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Early Drive: 2019 BMW 3 Series

Neil Briscoe gets an early drive of the all-new, high-technology 3 Series in prototype form, to find out what’s in store for the next generation of the fleet stalwart.

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What is it? Under the camouflage tape, this is the new ‘G20’ version of the BMW 3 Series. It’s a critical car for BMW, as it hopes to prove that a four-door saloon can still excite buyers in a world of SUVs. The model is a strong seller in the UK, with almost 40,000 sales a year, but it’s been beaten recently by the likes of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, so needs to hit back hard, as well as deal with a growing band of rivals from Lexus, to Jaguar, to Alfa Romeo.

What’s underneath? We do know that it will use the same ‘CLAR’ platform as the X3 and 5 Series, but it would be wrong to say that it’s simply a smaller 5 or a lower X3; it’s more about sharing common hard-points and the electrical architecture. We also know that the 3 Series will be around 55kg lighter, model-for-model, than the outgoing car, thanks to a gram-by-gram analysis of each individual part. It’s slightly bigger outside and in and, under the tape, the styling appears to have changed quite a bit — including much slimmer headlights and a more sculpted rear end.

Which ones can I buy? BMW isn’t talking trim and equipment specifics yet, nor performance figures, but we do know that it’s going to be choosy about how it lets buyers spec their new 3 Series. For instance, if you want to have the optional sporty suspension, then you will have to have the sportier steering rack too — no mixing and matching. Expect the existing SE, Sport, Luxury, and M Sport trims to continue, with the likelihood of extra safety kit across the range.

Both 316i and 316d models will switch to three-cylinder turbocharged engines, and will have CO2 emissions lower than 100g/km in basic form. If you want to go lower than that, there will be two plug-in hybrid options — a revised version of the existing 2.0-litre four-cylinder 330e, and a three-cylinder version, probably badged 325e, similar to the Mini Countryman E-Hybrid. Expect the 330e to come in under the 50g/km barrier, while the smaller-engined version could get close to the 22g/km figure of the Toyota Prius PHEV. The 330e will be able to go for around 50 miles on a fully-charged battery, while the 325e will get around 30 miles out of a charge.

The current 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesels and petrol engines will be carried over, as will the range-topping 340i’s 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine, and the 330d six-cylinder diesel. A fully-electric model will also be introduced, but that’s at least two years away yet. A range-topping 500hp M3 should benefit from both water-injection tech, and possibly a mild-hybrid electric motor for instant-reaction overtaking power. BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive will again be available alongside standard rear-wheel drive.

Inside, the cabin draws heavily on the 7 Series, and gets both the latest version of iDrive (which mixes a rotary controller with a touchscreen) and BMW’s new all-digital instrument panel, which features instruments that sweep around the outside edges of the binnacle.

How does it drive? So far, we’ve only had the chance to drive a heavily-camouflaged 330i, both on public roads and on the Nürburgring race track, but initial impressions are little short of excellent. The new electrically-boosted steering has exceptional feel and feedback, more akin to an old hydraulic power steering rack, and the chassis has a safe, but still playful, balance that allows you to exploit it even on a streaming wet day. One caveat — the ride quality on 19-inch wheels with the optional sports suspension felt too jittery over very poor surfaces.

When does it come here? The new 3 Series will be given a full debut at the Paris Motor Show in October, with UK sales set to start in early 2019.

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