¿Qué pasa, mi alma?

Eight days and 1100km through Andalucia – DTW introduces reader, Martin Franklin who reviews the new BMW G20 320d.

(c) The Author

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).

(c) The author

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.  

35 thoughts on “¿Qué pasa, mi alma?”

    1. That’s surely what he meant. And it’s klink. And it’s there in the pix.

  1. “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 …”

    Interesting review. But I can pretty much guarantee that since the engine and transmission are now full of powder metal parts rather than machined pieces, that there are no machined metal parts in the interior.

    1. Angel – I am genuinely intrigued to know how much of the plethora of metalwork on show in premium interiors now is actually metal – especially the solid-feeling pieces in constant use like the door handles. The tap-test doesn’t give much away… but most of it is wholly convincing from a tactile and visual perspective.

    2. Martin, I’m sure the metal appearing parts in the interior are metal. Likely aluminum die castings or powdered metal. They are just not likely machined.

      The manufacturers are now using powdered metal to make connecting rods, piston pins, main bearing caps, oil pump gears, camshaft lobes, piston pins, transmission gears, transmission planets…. etc. etc. They do it to save the costs of machining on their traditional forging and castings.

      If they are not machining engine parts to save money, they certainly are not machining interior parts.

      powdered metal is metal. It’s just not machined, typically.

  2. much, much appreciated, these insights from a thoughtful ex-BM owner,
    thanks for taking the trouble to share your experiences.

  3. Good morning, Martin, and thanks for sharing your experience of the G20 with us. There’s nothing like a good road trip for really getting familiar with a new car. Regarding your comments about the overall design and form, I was struck by your use of the word “flabby” in this regard. I have to confess that I had paid little attention to the G20 in holistic terms, being rather transfixed by the details, notably the latest mutation of the kidney grille and the non-Hofmeister Kink.

    A Google search initially revealed very few useful images of the G20. Most were moodily-lit photos of the car in the blue metallic launch colour. Then I found this:

    You’re right: the flanks do look rather flabby, lacking a strong continuous horizontal feature line that was a traditional feature of the 3-Series. The C-pillar treatment gets no better with familiarity. The addition of that extraneous plastic “ear” to the pillar is particularly egregious. It interrupts the upward sweep of the rear door shut line into the pillar. The “half a 50p coin” profile of the pillar treatment is uncertain and ill-defined. The F20’s treatment is so much better.

    The sharply angular front and rear end treatments are now rather at odds with the softer forms of the overall design, particularly those (otherwise attractive) rear light units. Interestingly, the new C-pillar geometry is repeated in the kidney grille, which looks similarly unsatisfactory and overwrought:

    The 3-D treatment of the grille reveals an unfortunate black plastic filler in the upper back-swept area, which catches the light and looks poorly resolved. As you say, a facelift could correct the front end deficiencies, but you cannot rely on BMW’s designers to recognise these issues, or not simply make things worse!

    1. The G20’s exterior is the work of the same man as the 7 series facelift, Alexey Kezha.

      On this basis alone, it would be easy to dismiss him as some hack who got lucky (twice), but I was assured by people who should truly know that he’s genuinely talented. On top of that he’s an above-average illustrator, which doesn’t count for a lot, but not for nothing either. Also, it’s utterly impossible for a single exterior designer to just have his way – whatever he does is or should be subjected to the scrutiny of the project leader, brand chief designer, overall chief designer and finally members of the board.

      Taking all this into account, it becomes clear that the issues plaguing BMW at the moment are not a matter of lack of individual talent, but a dysfunctional organisation.


    2. I absolutely agree that the source of BMW’s trouble is in their management.
      But I am convinced that it started much earlier and we only now see the results of long term mismanagement. It all started when the board decided to unleash their then design director many years ago.

      This brings me to the theory that either Munich waterworks is sponsored by Mercedes to put something in the drinking water supply for Petuelring or the whole situation is an act of bitter revenge by Wolfgang Reitzle who was the last manager with the guts to call a spade a spade and tell designers their cars were ugly and they should come up with something better.

    3. Thank you Daniel, and for expanding so thoroughly on my hypothesis. Part of me welcomes the evolution to cleaner surfaces, and in some lights the flanks of the G20 do look good, but overall it doesn’t feel properly resolved the way BMW usually do. The kidney treatment – same as on the facelift 7 – is heinous.

  4. Really pleased to see this proper review by a normal human being of a very important new car, so thank you!

    I am struggling a little bit to gain a sense that you found any one area of significant improvement of the new 3 over the previous car. In many areas which you cover it reads like a case of 2 steps forward and 1 back again, at best. But, I do get a feel from your review that, overall, the car is improved, just not radically, but incrementally. In one sense, no harm in that with the F30 already being a very decent car. In another, a bit disappointing given how new is much of the platform.

    One area I consistently struggle with is the move to digital instrumentation – or should I say, image-projected instruments. What is the name of Smiths, or VDO, or Stack, was wrong with a decent set of ‘analogue’ dials. I think the ‘virtual cockpit’ think works OK in some Audis, but if there is to be a central infotainment screen deployed as well, why try to befuddle the driver with a SatNav map image squeezed in between smaller, less readable dials? BMW’s solution that I have seen in recent 7s and 5s is really stupid, with a physical chrome-plastic outer outline within which the digital dials are projected. What’s the sense in that?

    Thanks again for the very readable review and credible insights into the new 3.

    1. Thank you S.V. – and yes I think you summarised it well – it’s a slight improvement overall, but achieved via a step forward inside, a step backward outside and to my mind standing still dynamically.

      Yes I concur on the instrumentation – I always loved the clean black and white dials that BMW stuck to for so long. I do not see the merit in maintaining a physical 3/4 dial outline when everything else is digital – it just limits what you can do with the digital set-up. And with such good head-up displays now you’re looking at the instruments less than ever before anyway.

  5. Something I noticed in some recent new BMWs is that the air vents in the dashboard are getting smaller (in the G20 almost comically so), but I never seen any comment on their effectiveness from any reviewer. What’s your take on this, Martin ?

    PS – Actually, rarely in a review the actual performance of HVAC is discussed, merely the ergonomics and looks. However, real world performance as we all know differs quite a lot between brands / models, etc…

    1. PJ – it did strike me that less real estate is being allocated to air vents, but I never had the impression of impaired HVAC performance as a result. They still do everything the bigger units used to. Certainly in the front two seats we were comfortable at all times; perhaps this would affect rear seat passengers (of which we had none) more, but then they have their own dedicated vents back there on the transmission tunnel.

      What is interesting to me is that BMW seems now to be using the exact same HVAC across the entire range – the unit in the 8-Series and X7 looks identical to the unit on the 1 and 3 Series, with slightly differing vent designs.

  6. As an Spaniard I am impressed by you writing correctly “Qué” with what we call “tilde diacrítica” placed correctly in the interrogative “é”. Most native Spanish speakers do not bother to write “tildes” (ortographical signs for accents) due to the mental effort required learn the rules to write then (or do not write them).

    “lots of that on Spanish mountain roads with an inexplicable lack of solid white centre markings”

    Andalusian roads are infamous for being very poor.

    Try northern Spanish roads. They are much, much better than southern ones.

  7. From a myriad things that this review inspired, I will share what the exterior styling of the G20 conveys to me, so far:

    After several other recent examples, this new 3-series just
    firmly seals my impression that the new design team in Munich (or is it the management, perhaps?) must be utterly fascinated
    by what Gordon Wagener has achieved. It is very, very
    interesting to see where these trends will bring us.

  8. I’ve been thinking how one might fix the deficiencies of the G20 3 Series, restoring the Hofmeister Kink, sharpening up the flabby flanks and adding some athleticism to the design. Then I realised that someone else had already done so:

    1. For me, the Giulia looks so much more dynamic than the 3 Series, and it’s all in the details, as the silhouettes are virtually interchangeable.

      On the Giulia, the rising crease in the bodyside from the front wing to the rear door handle is picked up by a parallel crease in the sill, and even the subtle crease in the rear bumper, to lengthen and lower the profile. The shut line between the front and rear doors continues smoothly up the centre of the B-pillar, and the rearward cant of the B-pillar is nicely repeated in the strip forming the leading edge of the rear quarter-light, adding further dynamism to the profile

      Compare these with the same details on the BMW: the lower bodyside crease kicks up then stops abruptly in the middle of the rear door panel. It doesn’t visually flow though the rear wheel arch and pick up the rear bumper to wing panel-gap, as is sometimes the case. The crease flowing forward from the rear light through the rear door handle fades out too quickly to relate to the lower bodyside crease and, in any event, the upward kick of the latter kills any parallelism between them*. The B-pillar is resolutely upright and static looking, and it interrupts the rearward cant of the door shut-line below it. Even the curved trailing lower corner of the rear door forces a short but awkwardly placed panel-gap between the sill and leading edge of the rear wing. The Gulia’s angular corner allows this panel-gap to continue the line of the doors to sill shut-line uninterrupted.

      All minor details, but together they make an enormous difference to my reading of the two profiles. I hope this dissection of both profiles makes sense. I might find time tomorrow to mark up the photos as Richard does, to illustrate what I’m banging on about.

      *The drawing of the green car above indicates how these feature lines were meant to relate, being parallel to each other within the rear door skin, but this nice detail was lost in translation to the metal.

  9. For comparison, I thought I’d also mark up the F30 to understand why it looks so much better than the G20 to my eyes. The result was very interesting:

    Long, parallel rising feature lines and a swept back B-pillar, on other words, very similar to the Giulia.

    1. The Alfa is one of those almost right but not quite designs to my eyes. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it for a while, but your marked up pictures have answered what I find not quite right about the Giulia. It’s the curvature of the lower edge of the DLO – I prefer straight. When you put them all side by side, the F30 is the most elegant of the three I would suggest.

    2. Hi Adrian. I’m not sure if you mean the whole length of the lower edge of the DLO, or just the upward curve below the rear quarter-light. If the latter, then I absolutely agree: it seems slightly at odds with the sharper Hofmeister kink immediately above it. For my own amusement, I adjusted it earlier to look like this:

      Now, there’s a 3 Series I would buy!

    3. Agreed. Poor Alfa? Or Must Try Harder?

      In the same vein I saw une nouvelle 508 today, parked nose to nose with ein neues Insignia. Viewing them from the side as I was, they weren’t easy to tell apart. I thought that was really quite ironic.

    4. Ironic, indeed, given that the Insignia is likely to be culled prematurely for a successor based on the underpinnings of the 508.

  10. The more I think about (and play with) it, the more it appears that the Giulia would make a lovely 3 Series:

    1. Well, yes, but I’d rather have an Alfa (it’s a long held, 6 car, expensive habit of mine but I haven’t succumbed since the 156). A shame that Alfa seems to be breathing its last for real this time.

    2. Unfortunately, I’ve never owned an Alfa. My only foray into Italian cars, and a pretty tentative one at that, was a year’s ownership of a Lancia Delta, a cooking 1500 model. If was a nice, comfortable car, pleasant to drive and pleasingly “different”. The interior plastics and fabrics were noticeably nicer than many contemporaries. I sold it as soon as it showed the first signs of rust, a blister on one of the rear door skins. After the Beta debacle, I wasn’t going to take any chances.

      Here’s a similar car to mine:

      They really were a lovely design, one of Giugiaro’s best.

    3. I had Alfas as my main car for more than twenty-five years. My first car at all was a Giulia Super 1600 and the last Alfa a 166 3.0 V6 with more than a dozen Alfas between them. During these years anything wearing a scudetto instantly made me want it (exceptions being Arnas and anything powered by VM).
      I really wanted to like the current Giulia which itself is no particular beauty (which Alfa ever was, except for the 156?) but looks infinitely better than anything from German manufacturers still recovering from epidemic Banglitosis.
      But FCA still haven’t managed to set up a proper infrastructure around their product. If they aren’t able to have a single Giulia on display even in their Frankfurt HQ’s showroom it’s no wonder they don’t sell any of them.

    4. Hi Dave, that really is a tragedy, and quite probably terminal for Alfa Romeo. If the company can’t sell a Giulia to you, clearly a lifelong enthusiast for the marque, then what hope has it of achieving conquest sales from other premium brands? The loyal band of Alfisti is now far too small to support a viable business on its own.

      It is just extraordinary that the dealership infrastructure is still so poor, both in terms of visibility and customer service standards, both pre- and post-sale. I remember stories from thirty years ago about Alfas being sold from dark, grubby corners in multi-marque dealerships and serviced in leaky sheds. It may be better now, but clearly nowhere near good enough.

    5. Alfa last made serious conquest sales with the 156. In early 1998 when 156 sales began in earnest these cars were showing up in parking lots of companies like Accenture of PwC in significant numbers.
      If competitors’ reactions are an indication how serious they take a product then the 156 was seen as a threat at least by BMW who tried to rudely extort leasing companies by threatening them with cutting discounts if they offered the 156 on corporate lease schemes. They needn’t have worried – within less than a year these corporate lease contracts were cancelled prematurely because leasing companies as well as fleet managers were no longer prepared to deal with Alfa’s lack of service.
      Nobody wants to repeat these unpleasant experiences and to my eyes at least that’s the deeper reason for the Giulia’s failure in the market. They killed a perfectly good product by lack of service – and what’s even worse by a complete lack of understanding of the necessity of offering proper service.

    6. On the subject of 3 Series I would buy, I spotted this (old) artist’s impression on Car Magazine’s website this morning:

      Why, oh why, can’t the 3 Series look like that? Simple compact and confidently drawn lines and a proper Hofmeister kink: what’s not to love?

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