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BMW 330i M Sport prototype: Driven

Can BMW return the once-famed driver focus to the 3-Series? Only one way to find out...

By / Thursday, August 16, 2018

BMW is the only car manufacturer with a workshop in the heart of the town of Nurburg. Not for them one of those gaudy branded edifices out on the side of the Dottingen Hohe, where the industrial units are crammed in like carpet warehouses and look about as permanent as the tents that get abandoned on the Ring's various campsites a couple of times a year.

From BMW's workshop, it's a five minute stroll in one direction to the old Nordschleife pitlane, and a five minute stroll in the other to get your steak on a stone at the Pistenklause. Somehow BMW, like Porsche, feels like part of the fabric of the whole place.

For related reasons, an invitation to the BMW Nurburg workshop to drive something feels likes a statement about the car you're going to drive: that it'll be a proper driver's car, feel a bit like motorsport, maybe even be effectively accompanied by pilsner and currywurst (what wouldn't?). It certainly augured well for the BMW 330i M Sport prototype - gently suggesting (at least to me, somehow) that come the showroom launch of the 'G20'-generation Three later this year, you won't have to go to M3- or even M Performance model level to end up with a 3-Series of real performance flavour.

And guess what? You won't. The next 330i M Sport's a proper sports saloon for all sorts of reasons, which I'll go on to tell you about - but not least, you suspect, because the people behind it, under a bit of pressure from some talented rival saloons that simply weren't around seven years ago, have felt the need to reclaim BMW's right to say it makes an outstanding driver's car.

The 'G20' will be a longer and wider saloon than the outgoing 'F30', but it'll be lighter and stronger with it. For now, Munich isn't divulging specifics about exactly how much the car's dimensions will change, but did tell us they'd saved up to 55kg of kerbweight, old car to new - depending, of course, on which specific models you compare.

I drove past a lovely example of the old Wolfgang Reitzle 'E39' 5-Series during our test drive (the definitive Five in my book, though I appreciate that has a lot to do with my age) and it struck me that the new Three must just be passing that particular car for outright size. It's a good size for a four-door saloon; maybe the best. Not all that compact, I grant - but probably just about small enough to make for a great-handling car. The 'E39' certainly was.

So what's new under the bodywork? Well, the 3-Series' axle tracks have both grown, with MacPherson strut suspension used up front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear - same as before. There's a new variable-ratio 'variable sport' steering box for those that want one, though it isn't speed-sensitive 'active steering' (which hasn't featured on a BMW Three since the 'E90'-generation). There are new optional adaptive dampers from Tenneco if you want them; and firmer springing and bushing for cars with passive M Sport suspension than like-for-like current-gen cars.

But here's the really good news. BMW has, by its own admission, focussed on the hardware that 3-Series customers actually buy; it has chosen to work with simpler technology, and in good old-fashioned oil, steel and rubber, to give 'ordinary' versions of the car a more direct sporting character than the 'F30' had. Dynamically, at least, it's a move back towards the 3-Series' roots; and, as roots go, they were pretty good ones.

By and large, 3-Series drivers don't buy adaptive dampers, and so devoting a large proportion of development time to fine-tuning those dampers, as BMW has in the past, doesn't make sense. 3-Series customers tend to prefer passive suspension, often with an alloy wheel upgrade. And this time around those customers will get struts with both main and auxiliary springs, and clever shock absorbers that provide additional damping support at the extremes of wheel travel (for improved rebound control at the front axle and better compression support at the rear). The springing technology isn't new for the 'G20' but the damper designs are.

The new 3-Series' engine range won't change too much according to project insiders. The advancements relevant to the 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo-powered 330i prototype they gave us to test are, we were told, a reasonable guide for what to expect more widely. It gets a seven horsepower improvement (taking it to 258hp) and a 37lb ft increase in torque (up to 295lb ft). While less powerful versions of the car will come with manual gearboxes as standard, at -30i/30d level and above all will be eight-speed automatics. Selected engines will be offered with xDrive four-wheel drive, and one or two with xDrive only.

Stick to 'standard drive' and M Sport trim in your 3-Series, however, and you'll be offered something that's effectively been confined to BMW's dealer-fit accessories catalogue, and to aftermarket tuners, for a while now: a mechanical LSD. It's a simplified version of the 'eDiff' you'll find on the current M3, which uses clutches to vector torque between the inner and outer rear wheels. It'll be available only as part of a package of options, and only in tandem with the car's more powerful engines. Still, it's a proper diff, and on a mid-range 3-Series - bringing to mind the likes of the old 'E30' 325i Sport.

Sounds promising, dunnit? Only time will reveal the full extent of how much of an improvement on handling appeal it'll deliver for the 'G20', because the 'eDiff' only adopts its most aggressive oversteery settings in the car's 'DSC off' driving mode - and that wasn't one of the modes BMW had finished tuning at the time of our test drive. Only 'comfort' and 'sport+' were deemed complete enough for us to sample - but both gave plenty of cause for encouragement that the 3-Series is well on its way back to its dynamic best here.

What impressed yours truly most about it was the ride tuning. Our prototype certainly felt firmer-riding than a current M Sport-sprung 3-Series, with notably quicker handling responses and a more high-frequency ride. But the suspension had absorptive dexterity to it too, which allowed the car's body to stay surprisingly settled over bumps, and not to react too tetchily to short, sharp vertical inputs. The car's axles have that busy, distantly thunky, excitable feel about them, but seem capable of working away within the wheel housings, maintaining good wheel control, without putting unwanted energy into the sprung mass until the surface gets really bad.

Moreover, when it does get bad, the 3-Series' suspension has great outright damping authority about it, and can take a big hit with the assurance of a fairly hardcore hot hatchback. The building resistance of those struts, while it had the potential to make the car's body control feel slightly unnatural, somehow only makes it seem more dependable - because the extra support is right where you need it. It doesn't turn up unexpectedly, as sometimes happens on cars with frequency-selective shocks when you encounter a bump of a certain profile; one that otherwise might have been dealt with perfectly well, but triggers instead a sudden sense of frozen lockdown from the suspension simply because the speed of the initial input was quite high.

We had a couple of laps of the Nordschleife to interrogate the new 3-Series' handling balance, which on the road seemed very good - though perhaps not quite good enough to rival an Alfa Giulia for sports car like agility and incisiveness. No BMW is ever likely to go quite that far on handling response, however, primarily because the firm's preference is to tune its sportier cars to have plenty of steering weight (because it believes drivers want to be able to brace their body weight against the wheel at times) and the kind of progressive steering response and on-centre stability that makes you confident enough to take one hand off the wheel at big Autobahn speeds - to change the radio station or similar. To BMW's chassis dons, the sheer directness and lightness of an Alfa Giulia's steering causes more problems than it's worth.

On the Nordschleife, the 3-Series felt like a remarkably purposeful sport saloon with big grip levels, great body control and abundant, unflusterable stability, that could be lent on and hurried hard. Using 'sport+' mode, the car had useful balance but not quite the level of handling adjustability, either on or off the throttle, that you might imagine Munich would want to characterise the car in its wildest moments. When that 'DSC off' mode tuning's completed, though, it might well have. Chief project dynamicist Jos van As told me "it's important to us that the car has the full range of abilities any customer would want from it - and that includes a truly adjustable, driftable 'everything off' mode."

Any other business? Well, despite having covered most of our prototype's interior with disguise, BMW couldn't leave the instruments obscured; and so I can tell you that the 3-Series gets fully digital instruments (as an option, I dare say) without the fixed chrome bezels you see on the current 5-Series and 7-Series. It's also got a new centre console layout and, by the look of it, a dashboard trimmed with a bit more chrome than the last 3-Series had, for a more luxurious ambience.

The car's due to be shown at September's Paris motor show, and we'll drive the finished article later in the year. And now, when we do, it'll be with justified expectation of a return to dominant form for a car that was once the best-handling compact, affordable saloon on the planet - and might yet be again.

SPECIFICATION - BMW 330i M Sport (G20)

Engine: 4cyl, 1,998cc, turbocharged petrol
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 258@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000rpm
0-62mph: tbc
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,500kg (tbc)
MPG: tbc
CO2: tbc
Price: £38,000 (tbc)

Matt Saunders

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