A Triple treat!
The iconic BMW 3 Series is back and better than ever before. Be afraid, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, be very afraid. THOMAS FALKINER reports ...
What is it?
Believe it or not but this is the sixth-generation model of the much-revered BMW 3 Series sedan that originally launched way back in 1975.
Yep, it is scary how fast time flies when you're having fun. Codenamed the F30, Munich's latest Audi A4/Mercedes-Benz C-Class rival differs from its predecessor by being both longer (+93mm) and lighter (-40kg).
It also benefits from a wider track (front +37mm/rear +47mm), which equates to better mechanical grip and improved road holding.
Less obvious to spot but equally imperative to the final F30 mix is an all-new chassis that has been crafted from a much stiffer grade of steel.
Why is this important? Well aside from providing infinitely better protection in the event of a collision, this giant spike up the torsion scale culminates in a sedan that feels far more nimble and responsive.
Thanks to this evolutionary growth spurt, the cabin of the F30 is a little more spacious too.
Get out your pocket tape measure and you'll find that headroom has increased by 8mm, while rear legroom is up 15mm. Nice to know if you have a small family.
Available in three different trim lines (Sport, Luxury or Modern), other major improvements can be found in the engine department.
The entry-level 320i, for instance, now packs a turbocharged four-pot that's good for 135kW and 270Nm. Good thing too because the 320i has always been the weak link in the 3 Series chain.
Next up is the 328i that, thanks to various software tweaks, churns out a healthy 180kW and 350Nm.
Completing the petrol line-up for the time being is the 225kW 335i that uses the wicked turbocharged inline-six carried over from the old E90.
Until the M3 arrives sometime in 2014, this will be the fastest car in the all-new F30 range. Out on the turbodiesel frontier there is the familiar 320d that strikes a pleasing balance between frugality and performance.
Though it comes loaded with the same 135kW four-cylinder, CO2 emissions are now lower than ever before - a tax-cheating 119g/km.
Regardless of what model you eventually plumb for, every one benefits from Efficient Dynamics technology, a fuel-saving auto Start-Stop function and a choice between either a six-speed manual (standard) or eight-speed auto transmission.
How does it look?
Absolutely fantastic! While the previous two 3 Series models were a bit dull, this newcomer exudes a fresh-faced athleticism that really does quicken your pulse rate.
Riffing heavily off the current F10 5 Series, it's an evolution defined by a radical new nose design; one that makes the F30 look like one of the more sinister characters in Angry Birds.
Stretched headlights. Gaping kidney grilles. A narrow front air dam locked in the raptures of an evil grin. All of these stylistic revisions help make this newbie (in my mind anyway) the most attractive sedan in the BMW product portfolio.
Things are just as tasty on the inside - with a desirable and incredibly well built cabin laced with logical, easy-to-use switchgear.
Giving another nod to the 5 Series, that wide centre console and sporty driving position help make the F30 feel very dynamic when you're ensconced behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
It may be a sensible sedan but the latest 3 Series comes across as proper, blue-blooded drivers' car - especially when specified in the Sports Line package that adds in large 18-inch alloy wheels, black eight-bladed kidney grilles and red dashboard detailing.
What's it like to drive?
I got to drive the 320d, 328i and 335i - all of which were very impressive indeed.
The 3 Series has always been the class benchmark in terms of handling prowess and the F30 continues this tradition in fine form.
As I hinted at before that wider front and rear track definitely make this car feel infinitely more surefooted when charging along empty back roads.
Confidence inspiring on the limit, this safety net of grip is matched to an informative and well-weighted electro-mechanical steering setup that lets you know exactly how the front wheels are interacting with the asphalt.
Further blessed with 50:50 weight distribution, this is a sedan that feels extremely neutral in the way it goes about its business - something that makes it easy and forgiving to pilot in anger.
Equally impressive were the brakes that, even after multiple hot laps at Zwartkops Raceway, showed little sign of stress or fade - something keen drivers will appreciate.
But by far the biggest revelation was the way this BMW soaked-up scabby road surfaces.
The 3 Series has never been big on ride quality but here in F30 guise it is incredibly composed.
And this is all thanks to superior run-flat tyre technology, that stiffer chassis design and the new Driving Experience Control system.
Yep, no longer do you have to risk shattering your spine for the sake of a stellar driving experience.
Any special features?
Definitely the Driving Experience Control system that allows you to adjust your F30 to suit real-time driving conditions.
Pre-programmed with four distinct modes (Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus) and actuated by a rocker-switch located on the centre console, this trick bit of electronica influences everything from throttle and engine response, straight through to the weight of the power steering and suppleness of the suspension.
Feel like saving fuel while wafting on down the freeway? Then stick it into Eco Pro. Keen on indulging your inner-Stig at a track day? Call up Sport Plus and feel the car hunker down into attack mode.
It's a great bit of kit and one that, incredibly, is fitted standard to every new BMW 3 Series model - even the basic 320i.
Should you buy one?
Well if you're after the best driving experience that the premium sedan class has to offer then the F30 is a no brainer.
Far more engaging to boot than either the A4 or C-Class, it's the car I'd choose to park inside my garage.
In the past you could maybe discount the 3 Series for its harsh ride and lacklustre entry-level engine derivatives but now, thanks to enhanced refinement and liberal use of turbocharging, this no longer the case.
Either which way you look at it, BMW have a winner on their hands.
Engine: 1997cc 4-cylinder turbo (320i and 328i); 2979cc 6-cylinder turbo (335i); 1995cc 4-cylinder turbodiesel (320d)
Power: 135kW at 5000rpm (320i); 180kW at 5000rpm (328i); 225kW at 5800rpm (335i); 135kW at 4000rpm (320d)
Torque: 270Nm at 1250rpm (320i); 350Nm at 1250rpm (328i); 400Nm at 1200rpm (335i); 380 at 1750rpm
Top speed: 235km/h (320i); 250km/h (328i); 250km/h (335i); 235km/h (320d)
Fuel consumption: 6.1l/100km (320i); 6.4l/100km (328i); 7.9l/100km (335i); 4.5l/100km (320d)
CO2: 144g/km (320i); 149g/km (328i); 186g/km (335i); 119g/km (320d)
Pricing: From R361000 (320i); R438500 (328i); R543000 (335i); R390500 (320d)
Awesome new looks
Punchy turbo engines
Excellent driving dynamics
We don't like:
Pricy, tempting options list
Four-pot engines lack aural excitement
320i only available in April