This year's monsoon is said to be a failure according to the Met office. However, El Nino or global warming or whatever else the cause may be, what is being played out on our roads continues to be the same. Huge potholes, entire streets being shorn of their black topping, flooded lanes and raw, bald spots at every turn on the road are a common sight.

Even as the rest of the so called 'developed world' takes for granted and lives with clean tarmac and perfectly cobbled streets that have gone on for decades after witnessing rain, sleet, hail, sun and snow, we, over-content Indians, go hobbling along on horrible roads and keep saying “Well, if it rains, the roads are bound to get washed away.”

And so it was that I stared through the windscreen, with a sense of resignation, at yet another one of Mumbai's ravaged streets. Thankfully, the car I was steering through all the slush and bumps felt better to be in and was better equipped than its predecessor to handle the rough and tumble of the Indian road - without the risk of it bouncing off even at high speeds.

It was the new BMW 3 Series that I was driving. The point to note there is that this is the new 2012 BMW 3 Series. I couldn't have said that with the same breath about the previous generation model. With a new suspension, supposedly borrowed from the brand's executive luxury saloon the 5 Series, the new 3 feels so much more comfortable when tackling trouble on Indian roads. But that is just one of the ingredients that could go on to making this a recipe for success.

Holy Trinity

The new 3 Series is the sixth generation for this iconic model from BMW. The 3 has always had a cult status amongst car enthusiasts and buyers, often being referred to as the ‘Best driver's car’. The design of the car too has had such a following amongst purists that BMW designers must have considered it too holy to tamper with much. Therefore, the new 3 Series continues to look a lot like the predecessor, and of course, now, a lot like some of the other cars in the family. There is a bit of the 5 Series on the sides, there is a bit of the larger 7 Series that you can see in the stubby boot lid and in the tail-lamps, which now feature L-shaped LED tubes like the flagship saloon, and there is a lot of the previous-generation 3 Series.

There is a fresh perspective that BMW designers have managed to bring to the new 3 Series, but it still intrinsically remains recognisable as the same favourite compact luxury sedan that the previous-gen 3 Series managed to be. The instantly recognisable headlamps with the tapering outer edges have been taken forward, but with subtle changes including the new eyelets or ‘eyebrows’ as BMW calls them. The eyebrows now reach the edges on either side of the now wider kidney grille. The new design gives the 3 Series' front a more unified three-dimensional look that is also more evident when viewed from the side. There is also a lot more athleticism in the new 3's design overall than the predecessor's and that is despite the increase in size.

Some of the changes that add to the new 3's sporting appeal include the shark-nosed front and the new bonnet slab that features a strong centre crease, but also combines a new ridge on either side to increase the perception of width. This makes the bonnet slab a bit more bulgy, but that still manages to gel well with the design overall. Wonder if some of the changes have also been brought in to improve the car's pedestrian protection. The classic BMW flourishes are all there like the unique corona rings in the headlamps, the coupe-like roofline and the distinctive side creases.

When you look at it from the side, the new 3 Series looks almost identical to its predecessor. Almost. What is also apparent is that the car has now grown in proportion. Longer by 93mm, with a wheelbase that is now up 50mm and a boot / luggage compartment that can hold about 20 litres worth of additional knick-knacks, the new 3 Series also manages to translate this exterior expansion into more space inside the cabin. So, the rear passengers are said to get about 14mm of additional knee room and 8mm of additional headroom. The new 3's ground clearance is 140mm and though I involuntarily squeezed my butt cheeks in anticipation of that dreaded bottom scrape every time I went over a big speed-breaker, nothing of that sort happened.

Bigger inside

Stepping inside the new 3 Series gave me the feeling of entering into a luxury sedan that is a level higher. There is a distinct feeling of familiarity only in terms of the overall layout of the dashboard and centre console. But, there is also a feeling of being engulfed in a warmer and more structured cabin. BMW designers have very creatively managed to incorporate multiple layers and yet keep the cabin simple and fresh. The central line that you see in the cabin photo on the next page divides the dashboard into two layers along the dual colour theme too. The stripe in metal running across in the 320d luxury line here will be in red in the sports line trim. Wood inserts and double stitched leather trim on the door panels add to the feeling of luxury in the cabin. Both the front seats offer electrical adjustments and also offer excellent support. The cockpit is angled towards the driver by 7 degrees to offer better access to all the controls.

The BMW iDrive (on-board driver information system) with its 6.5-inch display and the BMW Radio professional are part of standard fitment in all the four diesel variants and the one petrol variant. BMW Navigation Professional (with integrated GPS) and, for the first time, with built-in maps of Indian cities is offered in the two top-trim variants - the 320d Luxury Plus and the new 328i Sport Line. The system is paired with a 8.8-inch display mounted on the centre stack and as puts out images from the rear-view camera. More convenience can be had with the full-colour Head-Up display that is offered as part of the package in the 328i Sport Line. The HUD projects all the critical driving info and navigation tips directly on to the windscreen and into the driver's field of vision, without diverting the driver's attention from the road.

Performance

The other aspect about the 3 Series that would have been considered Holy by the engineers at Munich would be the performance of the sedan. Holding on to its reputation as the best driver's car would be a tough task for any brand and while the 3 Series has pulled it off well, it will also be aiming to stay stuck to the top spot.

Underlining its sporty driving image is the new 3 Series’ 50:50 weight distribution and the ten per cent higher torsional rigidity that has been built into the car's frame. Despite the increase in the number of new features and the bigger proportions, the new sixth generation is actually lighter by about 40 kgs at the kerb.

The powertrains are also a good choice in the India-spec 3 Series models. One each of petrol and diesel engines have been brought in and they are the same mills with the same eight-speed automatic gearbox that we had written about after driving the left-hand drive versions in Barcelona in December last year, just before international deliveries had started.

I had my turn at the wheel of the petrol 328i in Barcelona much more than in the diesel 320d. And with demand for diesel almost wiping out the demand for petrol across all segments in India, I was more keen on spending some more quality time in Mumbai with the 320d, fresh off the podium after sharing it with new brand ambassador Sachin Tendulkar.

The 1,995cc, four-cylinder diesel engine may seem puny with its under two-litre size classification, but with BMW's proprietary TwinPower Turbo tech, the peak power gets boosted to 184bhp, which is delivered at 4,000 rpm. Peak torque is a lip-smacking 380Nm available in the 1,750 rpm to 2,750 rpm range. I step on the throttle outside Mumbai's crowded city limits and discover that the 320d's cabin is not exactly the silent types. The engine is audible inside the cabin and hard acceleration only makes it louder, though during cruising the engine settles into hum. What seems initially like turbolag, I discover later is just the result of the mapping and gear ratios for the three driving modes that is on offer - ECO PRO, Comfort and Sport (the Sport+ is only available in the new 328i Sport Line).

The ECO PRO mode as the name suggests is meant to maximise fuel efficiency. But, when I slip it into sport mode, there is a marked difference in the performance of the car, with the powertrain speeding up delivery and shift times. The changeover is a simple flick of the Driving Experience Control switch located right next to the updated iDrive system controller. The electromechanical steering is also quite a delight to use, stiffening to provide the right support at high speeds and remarkably more comfortable than the predecessor at slow city driving speeds. While the performance of the gearbox in automatic setting and control switch set to Sport mode is quite a lot of fun, it of course, was even better with manual gear selection with the gear lever (paddles are not on offer).

The petrol engine on offer is the 328i's 1,997cc TwinPower Turbo engine that manages to deliver 245bhp of peak power between 5,000 to 6,500 rpm and a peak torque of 350Nm from as low as 1,250 rpm all the way upto 4,800 rpm. The 328i Sport Line is also offered with the 8-speed sport automatic transmission and a variable sport steering for improved performance. In addition to the ECO PRO mode, there is a whole bunch of fuel saving technologies on offer as part of standard fitment. These include Auto Start/Stop, Brake Energy Regeneration and the electronic power steering assistance. Rated fuel consumption (according to CMVR) is 18.88 kmpl for the diesel 320d and 14.79 kmpl for the petrol 328i.

Bottomline

After driving the car over varied terrain in India and abroad, I felt that the new 3 Series is like an unspoken admission by the German brand that it realises that Asian driving conditions are very different from European conditions, and that Asian buyers also look for a different set of metrics when they assess the luxury car they are buying. The fact that the new 3 Series’ ride quality is more pliant and a bit less harried, that its steering is more accommodating and at the same time as precise and that the new car is almost 20 per cent more fuel efficient are all good news for Indian buyers.

By launching the diesel 320d with four trim variants including a base priced below the Rs 29 lakh level and only performance oriented petrol 328i at Rs 37.9 lakh BMW India has also signified that it has a firm grasp over market expectations. If there were very few reasons for looking past the previous model, the new one's just made it even more of an obvious choice for buyers in the compact luxury sedan segment.

muraliswami@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on August 7, 2012)
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