The sixth generation of the famous BMW compact executive saloon is due in Ireland next February and looks more mature, muscular and squat on the road.
The front end delivers the most dramatic change. The trademark twin headlamps now connect to the signature kidney grille and generally there is more detailing, e.g. subtle air vents set low in the bumper aid the car's excellent aerodynamics.
The bonnet reflects the larger 5 Series. It is expansive with dynamic-looking creases in the metal. The grille area itself is now squeezed horizontally. The side view includes a subtle take on the 'Hoffmeister Knick' at the rear three quarters. The boot sits quiet high, and of course there is a larger cargo area. The rear seat backs can fold individually to aid functionality.
Inside the cabin there are slight but significant changes. The three distinct trim levels, 'Modern', 'Sport' and 'Luxury', all reflect their names. As a result of the wheelbase and track growing, there is now more room in the cabin. In the back there is 15mm more legroom - I had enough space to sit behind my seat comfortably.
Active suspension called Adaptive Ride is the key dynamic story with the new car. There are four settings and the most important, I think, is 'Comfort'. It softens the ride and turns it into a comfy cruiser that would be easy to downsize to. Eco-Pro sets all the car's electronics to work in the most efficient way to maximise fuel economy - I didn't use it much during my two day test drive, but it is a useful aid long term. Sport and Sport+ do as you'd expect.
I took a petrol-powered 328i onto the F1 racetrack in Barcelona to give the suspension and handling a more thorough test. BMW's trump card has always been the balance of the car. The power driving the rear wheels allows the front wheels to deal with steering only. Any racer will tell you this is the purest driving experience.
In reality, on greasy, wet days in Ireland, a front-wheel drive car is more forgiving, but for driving pleasure the 3 is hard to beat. The car lets you know exactly what is going on and when traction is being lost you can easily sort it out.
The Sport+ setting dumbs down the electronic driving aids that are very useful on the road but slow you down on a racetrack. This setting proved to be joyous on the twisty circuit, allowing me to be very precise with my positioning and aggressive with the brakes and throttle without creating any drama. Turn off everything and you can drift at 120km/h all day long - the handling is that good.
On the road the 328i is both quick and quiet. The car I spent most time in was the 320d, which is Ireland's favourite 3 series. The latest version delivers very smooth power and excellent levels of torque from its turbo diesel engine while remarkably managing to sound like a four-cylinder petrol-engined car!
Our test cars were all left hand drive, but one issue that will continue to affect right hand drive cars is the lack of space in the right hand footwell for three pedals (manual gearbox). The two-peddled automatic gearbox is the only way to go with the 3 series; otherwise you're looking at offset pedals. The 8-speed auto with steering wheel paddle shifts works brilliantly in the new 3 series and would be my choice of transmission.
The new 3 series improves on its reputation as a rewarding car for drivers, but it has broadened its potential audience by offering a more mature big-car experience when the comfort button is on.