What do particle physics and executive saloons have in common? Allow me to explain.
Last week the big news was the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. In a hugely complicated way, this little particle gives objects their mass.
So why do we care about this? What difference does it make in the lives of normal people like you and me? Well, for the immediate future, nothing.
Do not despair however. Albert Einensteins theory of relativity has allowed us to develop GPS navigation. John O’Sullivan‘s research into black holes gave us wi-fi. Scientists think that we may eventually find a way to get to Mars in 20 minutes thanks to the understanding of how matter gains or loses its mass.
The way that higher level science trickles down into consumer usage brings me neatly to the new BMW 3-Seires.
Disclosure: I have never driven a BMW and it seems suitable that I should start on the bread and butter, simple BMW 3-Series
The 3-Series makes up 60% of BMW’s global sales, and has grown from a small sports saloon to a full sized executive saloon. Out test model came in menacing black with black leather, and enourmous 19′ wheels. This is what I made of it.
Many people criticized BMW throughout the 2000′s for their styling. Done by eccentric Chris Bangle, BMW lost favour with many of their stalwart conservative fans. The new generation have started to look better and better. The new 3-Series is no exception. The nose has a pointed, shark-like look to it.
The black test model we had also had bigger, 19″ wheels and the optional shark fin on the roof. These added together gave the car a mean, sporty look that its competitors cannot match.
The only downfall is the rear which is certainly not ugly, but it very, very similar to the 5-Series. Are BMW going for the Audi “1 size fits all” approach? I hope not.
The interior of the BMW 3-Series rivals are fairly bland. They are designed to blend, and offer basic ergonomics without any real flair. The Mercedes C-Class in particular feels dated and old, unusual for a car that is only 4 years old.
The BMW however is an amazing place to be. The centre console suffers for executive saloon blandness, with all the materials in easy reach, and having not much zing, but there is more than on the Mercedes or Lexus IS. It has a brushed aluminum bar running across the width of the dashboard, breaking the vast black dash up into 2 sectors.
My favourite part of the interior is the instrument cluster. By day is is 2 large, simple dials, with an assortment of lights, smaller dials and vehicle information presented to you. By night the instruments glow orange, like a 1980′s BMW. This gives the car a focussed, racing feel at night, like one is piloting a black missile, rather than a simple saloon.
The BMW does not appear to have a hope of having anything worth mentioning if you hear the name. But, due to new EU regulations, BMW have turbocharged the 2.0l petrol engine, so it now produces 135kW. Rather impressive. This results in a 0-100km/h time of 7,6s.
The acceleration comes in 3 versions however:
- Efficient Dynamics: Slow and economical
- Comfort: Normal, average consumption
- Sport: Fast, drinks fuel and goes like hell.
Engage any of the modes, put your foot flat and the 8-speed gearbox throws some cogs around and off you go. You have now overtaken whatever was in your way.
The BMW 3-Series has brakes. They stop adequately. To be fair, I don’t know anything about the brakes other than they are “lightweight sliding caliper brakes.”
What I will say is the brakes are fairly sharp, but not so sharp that you tip them and promptly stop. They car I had had evidently been pushed (you could tell by the tires) and yet the brakes were as responsive as ever.
The BMW 320i has possibly the best ride of any car I’ve driven in the last 2 years. hand on heart, it rides like an airliner! Added to that, each of the 3 acceleration settings alters the ride to suit the conditions the car expects you to drive in, so Comfort and Economy are for wafting highway and town, while Sport firms up everything, making the ride firm, but not uncomfortable.
If you want the definition of a pointless object, a BMW that handles badly is it. The new 3-Series has a very serious point though. The handling on this car is similar to that of a go-kart. Simply think about the direction you wish to travel in and it turns.
I think part of this is thanks to all BMW’s being rear-wheel drive. Rear wheel drive just feels better. Drive a performance car and you can feel it, pushing the car along and tugging at the back end in fast corners. Try it in an executive saloon and the car feels together, like it’s been distilled.
The 320i on test had BMW’s new 8-Speed Sport automatic transmission. 8 gears may sound like too many, but BMW have made it work. Up changes are seamless, and for the most part, so are down changes. If you put the gearbox in Sport tip-tronic and the engine in Sport, down changes can be a bit jerky, but thats only if you set it be in 6th or 7th and floor it – causing the gearbox to down change and surge you along.
In traffic the gearbox operates the auto stop/start. When I heard about this system I thought it would never work. Engines take too long to start, settle and then pull off for it to save fuel and be smooth. Again, BMW have cracked it. When you stop in traffic the engine switches off, but in a ‘ready’ mode. As soon as you take your foot off the brake the engine fires up and off you go. Fantastic.
As a geek, this was one of my favourite parts of the car. There are a number of items present that made driving safer, easier and more fun.
The lane change assist and lane departure warning keep you in your right lane, the rear view camera stops you crashing while you park, the tire and engine sensors diagnose the car constantly to ensure everything is running powerfully and economically.
Then there is the iDrive. This is the only fault I found with the new 3-Series. The system is too complicated and too slow. Coming from one of the hottest digital agencies around, I had a UX specialist look at the system and they agreed. The system may control the entire car from one interface, but it takes too long to change between menus and the labeling is rather clunky.
Our test car was equipped with a Bose audio system. Driven through the iDrive, it may be terribly complicated but it is very advanced. The system has FM, AM and LW radio, MP3, CD, DVD and iPhone connectivity.
The sound was crisp and powerful and adjusted to a suitable level according to your speed and road noise.
The iPhone connectivity is especially enjoyable as you can stream via Bluetooth or via USB cable. It gives you access to your full library and using BMW ConnectedDrive you are able to sync your Tweets and Facebook via the audio system.
Ah. The BMW 3-Series‘ Achilles heel. The list price of the car i had is R361 000. Add in the options and CO2 tax and the price jumps to R592 689. Thats almost double the price. For that we could almost have two Suzuki Kizashis that I drove last week.
That said, the 3-Series is certainly punching above its weight. In size and spec level it competes more with the recently launched Lexus GS or Audi A6 than the Mercedes C-Class or Audi A4. This makes it rather good value when compared to the bigger boys.
The BMW is the best looking, best handling, best value for what it is, best riding and coolest of the executive saloons. The only issue is the steep learning curve on the silly iDrive. It’s not a bad option, its just one that takes learning.
The BMW 3-Series used to be a no brainer to buy. It still is.
Test car courtesy of BMW SA