Eight days and 1100km through Andalucia – DTW introduces reader, Martin Franklin who reviews the new BMW G20 320d.
As far back as memory goes, I’ve loved BMWs. I’ve owned two to date: a 2003 E46 325i M-Sport Manual Convertible, followed by a 2005 E46 330i M-Sport Manual Convertible; the latter fixing the primary issue with the former, and both a satisfying driving and ownership experience. But living and working in central London since 2009, owning a car hasn’t been a justifiable luxury, so I compensate on holidays by hiring the cars I’d maybe like to own and then designing some good driving into the travel plans.
This mid-June trip to Andalucia would see us picking up a car in Malaga, and following a more or less circular route through Granada, Cordoba, Seville, Jerez, Cadiz, Vejer, Ronda, Marbella and back up to Malaga. Eight free and sunny days on a mix of Andalucian roads: I was keenly looking forward, pending my luck with the hire car allocation gods.
Arriving hopefully at airport car rental, I declined an exorbitant 5-Series upgrade and an apologetically proffered Audi Q3, to consequently be offered what I had really hoped for: a new G20 BMW 320d M-Sport with 7km on the clock. It was as we made our way to the parked vehicle that it struck me that this driving experience might make a worthwhile DTW piece.
Because I wasn’t coming to the new 3er with an entirely open mind. I’ve read much of the press and opinion (a lot thereof here) about it since launch, and I’m in tune with the frustration at BMW design’s continued downward spiral. But I read also that pains were taken to make this 3 an even better drive. And the new interior looked much improved in the pictures. So, three questions I hoped this trip would answer:
*Does some everyday familiarity with the new 3’s exterior design breed understanding, acceptance and perhaps even appreciation?
*Does G20 drive better than F30, as BMW have promised?
*Have BMW raised their game sufficiently with the new 3’s interior to see off the S60, C-Class, and A4 for now?
The first day or two with a new car always take some settling into, so I refrained from hasty judgements. We took a motorway dash up to Granada, some inner city stop-start, challenging parkades designed for Pandas and then a lovely winding B-road from Cordoba to Seville, easing me nicely into the world of G20.
Which, really, is very much like the world of F30, a 3-Series designation I’ve had numerous flings with over the course of its model life, usually in 320i or 320d guise, so it’s a familiar friend. No, it seems braver revolutions like the sea change from generation E30 to E36 are a thing of the past. And now where there are design changes, they often seem to be change for change’s sake or subtle cost-cutting rather than genuine vorsprung.
By the time we left sun dappled Seville for Cadiz province some impressions were starting to form, having had the chance to study our silver 320d basking in myriad variations of southern Spain’s summer light. To start with the proportions of the car, well, they’ve essentially carried over F30 untouched, so living with it provides a nice continuity from the previous 3. It’s the surfacing and details that are markedly different here, which was obviously the clear design strategy for G20.
So to the surfacing – they’re certainly the cleanest looking surfaces on a 3 Series in a long while, which takes some getting used to. In bright sunlight I found the flanks almost flabby in their new smoothed out roundedness – the opposite of the taut and muscular creases and swages we’ve been seeing for so long – but at other times, in gorgeous dusky evening light for example, they managed to look clean, elegant and fresh.
But it’s the details of this car that the eye is drawn to, to wonder what Van Hooydonk and his team were wanting us to see and feel… and here I’ve come to three conclusions:
A traditional chrome DLO surround is very important indeed on this car: almost all the photographed press cars and most of the cars I’ve seen in London since launch have had a blacked out DLO surround. Whereas our Spanish car had the traditional chrome surround present and correct (egregious Van Hooydonk kink excepted), and it works a charm.
Richard Herriott’s recent piece on the value of brightwork is convincingly upheld here: the chrome trim gives important definition to the curve of the roof outline and the waistline running from front to back of the car – without it or any of the aforementioned creases, the eye lacks something harmonious to focus on.
The rear of the car works well: It’s 3-Series as usual back here, apart from the new tail lamp styling, which I hated on the ungainly rump of the new X4. On the new 3-Series I thought they were too much of a departure from the now classic BMW L-shape rear lamps and as many have noted, rather too Lexus IS-like. But some time living with them I got to like them – they are modern, fresh and sculptural, and look good at night.
The nose is indeed a mess: The ever-expanding kidney grille has also been forced into a plasticky 3-dimensional expression – eating its way into the bonnet at the top and melting in Dali-esque fashion into the bumper at the bottom. It’s painfully overwrought, as is the whole front end of the car when you zoom out to include the headlamps and bumper… an unsettling combination of bulbous forms and angular details.
8 days of beard scratching couldn’t evince a eureka moment where I felt I understood what the designers were aiming for. The best I could come up with was that BMW are giving themselves a gift for the mid-life facelift in 2022, where a cleaner, more elegant face will be an easy win.
So, does it drive better than the last one? Not being an experienced writer of road tests, I won’t try to give driving impressions beyond my station: it drives just like a 3-Series, which to me means I look forward to every drive, especially when the road empties out, opens up and gets a bit windy. It feels responsive – the 2.0l turbocharged diesel four is a familiar and fine engine – only really requiring true foot to the floor on tight overtaking (lots of that on Spanish mountain roads with an inexplicable lack of solid white centre markings meaning everywhere is an overtaking opportunity if you’ve got the balls for it…)
In Sport mode it exudes a touch of extra agility and spurt-on-tap that makes the drive that bit more engaging, which for me means maintaining momentum going into and coming out of the bendy bits, while in Comfort you can lap up motorway effortlessly all day. Truth be told it feels very much like driving the previous generation F30, which is no bad thing.
It’s supposed to be lighter but I couldn’t feel it. In fact if there’s one genuine dynamic difference I noticed is that it feels bigger. Maybe now too big. I can’t imagine needing any more space from the likes of a 5-Series. I suspect if one were to push the car harder than a keen holiday drive on a mountain pass further impressive dynamic attributes would reveal themselves, likewise if driving F30 and G20 back-to-back.
And so on to the interior: Mainly good work has been done here. The relentless embrace of metal works well, apart from a few angles where the sun catching the dashboard bling will momentarily blind you. But the stylish uninterrupted sweep of aluminium right across the dash is well executed and feels properly premium.
Lots of knurling happens now on metal things you need to touch (thank you Bentley), and the solid new metal door handles are gorgeous to look at and use (thank you Porsche). I suppose paying for all that machined metalwork is why some of the plastics feel cheaper than before – the door top and dash housings a case in point.
The newly situated and designed HVAC controls are a relatively dramatic ergonomic departure from previous generations, and they work well; I found myself adjusting them more often than on the F30 because they’re closer, easier and more intuitive to use, and the temperature readout is bigger and closer to eye level, so you’re more acutely aware of it. A worthwhile improvement.
Some tech peeves: First, the new instrument panel – it’s still the halfway house to the fully Star Trek set-up of the new 8, but it’s certainly a step back from the clean circular dials that went before, and second, the lane departure warning – which feels like the car is taking over from the driver; I kept meaning to turn it off but couldn’t be fussed digging into i-drive. It does encourage you to indicate every time you cross a white line to prevent the car trying to pull you back into lane (it lets you pass freely if your flicker is on).
When the time came to hand back the key fob, there were 1100km on the odometer from a memorable eight days of driving. In that time I grew to appreciate the G20 3er much as I have most other 3-Series I’ve driven. From some angles and in some light it looks great, and I believe the worst styling offences could be amended at facelift time. In the meantime it is really important to get the spec right to make the most of the challenging looks. Based on my driving experience it’s equally as good to drive as the outgoing F30 3-Series, even if it’s maybe now getting too big to be as chuck-able and wieldy as one would ideally like.
From the driver’s seat it’s a substantially nicer place to be, and left me with the impression that a lot of time was spent by very talented people trying to make this a product that would bring enduring satisfaction and joy to many people. Just a pity the exterior designers seemed to be working to a different brief.