The competition rages diversity. It's good for life, good for our economy, and in the automotive industry, good for drivers. For the longest time, the BMW 3 Series was the gold standard; the king of the hill; the very best choice in the compact luxury segment. BMW's compact was so competitive, so balanced in driving refinement, commitment, luxury and style that it dominated the segment for decades. The 3 Series was a driver car that appealed to everyone.
But the competition – as it is often done in life and in business – is taken up. The competitors began to utilize the 3-series balanced approach, each expired in a particular area. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class became more luxurious and premium, the Audi A4 added first-class technology, and the new Alfa Romeo Giulia is better to drive. And despite the improvements in the 2020 BMW 3 series, these rankings stand. A long-term, 3-way do-all approach is now a handicap.
The new 3-series, the G20 name, is a big improvement over the last-generation car, F30, though. It was clear at every bend in the road when we sampled the 2020 3 series in southern Portugal.
The new design, both inside and outside, is a leap forward compared with last year's car, although it grew significantly. The 3 Series lends the same expressive face that is groundbreaking in the 5th and 7th series, giving even the basics a wider, sportier character. The profile has BMW's trademark Hoffmeister kink on the back of the greenhouse, but the lower part of the body is a nice drawing line that goes up the back door and raises the hood between the rear fender and the bumper cover.
Our main complaint, and it's a small, is that both the drawn line and the backlights feel a bit diverted. There are apparently some Lexus IS in design, but 3 are middle, less aggressive and easier on the eye than the crowded Japanese sedan.
The cottage is a marked improvement over last year's 3-series. The C-class standards remain higher, but the design works. Designers elevate the infotainment screen to the same height as the all-digital instrument cluster, which makes scanning from one to the other simple. Below the center display are physical HVAC buttons, followed by reconfigurable presets, while underneath it is a storage suburb, where the lid gives the impression that the center stack and console form a continuous piece. The center console follows a familiar BMW layout, with the gear lever attached between the engine start button and the driving mode controls on the left, and the iDrive button and the right button.
Less design elements like blue contrast stitches on our spring The M Sport 330i test car's dash, doors and seats are beautiful, and real metal accents on door handles and paddle shifters are cozy. But 3's abundance of plastic is burdensome in a world where Mercedes holds solid metal buttons over the cabin and a higher quality faux leather on the dashboard. BMW's plastic switches and tougher dashes feel like cop-outs. A particularly extreme piece of hard plastic at the bottom of the shift handle annoyed us every time we put the 3 series in gear, while the bottom plastic in the cabin feels cheap too. And while it could be the case with the cars we drove in Portugal, it was early to build, a comparable C-class feels better screwed together.
But BMW features are present. The sports seats look like they belong to an M3 and have cross-country comfort and twisting road protection. M-marked steering wheel is also a fine element. Leather-wrapped and fits with a pair of real metal paddle shifters, it's a pleasure to work. This is the same overall M design that BMW has offered for a while, but – and it may be our imagination – the wheel on the G20 3 Series feels less, is easier to handle, and better to attack swings.
Overambitious and semi-backed technology counteracts BMW's trademark characteristics. While motion control – which has infected the 2020 3 Series after attaching other BMW models like the 7- and 5-series and the X5's poster-child, the most offensive new technology is without doubt the 3-th sky based speaker assistant. Stop us if you've heard this, but the voting controls in the 2020 3 series are very bad.
We renamed our car Angela Merkel, because something like "Hello Angela Merkel, actively sporting" made us sneak.
Activation of the virtual assistant means saying "Hello BMW," listen for a clock, and then pronounce a natural language phrase. In theory.
After changing our wreckword – we renamed our car Angela Merkel because we said something like "Hello Angela Merkel, Sporting Mode" made us sneaky – we tried a series of commands from a BMW liner that was delivered to us. One would think that if BMW raised questions for us to recite, they would be things that it knew the voice assistant could handle. They were not.
Most times, 3 series failed. And we tried a lot. We tried our natural midwestern accent. We tried a British accent, so a German accent. We tried actually German . The success rate was low.
When the system reacted, it was often for meaningless features. For example, when we told the voice assistant, we were tired – "Hello Angela Merkel, I'm tired" – eventually (eventually) went into a whole routine designed to refresh us, flashing the ambient light (which we could not see in the Portuguese sunshine), plays a little bad techno music and blows us in the face with airspits from the plumbing ventures. It does this instead of drawing directions to the nearest coffee shop, which may be more useful to an exhausted driver.
We could go for a week about how bad the 3-Series Voice Assistant is, but then we would not have time to talk about the problems with the BMW Digital Instrument Cluster, called the Live Cockpit. Our first exposure to this system was in 2019 X5, and at that time we were not so bothered by it. More time has soured our opinion, though. There is too much wasted space and not enough adaptability. Audi Virtual Cockpit works because it has several configurations for gauges and distinctive displays for entertainment, navigation, communication and vehicle information – it's segmented and smart. BMW's system, like BMW's sedan, suffers because it tries to do too much at once.
BMW's do-it-the-whole approach also applies to the 3-Series driving license. But it is hard to make a firm judgment based on our time in Portugal. Apart from a pair of display cars, BMW allowed us to try identical-configured, all-wheel-drive M Sport sedans. And of these vehicles, half of our time (for some reason …) was used behind the wheel in the German market 320d, a diesel driven since we did not come here in the United States. It is excellent for the record.
BMW's do-it-all approach applies to 3-Series driving signs to injury.
And so is the standard 330i. Mostly. The turbocharged 4-cylinder engine pumps out a solid 258 horsepower and 295 lb with torque and gets 330i xDrive to 62 miles per hour in 5.8 seconds. It fits the road – it's a very low torque from the improved 2.0 liter, thanks to an improved peak spread ranging from 1,550 to 4,400 rpm. 330i continues happily up to the redline, making this a nice motor to wind out. It does not sound particularly nice, though. It's an art of the engine note, even though we did not notice it the day after we tested the six-cylinder 2020 M340i.
When we talked about the G20 series, we only spent six laps that drove the Autódromo Internacional Algarve in a lead-follow formation with it. While it was impressive, half a dozen rounds had a track we did not drive in six months, not enough to draw a firm conclusion. Look for a complete revaluation of the M340i in the coming months.
Both cars have an eight-speed automatic transmission. Another version of ZF's popular 8HP, 3 Series is fast on rewind and downshifts, and much clever when they go to their own devices. We worked manually on winding roads around the Algarve, but when it was time to drive the track, the transfer to its automatic sports mode showed more than the challenge of the track. This is not surprising at all – you can keep this transfer on a canal and it will still blend.
2019 BMW 3 Series ] Taken with the turning roads in southern Portugal, time spent on the track revealed some interesting things about the new, used M Sport cars. Each car we tested contained an M Sport-specific differential, brakes, a non-adaptive suspension that lowered the ride height 0.4 inches compared to the standard set-up and 19-inch wheels on summer rubber. Simply put, these cars are the ultimate expression of how the G20 handles (until the inevitable M3 comes of course).
With a broader track, a 20 percent increase in spring rate, a more rigid body and stiffer suspension assembly, the 3-Series feels tight and aggressive. The G20 rolls far less and feels more willing to interfere with its predecessor. The control unit is easy – this is no E90 – but directly. And while 3 lacks feedback from an Alfa Romeo Giulia, it's a big improvement over last year's car. This 3-Series feels easier and more willing than it has this year.
It's still not the benchmark segment, but as long as BMW continues to take a "jack-of-all-trades" approach to its popular compact, the series will never be.
But the lack of feedback, both through the chassis and the management, is disappointing. Judging grip levels is particularly problematic with the driving mode set to Sport Plus because the gas response is too aggressive. Too often we could feel that the backends went out because we struggled to efficiently modulate the throttle. Having said that, the sense of M differential sorts things out and then striking us out of a turn turned out to be satisfactory.
And that's our overwhelming takeaway from the 2020 3 Series. Satisfaction. It's still not the benchmark segment, but as long as BMW continues to take a jack-of-all-trades approach to its popular compact, the 3-Series will never be. But this compact is competitive. It is similar. It is satisfactory. If you want the most first class car in the class, buy a C class. You want the smartest technology, it must be Audi A4. The most engaging driver remains Alfa Romeo Giulia. But if you can not decide between the three vehicles (and are willing to live with bad technology), the 2020 BMW 3 Series is again worth considering.