It only takes about 20 metres behind the wheel of the new BMW 3-series to realise it’s going to be a properly-sorted car. It doesn’t matter that the particular ‘G20’ 3er I drove was the 320d xDrive. However modest or brawny the engine under the bonnet, a 3-series has to drive well, simply because they always have.
Does this matter to the average Joe wandering into the local BMW dealership? I think it does. They may not know why, but they’ll find the 3-series more satisfying to drive than anything else in the class, at any speed. If he or she is trading up from the old one, they’ll be expecting more of the same.
The 3-series certainly sounds plenty promising on paper in this regard. It’s significantly stiffer than the old one, has a wider track and a weight drop of 55kg.
Up the speed, and the 320d impresses further. Even in Sport mode, the damping (‘our’ car had the adaptive setup) is brilliantly smooth and resolved. The G20 rides comfortably, barely rolls and shrugs off bumps and divots in the road like they’re no big deal at all.
It turns in like a much smaller, lighter car, and has a level of traction you can’t possibly reach the end of without driving like a complete cretin. The all-wheel drive system is rear-biased, although the G20 feels neutral most of the time, predictably less keen to wriggle around at the rear axle than more powerful xDrive BMWs.
Lateral grip is excellent too, but the 3er we were thrown the key to in Spain had a little leg up in the form of Michelin PS4 S tyres. Even if you option the 19-inch wheels, you’ll need to pay extra for these boots.
The steering will be familiar to anyone who’s driven anything from the current BMW stable. In other words, it’s fast, accurate, predictable and far too heavy in Sport. Best fiddle about with the ‘Individual’ drive setting to turn everything up to full apart from that, then.
The 187bhp and 295lb ft of torque offered up by the inline-four diesel engine will provide enough thrust for most, and the ZF-sourced eight-speed gearbox as slick as ever whether you’re in auto or manual. We note this pretty much every time we sample an auto BMW, but it must be said - Munich has this ‘box sussed out better than anyone else.
The 6.8-second 0-62mph time makes the 320d xDrive sound suitably quick - that’s not far off the old E46 330i, and as brisk as the original M3, after all. But on the move, it doesn’t feel all that swift, partly because the trick all-wheel drive system helps the car get the kind of clean getaway that neatly cuts acceleration figures, and partly because you can barely hear the engine.
That’s not a bad thing at all. The G20 keeps you nicely insulated not just from the clatter of the less-than tuneful four-pot oil burner up front, but from the outside world in general. You even get double glazing - something once the preserve of cars like the 7-series.
It’s here that the new 3-series really shines, and that’s more relevant than carving up a mountain road while unleashing your inner helmsmith. Much like Mercedes has made the current C-Class feel like a baby S-Class, the G20 is best thought of like a shrunken 7-series. With kidney grilles that - thankfully - aren’t to scale.
It isn’t just the sense of serenity when you’re cruising - it’s the materials, too, almost all of which feel utterly lovely. It’s a little disappointing that the dashboard design isn’t much of a departure from the old one, but at least the 3-series faithful won’t be scared off.
It might be like a smaller, less expensive 7-series, but don’t get fooled into thinking that this 320d is going to be cheap. ‘Our’ test car was £39,700 before options. With a multitude of extras fitted including the adaptive dampers, head-up display, bigger wheels and much more besides, it was approaching £50k. The rise of PCP deals and the like means cash prices are less relevant than ever, but still, that’s a figure likely to cause anyone reading this to spit their tea out all over a laptop/phone screen.
You could also say much the same about the G20’s competition, and none are quite as complete. It has the refinement of a C-Class, the sharp-driving attitude of an Alfa Romeo Giulia, and the build quality of an Audi A4. Oh, and it’s all wrapped up in a package that’s - in the right spec - particularly handsome. The only way it could be better is if it has the body of an estate car, but one of those is already on the way. Happy days.