To see first hand what BMW has accomplished, the automaker invited us the beautiful Algarve, Portugal a few hours south of Lisbon, to take a road trip not only through incredible scenery but through the new 3 Series line-up, too.
Setting into the new 3 Series, the first thing that you notice is the lack of analog gauges. The cockpit is now comprised of two displays, a large screen right in front of the driver and a second in the middle atop the center console. This allowed them to display more useful information in the center of the display. Also, all of the driver controls have been centralized around the shifter in a tidier layout. I started the drive with the i M Sport set to its default Comfort mode.
The Driving Experience Control adjusts the steering, transmission, suspension, and xDrive bias.
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The first thing I noticed is that, even in Comfort, everything felt sharp. The best improvement comes in the steering feel as BMW has really fixed the responsiveness.
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In the last generation, it felt like there were some major dead spots where there was no response out of the steering input. After leaving the town and approaching the twisty roads, I switched into Sport mode and the engine revs jump as the transmission immediately jumped down a gear.
I start pushing, and the car is not backing down; thanks to all of the new suspension magic that the BMW engineers have worked out, the whole thing feels stable and well planted. The newly developed suspension and damping system contributes to the well-balanced handling of the car.
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The dampers work to reduce body movements and even out vibrations caused by uneven pavement and when pushing the car through high-speed turns. Extra hydraulic damping at the front axle and a compression limiting system at the rear continuously adjust the overall firmness, according to the changing spring travel.
It can easily soldier over rocks and through the greatest terrain. It can also comfortably and confidently climb inch wheels and rocks, without getting hung up or jarring its passengers. And it can run through deep sand or run over sandy surfaces in high-speed outback conditions with remarkable ease. It's powered by a work GM Vortec 6.
Altogether it helps reduce that unsettling response that you often feel when driving over larger bumps, uneven surfaces, or twisty mountain roads. The i M Sport comes equipped with the optional M Sport suspension, helping tighten up the car even further with its rigid bearings and additional body struts, firmer springs and anti-roll bars, and an even higher degree of wheel camber.
The damping forces are percent greater than the standard suspension during high-speed, twisty road driving; the difference between the two suspension options is now twice as great as it was in the previous 3 Series. Switching the transmission into Sport mode and letting it handle the gear changes itself, I was pleasantly surprised by how the car almost always seemed to be in the right gear.
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There was really nothing I could do with the paddles that the car was not already doing itself. In the four-cylinder i, this resulted in a gain of 7 horsepower and 37 lb-ft of torque, for a total of HP and lb-ft. The cylinder head is cooled to start, and then once the engine warms up then both the cylinder head and crankcase are cooled.
BMW also introduced shape honing within the cylinder walls to stop cylinder deformation.
All of this is designed to remove complexity and help reduce fuel consumption. Using similar techniques for the Mi six-cylinder, the engineers were able to reduce the rotating assembly inertia by percent compared to the previous generation. This leads to a 62 horsepower and 39 lb-ft torque increase, for a total of horsepower and lb-ft of torque.
This makes for the fastest 3 Series to-date, as I was to discover.
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