330i sedan:Powerful cry for Three-dom

This version of the 3-Series suggests BMW buyers who have eyes only for X product don’t know what they’re missing.


For: Involving driver, smooth engine, looks smart.

Against: Dating interior, expensive when fully-provisioned.

Score:  4.1/5

EVERY BMW sedan has felt the pain of friendly fire as result of the rising status of crossovers and sports utilities, but perhaps none is less deserving of the injury it has sustained that the Three-Series.

This car has been Munich’s staple earner for 40 years now, achieving more than 14 million units to reach what is now its sixth generation. The latest is potentially as good as anything before it, yet every positive quality – not just those that held it in such good stead in the past, foremost being those brilliant dynamics, but also its improved value – no longer seems to be enough. Sales have fallen steadfastedly here and, while it’s hard to say whether every previous Three Series fan has now become an X-model addict, but it is obvious that those soft-roader editions have gained some sales territory and that the Three has lost even more.

That hasn’t stopped BMW here from trying with the model, to the extent that they’ve just added a 330e plug-in electric edition to their range; intriguingly, at $89,900 this model costs slightly more than the 330i in standard form, though ours had enough options to bump to $96,800.

The ‘e’ car looks interesting because it marries an 80kW electric motor to the 330i’s 2.0-litre engine to maintain the same 185kW power out but bump torque from 350Nm to 420Nm and, of course, enhance economy and even allow some electric-only operation, an optimum range of 37km cited.

The 330e might be quite tasty if it has the same delicious handling traits as the test car, though perhaps it might not: The battery pack’s added weight surely has to impact. One day I’d like to find out.

Meantime, the 330i just keeps doing what it does best: Reminding that BMW knows how to build brilliant driver’s cars. New damper settings and thicker sway bars from the 4-Series Coupe were implemented with a facelift last year and these ensure stiffer suspension for better control in the turn, without upsetting ride refinement.

Electric steering is still fantastic too, quick and precise, and the Potenza tyres have great grip, plus they’re not as noisy on coarse chip as some of BMW’s run-flat rubber. The performance is right there, too; the 330i badge status plainly says ‘serious sports sedan’ and, though the switch from a six-cylinder engine to a four has obviously made it a different kind of thing, really that just comes down to the sound more than the shove. There’s still plenty of the latter; perhaps the delivery is a little different and it isn’t as deep-throated, but when when this car is asked to perform it truly does fire up. The most obvious difference is in economy; BMW downsized to improve the burn and it certainly gives better return, albeit nowhere near as ‘eco’ as the 330e will likely be.

The Three’s shape looks young for its age and BMW has quite rightly taken care with what will be the final facelift, just the usual bumper and light refreshes, though it now has LED headlamps.

The interior is also once over lightly at a time when it needs more. Nothing wrong with how the driver sits or the equipment that’s available; more a case of some of the display looking dated, especially the central screen’s interface.

It has at least now met the Mercedes C-Class in adopting a reversing camera, lane change and forward collision warning along with autobraking at city speeds if a collision is imminent. The test car also optioned with a $5000 M Sport package, consisting of sports suspension, 19-inch alloy wheels, sports seats and steering wheel, and tints. A smart key added $1000, head-up display a couple of grand, and speed limit information $800. That makes it expensive, but few if any of the extras seem superfluous.