The Mercedes-Benz C-class and Audi A4 were refreshed just in time to make Mk IV appear a little tired, but the 3-series now has the styling, sophistication and brand-power to remain Britain’s No1 premium sports saloon.
It may look a little like a scaled-down, softened 5-series but the model comes off the same platform as the 1-series. The 3-series is the best example yet of chief designer Chris Bangle’s sharper and controversial BMW restyling programme: it detracted from the 7-series, but has matured in time to re-energise the company’s biggest seller.
Visually, the 3-series offers more with its crisper, sculpted lines and it delivers all round, with improved performance, ride/handling, cabin space and driving pleasure. It is on sale with a choice of 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, and a six-cylinder 3.0-litre petrol unit.
BMW GB sold 26,500 saloons (out of a 3-series total of 65,600) in 2003 and 24,000 in 2004 after a final quarter push that left dealers short on models in January. This year, it expects to sell 18,000 new and 4,000 former saloons, with a climb back to 24,000 in 2006.
Diesel 3-series (former and new) will account for 50-60% this year and slightly more in 2006, first full year for all diesel derivatives. The 320d will take 40-45%, and the 330d (due later this year), 5%.
The 320i will be the most popular petrol (around 35%), with the six-cylinder 330i and 325i (due next month) together contributing 10% of sales. The entry-level 318i and 318d, plus the 330d, will be on sale by the end of the year, each responsible for about 5% of sales.
The new Touring is due in the UK in autumn, but the existing coupe and cabriolet continue for up to two years.
Prices rise, and the entry-level 318 arriving later will top £20,000 but BMW is unfazed. Standard equipment on the new 3-series includes six-speed manual transmission, aircon, six airbags, on-board computer, 16-inch alloys and leather-trimmed steering wheel.
Strengths:Top-class engines and suspension, BMW badge
Weakness: Bangle lines will offend some traditionalists
Opportunity: Good enough for conquest sales
Threat: Improved rivals
USP: It’s a 3-series... enough said
Prices: £21,090 (320i) to £28,455 (330i SE)
Engines: 2.0 petrol (150bhp) and diesel (163bhp) and 3.0 six-cyl petrol (258bhp).
Transmissions: 6spd manual (6spd auto/Steptronic £1,420 option), rwd
Performance: 0-62mph 6.3-9.0 secs 137-155mph (governed) top speed
Efficiency: 33.2-49.6mpg (comb) 153 – 210g/km CO2
CAP RVs: n/a
Rivals: Mercedes C-class, Audi A4, Jaguar X-type (Lexus IS200 and Alfa 159 later)