FIRST DRIVE – NEW BMW 3 SERIES …. is it as good as they say?


By Philip Hedderman


It’s bigger, lighter, quicker, safer, more fuel efficient and above all – a better drive.


The new BMW 3 Series Saloon it seems is all things to all men … well, according to the pre launch hype anyway.


Leafing through the press kit, one thought sprang to mind.


If the improvements are that vast then the old model was no great shakes?


On the contrary – in fact, the most negative aspect of its older brother was its popularity.


It seemed that everybody who was anybody had one but that didn’t seem to matter.


OK, so the exclusiveness may have waned a little but there was no getting away from the fact that it was the outstanding car in its class.


Age profile and reliability meant that Mercedes were never really a threat, but Audi’s slow, methodical advance, both in technology and design is now casting a long shadow over its reign in the executive car park.


Bizarre then that I should arrive at the Irish launch in the new face-lifted A4 Avant, but more about that later.


Now, BMW have copped a lot of flack over the design of the new 3 Series which doesn’t look that radically different from the rear.


The snout however tells a different tale.


Its more aggressive, squat stance gives it much more presence than its predecessor, but is so similar to the 5


Series that I doubt many will be able to tell the difference.


On the inside the designers have been much bolder.


Build quality, as expected, is second to none and the cabin gets an even more up-market feel to it.


The cockpit which surrounds the pilot at a 7 degree angle is focused and completely driver orientated.


The flowing dash is finished in high gloss Piano Black trim which is tastefully complimented by a contrasting colour like red (in Sport model) which will match the general interior.


Most significantly though is the level of standard kit including leather multi-function steering wheel, iDrive with 6.5 inch colour screen, Bluetooth, Cruise Control, and Drive Performance Control.


This allows the driver to select up to four driving modes – Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+.


The on-board computer makes subtle changes to the steering, suspension and throttle to suit the road and conditions which in turn saves fuel.


And efficiency is the name of the game these days and BMW are undoubtedly streets ahead of everybody else.


So much so that seven – yes SEVEN versions of the new 3 Series – will be in Tax Band A, meaning emissions of under 120g/km and road tax of just €160 per year.


An astounding achievement considering the list includes for the first time automatics.


And what a sweet auto box this is.


The eight-speed unit is now greener than the six speed manuals and the 318D has seen emissions reduced by a band-busting 22g/km.


Unfortunately the first model I tested was the 320D Sport Auto.


I say unfortunately because the drive was so good and engaging, I knew the day wasn’t gonna get any better.


The 184bhp, Twinpower Turbo oil burner coupled with the flappy paddle box offered blistering pace – hitting 0-100kph in 7.5seconds.


The ride and handling are superb and while the sports suspension was firm, the choppiness often expected on longer runs is absent.


The car cornered like it was on rails and the feedback from the steering was just sublime.


The manual SE model, although packing the same punch, lacked the refined feel of the auto but was nonetheless an exhilarating drive.


Even the uber frugal 320D Efficient Dynamics with 163bhp, economy of 69mpg and emissions of 109g/km had me hooked, but I kept hankering back to the auto.


The good news is that the ED comes in an auto option (and here’s the big lure) which retains the identical 109g/km emissions.


The down side is the extra €2,300 (approx) for the auto which will considerably push up the price.


Prices start at €35,600 but beware of the auto if you are in a strict budget.


Once you drive it you’ll want it.


The only other question which is left unanswered – how does it fare against the A4?


The top end 320D Sport is too close to call and would be unfair considering I was driving a 177bhp Avant (estate) which is a completely different baby.


Anyway it’s at the lower end of the spectrum where this scrap will be bloodiest and we’ve yet to drive the 316D (116bhp) or the 318D (143bhp).


One thing is certain, it’s gonna be fun.


Expect a head-to head soon.


The new 3 Series is on sale from Feb 11th.