In the plains between the hills of southern Portugal’s Algarve region, the citrus trees are overflowing with abundance in early December, the country speckled with the hues of orange and yellow. It is a beautiful sight as you drive along the roads to approach the hills, where the scenery changes from verdant green with citrusy hues to a dry brown, with stretches of forest blackened by the ravages of the frequent fires of the Iberian summer. The roads are beautiful, reflecting tiny stars thanks to the quartz of the stone used to make them. As they twist through the passes, with almost no traffic, it is the sort of place you wish you had a great car to drive.
The car that I was driving is a great car, undoubtedly – the seventh generation of the car that built BMW, the 3 Series. After 15.5 million units sold in the previous six generations, this is the BMW that forms the basis of what the Bavarian company sells across the board, and despite the new fascination for SUVs (a fad for which BMW should shoulder its share of the blame), the 3 Series is their iconic car. It is, after all, the archetypal sports sedan, an everyday car that with everyday engines allows you to be ever so slightly naughty on the roads. It is a car whose tail you could stick out at low speeds with a bit of tyre smoke to put a smile on your face, the bill for new rubber be damned. It is also a car that BMW loads up with the latest and greatest technology that they develop, from engines and differentials to interiors and even software.
It is the last item mentioned that you should remember. The best modern cars are not just computers on wheels – they are artificial intelligence-powered robots. In that respect, this new car is downright incredible, because unlike its German rivals, BMW has loaded this smaller sedan with features that the larger and more expensive 5 Series and 7 Series currently do not have.
Adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance have been around in cars for a couple of years, and the new BMW X3 and 6 Series GT that we tested last year near Lisbon had both of these features (although the variants eventually launched in India did not). However, this 3 Series takes it a step further – it is what is known as a Level 2 autonomous car, and BMW wonks assured us that in countries that allowed it (like in the Nordic countries) this car can drive itself up to speeds of sixty kilometers per hour. While it can drive by itself even faster, legal liability issues coupled with brake effectiveness have prevented it.
That is not the only artificial intelligence component in the car. It has, like Amazon, Apple and Google, its own artificial intelligence voice-assistant, but unlike the technology companies, there is no corny name. Just say “Hey, BMW”, and the carmaker leaves it upon you to give the system a name, no matter how inappropriate. Now, while voice assistants have been around in cars (even on BMWs) for a while, you earlier couldn’t say, “Hey BMW, I’m feeling hot” and expect the car to do something. Well, now it does – it will reduce the A/C’s temperature if you say that, and just like you would talk to Alexa or Siri, you can have a conversation with your car. It is not quite perfect, but apparently you can update your car’s software via your smartphone at any time.
Then there is the ‘Reverse Assist’ feature, and this plays into something I realised a few months ago. My reversing skills have suffered thanks to modern technology, because I rarely drive cars without reversing cameras or sensors any more, and when I found myself in car without these features, let’s just say I did not do very well. If you drive into a crowded cul-de-sac in this BMW, it can reverse you out of that situation, because it remembers the last 50 meters you drove. You press an option on the touchscreen and, well, the car steers itself backward. It does not work in all conditions, but I would add the caveat “as yet” here.
I can carry on about the technology in this car, a car that, as you sit and experience it, you feel has not been designed to counter the MercedesBenz C-Class and Audi A4 as much as it has been designed to match the Tesla Model 3. It is also a car designed to keep the nerdy Chinese buyer happy, particularly with the voice assistant. But I have not answered that vital question as yet, a question that every 3 Series needs to answer – what’s it like to drive?
The straight answer is that it is very, very good. The 330i M Sport specified car I drove around Algarve’s roads had fat, 19-inch tyres. Coupled with the insane amounts of mechanical grip as well as an extremely intelligent rear differential, this car is almost idiotproof. Personally, I do not believe that I have the skill levels or the cojones required to let the tail slide. Maybe the suspension was too tight, with the roads being extra grippy, and maybe the standard front noise-cancelling acoustic windshield cut the little bit of noise the tyres made. But truth be told, getting this new 3 Series to misbehave is not easy. Maybe on Indian roads, when the car comes with smaller wheels and slightly thinner tires mated to a softer suspension, you could manage to do so.
You have to keep in mind that the BMW 3 Series is now over 40 years old, and much like anyone who enters his or her forties, it has decided to behave like a proper adult – drink a bit less, eat less red meat, contemplate quitting tobacco, all the while acting a bit smarter and being more responsible. That, in a nutshell, is this car – it can run hard when pushed, and possibly even shake a leg on the dance floor if you really try, but it has exemplary manners otherwise, and stands above all its competitors in India, not just in terms of technology, but also performance. Sadly, though, because it has finally learnt to behave itself, it has also lost a bit of the impish character that made earlier 3s such a joy to drive. Still, I suppose you can’t have it all.
1998cc 4-CYL TURBO PETROL
5.8 SECONDS 0-100KPH
ON THE INSIDE
8.8-inch infotainment screen, voice command, HUD, Intelligent Personal Assistant, key function on your smartphone, reversing assistant, 10-speaker audio system
Forward collision warning, emergency braking, adaptive cruise control
Rs. 99.5 Lakh Onwards (Expected)
WHAT WE LIKE
An incredibly accomplished car, in terms of technology. Brilliant ride quality
WHAT WE DON’T
It’s lost some of its earlier fun-to-drive character
Performance – 4.5/5
Design – 4.5/5
Handling – 4.5/5
Interior – 5/5