BMW Refreshed 3-Series – top number down for the count

New engines, a stronger specification, slightly sharpened styling – and auf wiedersehen to the six-cylinder engines. Is this what it takes to keep the BMW 3-Series relevant?

EVERY family has an alpha: The dominant member and pack builder, the one who protects and provides.

With BMW NZ, the No.1 is pretty much the X5; this sports activity vehicle achieves sales supremacy year after year for the most of the past decade. Other models are important, of course, but X5 is the bedrock.

Internationally, however, there is an even more important prime number. The 3-Series is very much BMW’s heart and soul. Fourteen million examples sold since 1975 means it accounts for around a quarter of all BMWs ever sold.

Moreover, Munich would have you think this model remains a category template that is also the target for every rival sports sedan; a claim that is the cornerstone of that ‘ultimate driving machine’ slogan that, despite looking increasingly tenuous these days, is still tenaciously defended by the brand.

Yet the relevance of this brass tacks car being a leader that all others follow is potentially moot in New Zealand, given there’s increasing disinterest here in performance sedans of almost any size or ability.

Booted cars have been the biggest victims of the market swing to sports utilities and crossovers, which cumulatively account for more than 35 percent of new car sales this year.

Even those snobby compact executives that handle a bit like out-and-out sports cars out of Germany’s elite brands have felt the bite. It could be surmised that introduction, two years back, of the all-wheel-drive 3-Series variants was BMW’s way of seeking to stymie that defection rate (and, of course, to meet the challenge from the Audi A4, which back then was selling just as well).

If so, it hasn’t worked. ‘Three’ sales have continued to slip away nonetheless; in 2014 the count diminished to 233 sedans and 66 Touring wagons.

How long before BMW here reaches the point of reconsidering its strategy for a car that, during the 1990s, captured an even greater sales share per annum than the biggest X car does now?

Well, there’s certainly no talk of abdication, however the arrival of a mid-cycle refresh for the F30 series that has been on the market for three years now has nonetheless allowed for some finessing and more fighting talk in what is the Three’s 40th year of life.

On the positive side, BMW here has acted to counter inroads by a strengthened opposition. Jaguar’s recent XE and the next Audi A4, here in early 2016, are seen as two threats but the more pressing problem is Mercedes’ C-Class - but BMW NZ product manager Paul Sherley says the latter was the template for determination to provide NZ market Threes with a stronger standard specification.

NZ market cars now take park assist, lane change and collision warning alerts, heated front seats and a reversing camera and (on wagons) an electric tailgate adopt on all derivatives, yet generally with reductions to stickers, which now range from $72,000 to $113,000. Having been a little austere before, it no arguably has pretty much everything anyone would want. Save perhaps for Apple CarPlay, which isn’t part of the German lexicon.

On what some would say was the other side of the ledger, there’s been an under bonnet rev-up – though those who enjoy Munich’s famous sweet six cylinder engines might call it something else.

The international move toward efficiency and BMW’s own dedication to its Efficient Dynamics programme, plus the fact that the big gun 335i and 335d models together achieved a handful of sales in 2014, has spelled the end for those models. Of the four models absenting from the

family portrait, thus taking the head count from 10 to six, three are six-cylinders, the 328i, 335i and 335d.

Forever gone? Could be. Well, you brought it upon yourselves: Just 10 330i and 335i sedans and wagons were sold in 2014. I mean, if customers cannot bring themselves to buy, why should BMW bother to build (or, at least, provide)? Which is all the weirder (and, frankly, disappointing) given that, in the same period, sales of Holden’s Commodore V8 went up. And are still climbing ...

Yet, as things stand, every car in the updated range runs with four-cylinder petrol and diesels based around the latest B47 modular 2.0-litre engine with badges to denote their various outputs and specifications levels.

The 1998cc four-cylinder turbo petrol presents 135kW maximum power at 5000-6500rpm and 270Nm, from 1350-4600rpm, in the 320i and 185kW at 5200-6500rpm in the 330i, where torque peaks at 350Nm from 1450 to 3800rpm. The alternate 1995cc four-cylinder turbodiesel offers is 320d and 330d formats, the first outputting 140kW at 4000rpm and 400Nm at 1750-2500rpm and the other making 190kW at 4000rpm and 560Nm at 1500-3000rpm.

The under-bonnet revision is the biggest change with this LCI – that’s ‘life cycle impulse, the twee descriptive BMW uses to describe update actions because it apparently cannot bring itself to utter the word ‘facelift.’

Regardless about that, there some visual clues to mark this moment, including some tightening of the frontal styling, where LED lights feature more prominently. At the other end, regardless that the cylinder count is diminished  by a third, everything now has dual exhaust pipes – for some models, that’s a double up.

The cabin has also undergone some changes, mainly the introduction of a bit more brightwork. It’s a poor counter to meeting the threat of the C-Class, though; the interior layout of latest Mercedes product is a whole generation ahead of BMW for ergonomic efficiency and sheer visual pizzazz. Assuredly, from the photos we’ve seen, the new A4 here in early 2016 will also show the BMW to be looking a bit old hat inside.

They might also be more spacious (the C-Class is, in fact). The big glaring weakness of the Three is its poor interior space. Even though the F30 is an improvement on its predecessors, with more legroom for rear-seat passengers and a 480-litre boot, it doesn’t set a class standard by any means.

Maybe BMW can stand that heat, because it will counter that it still creates the top driver’s choice in this category. They’re probably right on that score; on the strength of driving the 3-Series around Northland for two days, the F30 continues to impress as an utterly sweet ride.

The drive reminded why anyone given a job to ‘improve’ the 3-Series chassis in particular is basically being given an impossible task: How do you make something so good even better? The one constant in the 40 years of this car is that it has enabled impressively sharp handling. That rear-wheel-drive layout, precise steering and well weighted controls have ALWAYS made it a joy to drive on twisting back roads. Nothing changes. It’s certainly no worse now, but it is it better?

Hard to say, frankly, without putting old and new back-to-back and even then, I suspect, you’ll quibble the differences. BMW reckons that having adopted steering and damper calibrations from the 4-series, aka the 3-series coupe (which is, interestingly, exempted from this LCI), makes it a more fluid-feeling thing. All I know is that it was a heck of a drive on the southern roads into, and north-heading roads out of, the small Northland seaside town where we stayed the night.

Wagon or sedan, rear or four-wheel-drive – or, for that matter, why not just an all-wheel-drive wagon? If you’re thinking along those lines, then the choice broadly comes down between the 320i and 320d sedans. Both can be turned into wagons. The 320i Touring costs an extra $3000, with another $9000 premium is carried by the 320d when it adds xDrive.

The 330i still wears the crown as the performance model; it has more power than the 328i, is 0.1sec quicker to 100kmh and consumes half a litre less fuel per 100km (combined figure 5.8 l/100km). It feels fast, too, and beautifully balanced as well. The brakes are great, too. Yet it doesn’t sound anything like the six, which had a great deep-noted burble, nor is the power delivery as linear. It needs to be wrung out more.

In some respects, the most pleasing car is another that gets far too scant attention: The 320d Touring xDrive. If you can get your head around the concept of a rear-drive-biased all-paw road car, then here’s your best choice.

XDrive is a bit different to Audi’s Quattro, but the format tailored for this model is pleasing nonetheless. It responds proactively with information from the transmission and stability control to predict what drive is needed where, almost always before wheel-slippage occurs. All in all, it’s a very pleasing package: Dimensionally pretty much just right for dynamic pleasure, low enough to hug the corners, great steering feel, assured stance and stability, lots of traction.

And yet, of course, that’s not to be enough. Look at the car as I drove it: An $81,000 proposition with the added options of M-Sport ($5000), 19-inch alloys ($1500), a head-up display ($2000), and something called ‘comfort access’ and it adds up to a $90,750 proposition.

Stats for the past two years show that if you’re a prestige badge buyer looking to invest in a medium-ish load-carrier, your pleasure is far more likely to be an X3. Potentially because it looks more like an SUV, is every bit as practical, has more of an aroma of all-round – and even some off-road - ability and, let’s face it, will likely as not fetch a better residual value.

And, with the self-same engine, that’s your X3 xDrive20d, a $92,500 car. You can see the issue, yes?