The BMW 3 Series is a Hollywood car. But not because Charlie Sheen drove the wheels off an E36 325i Coupe in The Chase. The G20 330i gracing these pages marks the 3er’s seventh coming, making it four generations younger than the iconic red coupe. That’s a lot of numbers in one sentence. And like every movie franchise with equally numerous instalments, every sequel is ruthlessly benchmarked against its predecessor like it’s report card day all over again.
So, is the G20 better than the F30?
That question hounded us for much of our time with the car. As much as we tried to shake it off in order to assess the new 330i as individually and objectively as possible, calls for comparison came from every direction from which our Sunset Orange tester can be seen pulling up in all its M Sport glory. But that’s all expected. Not because of the hype attached to every new entry in the hypercompetitive executive saloon segment, but for the flair and poise dripping from each one of the G20’s many sharp corners that threaten to prick the egos of doubtful traditionalists.
BMW’s latest design philosophy may have abandoned the aesthetic elegance of past models to make bolder visual statements. Like it or not, it’s hard to deny that the G20, in the sole 330i M Sport format offered in Malaysia right now, is one of the most aggressive-looking 3 Series to come out of a BMW factory without an M3 badge; we’ve even been asked if it’s the new M3, such is the amped up sportiness drizzled all over its bigger frame (the G20 measures 76mm longer and 16mm wider than the F30).
Having driven our fair share of Bimmers, we hold BMW in high regard for being careful with marketing its products to look faster than they technically are. The two-litre four-pot turbo powering the new 330i may have been tuned for better efficiency with an updated fuel-injection system, lighter crank, reduced frictional losses and optimised thermal efficiency. But its output of 258bhp and 400Nm still bests that of the F30 330i LCI, which made 252bhp and 350Nm during its short-lived stint in the local market.
On paper, both generations of the 330i clock an identical 5.8-second century sprint. But we reckon the G20 feels a bit livelier on the move. Its low-end delivery is particularly boisterous as the throttle allows freer and surprisingly throaty revs akin to what you’d get in a naturally-aspirated straight six. Remarkably, all of this occurs in the 3er’s default driving mode: Comfort. Dialling things up to Sport nudges the powertrain to an edge where it starts yearning for AMG C43 blood – but that’s the job of the M340i. The occasionally tepid variable steering seems a bit more charismatic in this mode too. Just don’t expect the suspension to follow suit. Not that you’d want it to flex any more muscles.
Unlike its F30 precursor and direct rival, the Mercedes-Benz C300 AMG Line, the G20 330i doesn’t enjoy the luxury of adaptive dampers. Instead, it gets propped up by an M Sport suspension which delivers a perpetually focused ride, just like all great sports cars of the analogue era. This setup is supposedly lighter through extensive use of aluminium, complementing a chassis that has also managed to shed 25kg while gaining 25 percent in structural rigidity. The sum of these parts is a robust foundation for the upcoming M3; we daresay the 330i already rides like one. And that’s exactly where the troubles begin.
From the wide and peaceful roads of Cyberjaya, where BMW Malaysia is headquartered, to the pimpled tarmac in the gritty parts of Petaling Jaya this writer calls home, the tautness of the ride in the 330i remained constant. The chassis filters out plenty of unsavoury noises and reverberations, so it’s neither loud nor jarring. But there’s only so much it can do to defy the laws of physics. There’s a mediated sense of bumpiness from behind the wheel that’s practically interminable, which is perfectly acceptable for a performance-inclined product. But it’s a lot to put up with if you’re expecting to run the new 3er as a family runabout or a daily exec.
Confusingly, the G20 would actually excel in those areas given the amount of work BMW has put into making the 3 Series quieter than before. Foam-filled A-pillars and an acoustic windscreen maintain the peace in a cabin that’s a touch more accommodating than that of the F30. The added roominess can also be attributed to the G20’s growth spurt, which includes a 41mm extension of its wheelbase that translates to more legroom in the rear. But a longer wheelbase is also better for handling, catapulting us right back to the 3er’s original intention: driving.
Having concluded that the 330i’s stiff setup makes it a mixed bag on the daily grind in city roads, we let our smartphones guide us to Kuala Selangor in search for more open roads on which the 3er can hopefully thrive. Our wishes were answered in the form of the long and sweeping Latar highway, where the car was finally allowed to stretch its tightly sprung quads. At high speeds, all of the components that played a part in the G20 being a tad uncouth for town became skilled musicians, orchestrating the 3er’s finesse in full flight. And it only got better as the roads got curvier.
Bad roads are bad roads. But there was still a nagging suspicion that an F30 would have managed the situation with a bit more grace
To say that cornering is a specialty of the 3 Series is an understatement. Audi and Mercedes have come close to the 3er’s dynamic heights before. But there’s just something in BMW’s secret sauce that always keeps its iconic nameplate ahead of the pack. In the G20, the recipe is garnished with wider tracks (+43mm up front and +21mm in the back) whilst retaining its perfect 50:50 weight distribution. Pair these to the road-hugging chassis and a transmission that’s always in the right gear at the right time and you have a sedan that tackles bends like a bulked-up roadster; rallied from the rear while perfectly hinged in the centre to deliver a 50:50 ratio of precision and entertainment.
Sadly, this fun was short-lived, fizzling out as we approached the rice-growing fishing village of Sekinchan via a stretch of tarmac riddled with patchwork and construction hazards. We didn’t want to antagonise the ride again after such a rewarding drive, so maybe it was the wheels. But 18-inch M Sport footwear, albeit staggered (225mm front, 255mm rear), aren’t exactly oversized by 2019 standards – the Proton X70 rides on taller alloys. Our newfound appreciation for the 330i was not to be tainted. Bad roads are bad roads. But there was still a nagging suspicion that an F30 would have managed the situation with a bit more grace.
Then again, the G20 is a car that’s determined to escape the shadow of its predecessor, not just in the way it drives, but also in the way you drive it. In following the footsteps of the 8 Series, the 3er’s new cockpit marks a significant departure from what we’ve gotten used to in older Bimmers. The layout is still highly functional and intuitive, but touch point changes such as cleaner door cards and repositioned ignition and parking brake buttons subtly remind you that we’ve entered a new era for BMW. The centrepiece – a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster that’s in the driver’s face at all times – helps drive the message deeper into minds still poring over which E36 variant is best.
This evolution points towards a more calculated assault on the increasingly digital offerings flowing out of BMW’s fellow German rivals. It certainly could be the case here if BMW Malaysia assembles a more passenger-oriented model kitted with all of the G20’s technical highlights to truly take the fight to Stuttgart. As things stand, the fully-imported 330i M Sport isn’t a better all-rounder than the C-Class. BMW has gotten the balance a bit off with this one. But the 3 Series has gotten better for it.
BMW 330i M Sport
Engine: 1,998cc, 4cyl turbo, 258bhp, 400Nm
Transmission: 8spd automatic, RWD
Performance: 0-100kph in 5.8secs, 250kph
Economy: 6.4l/100km, 147g/km CO2