Can the 3-series reclaim its crown as the ultimate driving machine?

The seventh-generation BMW 3-series was revealed at the Paris Motor Show this week and it is a critical car for the company. BMW built its reputation on the 3-series as the "Ultimate Driving Machine". Now, they will never admit this but the previous 3-series (the F30) found itself under attack from the international motoring press for being soft and prone to too much understeer. Critically, it was knocked off its pedestal as the best handling car in its class by the Jaguar XE and then later Alfa Romeo Giulia. Both Mercedes and Audi have also caught up with BMW with their cars so this new "G20" model has a lot to prove.

It is interesting then to see the 3-series roll into the Paris motor show with less focus on its new styling, larger size and better interior. Rather, there is a lot of attention being drawn to the car's handling. Perhaps a quiet admittance from BMW that while it was busy building SUVs and chasing global sales, rival companies did indeed catch them with their pants down.

So, let's start with the styling. The front has a whiff of Skoda Octavia around the lights and the kidney grills are continuing to grow in size. The rear looks a little too much like a Lexus and some of the minor detailing is fussy. But as a whole, it looks modern, sharp and more interesting than before. In addition, it is on average 55kg lighter than before and both the wheelbase and track are longer, pointing to the rediscovered focus on basic handling prowess. The interior has also been totally redesigned. It looks very similar to the Z4 and X5's which is no bad thing.

The company has claimed to have produced a car that will reclaim its position as the best handling car in its class. In the past, BMW was guilty of producing cars that had to be specified with expensive and optional electronic dampers to allow them to handle effectively. The afore mentioned Jaguar XE was a keen handling car at every price point and instantly gave BMW a scare at its launch in 2015. As result, a lot of attention is being directed to the newly developed passive dampers that will be available on the 3-series. These dampers have stiffer springs and hydraulic stops which allows the car to handle with more sophistication, compared to the previous model. One would also assume that BMW had the good sense to benchmark both the Jaguar and Alfa during the 3-series's development on the Nurburgring in Germany and on the windy roads of Wales.

The question remains will this new 3-series be the best handling car in the class? So far, the press has been positive in its brief evaluations of prototypes. They do say that it handles incredibly well for such a big car. Stability seems to be a highlight, no doubt due to the wider track. But the size is the caveat here. This new car is almost the size of the E39 5-series of the late 1990s and that is too big to ever handle like the 3-series models of old. The Jaguar XE is a smaller car and itself arguably too compromised by its aluminum construction to appeal to the masses like the 3-series has to.

There is an opportunity to re-position this new car as the best handling car for the "average" driver and have class leading technology, quality and finish to woo buyers into dealerships. Like the VW Golf for Volkswagen, the 3-series needs to be such a capable all-round package that it has broad appeal. It can be driven with passion and be rewarding up to its limit, without providing that magical on-edge feedback that the minority of focused drivers demand.

BMW will never produce another E30 or even E46 3-series ever again. Things have moved on and customers demand technology, space and comfort. China and Russia are slowly redefining the modern saloon and to be a sales success, BMW must adhere to these demands. No doubt the handling will be better than before and that is reassuring. But the magic the 3-series once had in this area, I believe is gone. It is no longer the exclusive, aspirational model it once was. Is it a better car? Probably, and I know it will be a global success.

But will it be the "Ultimate Driving Machine"? No. I think Jaguar and Alfa have that crown now and they will not surrender it without a fight.


G20 images from BMW Blog &