REVIEW | Is the 2019 BMW 330i still an ultimate driving machine?
Brenwin Naidu sees if the latest incarnation of the world's most celebrated sports saloon continues to cut the mustard
The Porsche 911, Volkswagen Golf and BMW 3-Series are among a group of nameplates that could be described as instigators of their respective classes.
When it comes to the latter – a model widely regarded as the most iconic of Teutonic sedans – few countries rival the depth of love we in South Africa have accorded to the legendary Bavarian. Try to convince me otherwise? Everyone has a story to tell about a 3-Series.
For me, the third generation E36 model represented an automotive archetype: growing up it seemed to be the car everyone wanted. How curious it was that the so-called Dolphin could be spied in such a vast multitude of guises, from basic specimens with black bumpers to in-between examples with the ubiquitous bottle-top alloy wheel design, to the exclusive M3 variety.
Then there were other, rarer derivatives like the 318iS and 325tds, suffixes that were not unnoticed by an eagle-eyed and car-loving five-year old in the year 1998. More so when the former was equipped with the Motorsport package, comprising those distinctive five-spoke rollers, a rear spoiler and often, lurid colours like teal and violet. Awesome!
Last year we bade farewell to the locally produced F30 3-Series. This ceremony saw us in a convoy which comprised two restored units of the beloved E30 models, more specifically the covetable 325iS and 333i duo. It was a bittersweet affair, piloting the last 340i to roll off the line at the plant in Rosslyn, Tshwane. And the first new G01 X3 to come out of the same facility.
Many have opined that the X3 is now the contemporary spiritual successor to the 3-Series, given the global shift in appetite towards sport-utility vehicles. You wonder how long the 3-Series as a standalone, with that classical three-box format, will remain an institution? Times are changing, along with buyer preferences. Consider powertrain electrification and the obsession with autonomy.
Sentimentality rooted in old brand cornerstones might not live into the next era of some manufacturers’ timelines. We had the latest, seventh generation (G20) version in the test basement recently. It was a 330i replete with the M Sport package and, amusingly, the suite of driver assistance systems that encourage a little less input from the driver.
The irony was not lost on me. Here we were, in the latest installment of a breed often billed as a top pick for true driving immersion, equipped with the self-steering, semi-autonomous trickery you get in a 7-Series. Thankfully, there are rewards when you do decide to take the helm in entirety.
It seems notably plusher in damping characteristics than the former car, which, by comparison, errs on the brittle side. You will notice a marked improvement in tactile quality as well, complemented by a layout that mirrors the sophisticated lounges of its larger siblings. A small thing to note is the riddance of those springy, one-touch indicator stalks: BMW appears to have done away with this across the board.
Shove from the four-cylinder in the 330i proved to be plucky – with its boosted 1998cc unit good for 190kW and 400Nm. The acoustics were seemed suitably fettled to echo the simulation of a larger displacement. Shifting power to the rear wheels is an eight-speed automatic sourced from ZF, in widespread use not only by the BMW stable, but across the industry at large.
Remember you can still have a petrol six-cylinder in the form of the M340i xDrive (285kW and 500Nm); the closest thing to an M3 until the legitimate F80 successor arrives. Since launch in March, the range has also expanded with the addition of the entry-level 320i, with a detuned variation of the 330i engine, producing 135kW and 300Nm.
Gripes? No denying there are some aesthetic quirks. Enter the Hofmeister kink: a traditional BMW design hallmark incorporating a small bend at the base of the window adjacent to the C-pillar. It was named for the old BMW design chief from 1955 to 1970, Wilhelm Hofmeister. In the G20, this is less pronounced and more blobby. And that rear… Well, I am not sure they could have made it look more like a Lexus IS if they tried.
Some might say the pricing is steep. But the 3-Series has never been budget-orientated in its mandate. Our 330i unit wears a base price of R649,000. With the relevant options, that figure read more like R750,000 in the real world. At which point the more substantial, equivalently priced X3 would entice the consumer seeking the most space for their buck.