What are you driving?
It's the BMW 3 Series and it's a car I once described as being like a Star Wars movie, i.e. essentially, critic-proof. Even if I or any of m'colleagues had written that it looked like a misshapen blancmange and handled like one too, people would have still rushed out to buy one. At that time (my memory, fading now like old brakes, says that this would have been in about 2005 or so) the 3 Series was dominant, eating deeply into the traditional family saloon car market and basically making it harder (maybe impossible) for Ford to make money off the Mondeo.
Now, the 3 Series finds that the tables have turned on itself. Well, not quite, or at least not yet, but it's getting there. Last year, BMW sold lots of 3 Series saloons and Touring estates, but it sold more X1 crossovers. Combine the sales figures of the X1 with those of the X2, X3 and X4 and they leave the 3 Series well behind. While the 3 Series was once both the core and the pinnacle of the BMW line-up, now it's being left behind by the SUV brigade.
Does that mean we're now talking less Star Wars and more Stars in Their Eyes? "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be a rear-drive German premium saloon?" No, thankfully, not quite yet. The SUVs are certainly in the ascendance right now, but, when it comes to the 3 Series, you can tell that BMW is still putting more effort into this than into almost any other car it sells.
Which makes sense - car makers know that we buy SUVs almost entirely on the basis of styling and styling alone, so they know that effort and development cash expended elsewhere is essentially wasted. Saloon buyers, though? Dwindling we may be, but we're a more discerning bunch and BMW's engineers knew that they had to step up to the mark with the new 3. "It's so much more satisfying to engineer this car than an SUV" one told me. "The masses are just all in the right place."
Indeed so. This 3 rides on a modified CLAR platform (see also; X3, 5 Series and 7 Series), which means that, unlike the turncoat 1 Series and the new 2 Series Gran Coupe, it retains a classical rear-wheel-drive layout. Weight is down (by around 55kg from the old F30 3 Series) and stiffness is up. There is a new clever suspension setup and a new interior that draws heavily on the 7 Series and X5 and which looks and feels much classier than that of the old 3 Series.
Name its best bits
There's also rather controversial styling. Just as George Lucas once reckoned that what Star Wars needed was everything filmed against a blue screen and characters made up entirely of pixels, so BMW now thinks that what the 3 Series needs is design. Lots of design. Just keep cramming the design in until you can't fit any more. Just as with the distended noses of the X7 SUV and the 7 Series, this is clearly a sop to the Chinese market, where such over-cooked styling plays well. It plays less well here, but even allowing for that, our 330i test car - resplendent in Portimao Blue, with lots of black highlighting - did at least grow on me - style-wise - during my time with it. It takes a bit of getting used to, though.
No such worries about the interior. The combination of the all-digital instrument pack (I do kinda miss the old, neat, simple, analogue dial layout, but hey-ho) and the big central screen with its easily explicable layout (using a rotary controller is much easier, and much safer, than navigating a touch-screen on the move) looks good and works well, and the rest of the cabin is just as a 3 Series should be: roomy enough to be useful, low-slung enough to feel sporty and comfortable enough that you'll not quickly tire of it on a long journey.
As has been the case for some time now, the numbers on the boot are essentially meaningless - a 330i does not mean you get a 3.0-litre straight-six. In fact, you get a 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder engine, with 258hp and 400Nm of torque. Thanks to a kerb weight of 1,545kg, that's enough. More than enough. In fact, even though I'm just as keen on driving the upcoming new M3 as anyone else, you really don't need more power than this on a public road. The 330i feels faster than brisk, and pulls strongly right through its rev-range. Regrets? Well, the noise could be better. There's no sweet, creamy straight-six soundtrack, even if the four-cylinder engine can manage an occasional entertaining rasp at times. Still, no complaints about the economy - you'll easily beat 45mpg if you're driving gently, which is no bad showing for a car that can crack 100km/h in 5.8 seconds.
That's not the best part, though. The best part is the steering. I'm just about old enough to remember the Great Steering Changeover of the early 1990s when, for the first time ever, the best hydraulically power-assisted steering systems started to be able to match the feel and feedback of the old unassisted setups. Porsche's 968 coupe and the Lotus Esprit S4 were, if I recall, among the first to pull this trick off. Well now, BMW has restarted the clock on this process because it has come up with an electrically assisted steering setup that, for the first time, offers the sort of palm-massaging feedback that you'd get from the best of the hydraulic racks. It's so good that it will take a back-to-back test with a Porsche Cayman GTS to figure out who's done it better, but in terms of practical, vaguely affordable cars, the 3 Series stands head and shoulders above all else.
There is a constant pitter-patter of information being fed back through the steering wheel, telling you what the front wheels are up to, how much grip is available and how much fun you're having. Which will be a lot. The 3 Series feels superbly agile and truly, madly, deeply rewarding to fling about. And while many of you might query as to who exactly cares, outside of a tiny group of petrol-heads? Well, I care. I know other people who care. And, you know what? A car that talks to you is inherently safer than one that remains mute at all times. If you know what's going on under the front wheels, your driving will improve.
Anything that bugs you?
Actually, the only real black mark I can place against this 330i is the ride quality. It's not teeth-shatteringly bad in the way of an E90 3 Series, but it jiggles and fidgets almost constantly, although I'll allow that this was a naturally stiffer M Sport model and an SE version might well be more agreeably softer. A shame too that you can't get this 330i with a manual gearbox. There's nothing wrong with the eight-speed auto, but it would have been nice to feel a little closer to the action at times.
There is also the fact, of course, that an equivalent 330e plug-in hybrid model has a higher power output (292hp), is much more tax-efficient and is cheaper to buy thanks to the €7,500 worth of rebates that it gets. The 330i is still ahead on handling (thanks to lower weight) and it has a bigger boot, but it's worth thinking about if you have a driveway on which to keep the hybrid charged.
And why have you given it this rating?
It's the steering that makes the 330i. I don't think I'm being too soppy when I say that this 3 Series reminds you of why you fell in love with driving, and why we all craved a BMW saloon from the 1980s onwards. It feels citrus-sharp to drive, in a way that only the very best cars do. The SUVs may have elbowed the 3 Series aside from being the core of BMW's range, but it is right now the pinnacle of what the Munich firm can do with a car. The Force is strong with this one.
What do the rest of the team think?
I have to admit to disliking the fact that a BMW badged '330i' uses a four-cylinder engine, but I've no issue with the considerable performance on tap. It is, but any measure, a sports saloon. The rear-drive chassis is an absolute gem (some won't like its firmness, but it's always controlled and assured, even on crappy Irish road surfaces) and the engineering effort put into this car shines through. It's a polished, quality item. I even like how it looks...
Shane O' Donoghue - Editor
You can only properly appreciate just how good the BMW 3 Series is after you've gone and driven several of its rivals. There isn't one overriding factor either; it's just the accumulation of lots of little things that help to set the 3 Series apart. In this 330i guise it's especially sweet to steer, but as Neil pointed out, there are some equally good alternatives within the 3 Series range, such as the 320d and 330e.
Dave Humphreys - Road Test Editor