BMW's new 3 series needs to restore the model's appeal to driving enthusiasts after the current model strayed from its sporty roots.
The seventh-generation of BMW's brand shaper is expected to debut at the Paris auto show on Oct. 2 ahead of its market launch in Europe and the U.S. early next year with China following later. Internally referred to as G20, it will be based on BMW's flexible, lightweight Cluster Architecture (CLAR) for rear-wheel drive vehicles.
When is launched in 1975, the 3 series redefined the segment for sports sedans, pushing the performance envelope and helping to establish BMW as a premium automaker for motoring fans. About every fifth BMW sold worldwide has a 3-series nameplate and more than 14 million have been built.
The 3 series is still the benchmark against which all midsize sedans are measured thanks to its decades-long reputation for precision handling but the outgoing 'F30' model largely failed to translate technical improvements on paper into a more enjoyable experience on the road.
BMW is acutely aware the 3 series needs to up its game. "Engineers particularly looked at improving the vehicle's driving dynamics, since we have a reputation to defend," a BMW spokesman said.
Industry watchers believe the new 3 series will struggle to stand above rivals such as the Mercedes C class, Audi A4, Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia.
In Germany, a long-term trend shows the Mercedes C class steadily gaining ground in the segment of high powered engines of 200 kW (270 hp) and over that is home to driving enthusiasts, according to Professor Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany.
BMW long dominated this image-important slice of the market, outselling the C class in Germany more than three to one in 2008. Now Mercedes sells twice as many cars in this class as BMW in the two automakers' German home market.
Nor has BMW's inhouse tuner M GmbH, once famed for the street-legal M3 race car version of the 3 series, been the big winner in the past years, he said. Competitor Mercedes-AMG has been on the advance, helped in part by the latter's success in Formula One.
"Since 2015, BMW has become the lame duck when it comes to performance models," Dudenhoeffer said, criticizing the complacency that has taken hold in Munich. "BMW's motto was too much 'don't change a winning team'."
If BMW wants to wrestle the lead back, it will have to address the shortcomings of the current F30 model. Agility and responsiveness suffered as the car's length grew nearly 100m to accommodate a roomier rear cabin for Chinese customers, while BMW downsized engine displacement to improve efficiency.
Reviewers have maligned the blander ride, while criticizing the "numb" and "disconnected" feedback due to the full-scale switch from a hydraulically-assisted power steering to a lighter electrical-based one. The four-cylinder turbocharged engine that replaced the naturally aspirated straight-six met with disapproval and the entry level’s 1.5-liter, three-cylinder engine cannot claim to be premium in that class.
"It's pretty common knowledge among auto enthusiasts that the [current] F30 generation of the BMW 3 Series is likely the least favorite in the model's storied history," wrote editors at the brand fan-site BMW Blog.
The 3 series will go on sale early next year in Europe and the U.S. with China coming later. The launch will begin with the classic sedan, whose global sales shrank to 292,837 last year from a peak of 348,560 units in 2013, the first full year of sales for the outgoing F30 generation.
This was partly due to a decision to spin off the 3-series two-door and drop-top models into their own evenly-numbered model lines. Introducing the new 4 series in 2013 helped breathe life back into sales of what was once the 3-series coupe and cabriolet. The 4-series Gran Coupe has since been introduced. This is essentially a sportier 3-series sedan with a lower roofline, higher price tag and hatch instead of a trunk.
The 3 series will keep its current wide range of engines with three, four and six-cylinder units on offer powered either by gasoline or diesel. The company has not given any information about a full-electric version although the upcoming BMW i4 full-electric four-door sedan is expected to share a similar footprint as a 3-series sedan.
The new 3-series sedan will expand its manufacturing footprint, with production for North America slated at BMW's new factory in Mexico. It will be the third site to fully build the model along with BMW's home plant in Munich, Germany, and its joint venture factory in Shenyang, China. Previously BMW also built the 3 series in South Africa, but has retooled the plant for X3 production.
Spy shots indicate that for the new 3-series BMW will stick to its iDrive that relies mainly on a control knob below the gear shift to input information into the car's onboard system. By comparison, Mercedes switches to fully digital dashboard in the new A-class compact hatchback with natural speech recognition features.
"In the main disciplines of design, connectivity and powertrains, Mercedes is in the lead and it does look like that is going to change," Dudenhoeffer said.