The smooth roads are twisty and going downhill, I haven't blinked even once and the car is flowing through the corners with just the right amount of feedback from the steering, it's well planted and doesn't want to let go of the road. I find myself drawn into believing that Iam in some kind of driver's utopia. But this is not a dream. It's the all-new BMW 3 Series that will arrive in India in June 2012 and making the occasion even more special is the location - Spain's majestic Catalan mountain range.
The changes in the car may not seem like a lot on paper but when we headed to the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona to drive it, it turned out to be completely different and a distinct step up from the present car.
I first drove the variant most relevant to India, the 320d. The engine specs are the same -2.0-litre common-rail engine which produces 184PS of maximum power at 4000rpm and 380Nm of torque between 1750 and 2750rpm. The car now offers four standard driving modes. The switch on the centre console allows me to choose between eco pro, comfort, sport and sport plus modes. The 8-speed automatic gearbox is new, replacing the previous six-speeder,and will be standard on all variants of the 3 Series sold in India.The unnecessarily heavy steering was the old 3's Achilles heel but the 3 Series now has a new electronic power steering which is significantly lighter (a massive boon while parking and in city traffic) while simultaneously offering better precision and feedback than before. It also saves fuel in comparison to the hydraulic assist system because it consumes no power when the steering is held steady.
Then I hopped into to the 328i petrol which now trades in its straight-six (in the 330i that didn't do well in India) for a 2.0-litre turbocharged inline four and - in the Sport variant - rides 10mm lower. This engine is good for an astonishing (considering the 2.0-litre displacement) 245PS of power between 5000 and 6500rpm and delivers a peak torque of 350Nm between 1250 and 4800rpm. Not only is this 9 per cent more torque than before, it means the car is nearly always at its torque or power peak. The 328i can hit 100kmph in just 5.9 seconds, a full second quicker than the old one, and that's a very fast time. Part of the reason is the BMW twin-scroll turbo (it is not a twin-turbo despite the Twin Power moniker) which demonstrates a near complete lack of turbo lag and the general throttle response is wonderful. The other petrol is the 320i which uses the same 2.0-litre engine but in non-turbocharged 184PS and 270Nm tune and that is an engine that will power entry-level variants in India.
The new 3 runs on an all-new platform incorporating a lot of the 5 Series'architecture, aluminium and steel body panels and aluminium suspension parts including double wishbones at the front (like the 5-Series) and multi-link Z-axle at the rear with (optional) variable dampers.Overall weight has gone down by 45kg even though the new 3 is 93mm longer with a 50mm longer wheelbase and wider front and rear tracks.The increase in wheelbase allows for a wider rear door opening and the larger glass area makes it feel roomier. Crucially rear knee room is up by 15mm and headroom increases by 8mm which is a very welcome improvement and will find favour with Indian buyers. Boot space is also up by 20 litres to 480. What will also find favour is the ride quality which is an absolute revelation.
Three trim levels are on offer - Modern, Luxury and Sport. In the Sport trim I drove there were optional adaptive dampers, sport-spec Servotronic steering, 19-inch wheels and new generation run flat tyres. The Modern trim on the diesel gets 18-inch rims that deliver an even better ride quality and though we will reserve final judgement till we drive the car on Indian roads, I have a strong feeling this might deliver the best ride quality in its class. Plus Indian cars will get 17-inch wheels that have even higher profile tyres.The 3 no longer crashes violently into potholes instead it breathes over them. All of this doesn't mean the 3 Series has become a softie. On the contrary the all-new suspension setup delivers exceedingly good dynamics. The first thing that hits you is just how amazingly light she is on her feet, so nimble. There's a balance,precision and fluidity that does the Ultimate Driving Machine tag proud. Sport plus mode even allows a few naughty slides and together with the classic 50:50 weight distribution, incredibly well-weighted steering and a front-end that is seemingly immune to understeer she's an absolute riot.
After a day spent at the Catalunya circuit testing the 3, I then switched into eco pro mode for the drive back to the airport. This mode maximises efficiency by altering the accelerator map to damp throttle responses and deliver less power in the first 70 per cent of pedal travel. I was quite pleased to note a seven kilometre gain over a 60 kilometre drive. That's more than 11 per cent, and therefore significant. Did I mention that auto start-stop and brake energy regeneration are now standard?
And saving the best for last: the visual story is that the new 3, as you can see, is dramatically different from other BMW saloons and to my eye is the best looking BMW today. It wears the new family theme better than the soft and boring 5 and 7, sharing more in common with the 1 Series. It is still unmistakably a 3 Series but is sleeker, more muscular and has an even more pronounced long-bonnet cab-backward stance to highlight rear-wheel-drive and the attendant dynamic abilities. There are even hints of the Z4 sports coupe in the nose while the headlamps are a key visual signature extending up to and abutting the kidney grille. This gives the front-end a distinctive look unlike any other BMW, allied to the squared-off circular LED corona rings. The profile gets a new line running through the door handles and together with the swage line under the window line it gives a prominent wedge shaped profile adding to the dynamic stance. From the rear, the L-shaped taillights remind me of the bigger 5 Series and blend well with the shoulder line, while the integrated spoiler on the boot gives it a sporty appearance.Overall, the 3 Series is a very attractive car and manages a fine balance between elegance and sportiness.
Step inside and the interiors are a leap ahead of its predecessor in terms of appeal. The widescreen centre display looks more like a slim tablet mounted on top of the dashboard and not built-in like before. This reduces visual bulk and together with the millimetres added to the cabin it makes it feel far more roomy. The dashboard is driver-focused and is angled towards the driver just like the 5 Series by seven degrees. iDrive is now standard across the range and the controller is the same as in the 5, as are a lot of other controls, all of which gives a very high-quality air to the cabin. The interiors also reflect the three trims - a
nd so Modern gets a never seen before new oyster shade, the Sport gets full black interiors with red detailing and the Luxury is more like the Highline model we are used to with dual tone shade and chrome detailing. The different lines even have colour-coded keys but you will have to wait till June 2012 to get your hands on one. Should you wait? In a word - yes.
The new 3 is faster, sharper,easier to drive, more involving, better looking, more spacious, more comfortable... heck it is better in every conceivable area. Audi and Mercedes better watch out for the new 3 will re-write practically every benchmark in this class. And now if you will excuse me I've got a few more Spanish roads to tackle.