By De­sign

BIG­GER. BET­TER? TBD

Automobile - - Design - by ROBERT CUM­BER­FORD

I T ’ S O N LY A N opin­ion, not ab­so­lute fact. But my opin­ion is that the lat­est in­car­na­tion of BMW’s 3 Se­ries looks a lot bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous one. And the one be­fore that. A lot of un­nec­es­sary com­pli­ca­tion in de­tails and sur­faces ex­isted in mod­els of the re­cent past, and a bit of that is still here; this de­sign car­ries over quite a bit to pro­vide mar­que-iden­tity con­ti­nu­ity. You know it’s a BMW, but given its greater size, you might think it’s a new 5 Se­ries. BMW de­sign­ers are well aware of this and are deal­ing with the prob­lem.

For many years the Au­to­mo­bile staff, in­clud­ing me, very much fa­vored the 3 Se­ries, es­pe­cially the M3. But en­thu­si­asm be­gan to wane a bit as both di­men­sions and prices got a lot big­ger and op­tions more di­verse. BMW used to pretty much op­ti­mize all of its cars for the West Ger­man home mar­ket—for au­to­bahns and wind­ing coun­try roads—and only one tech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tion ex­isted. An early 3 Se­ries bought in Cal­i­for­nia wouldn’t be­have much dif­fer­ently from that same model de­liv­ered in Ham­burg.

Legally re­quired items like side park­ing lights or li­cense plate mount­ing brack­ets might dif­fer, but es­sen­tially a BMW was a BMW, and it be­haved as ex­pected, ev­ery­where. EPA and CARB rules might have re­sulted in a bit less power in the U.S., but steer­ing and brak­ing feel were the same. Then cus­tomer at­ti­tudes changed some. In se­verely speed-lim­ited mar­kets—Ja­pan and Amer­ica, specif­i­cally—BMWs got softer sub­frame bush­ings for com­fort, and the Ul­ti­mate Driv­ing Ma­chine magic be­gan to fade.

Will this new 3 Se­ries be back to Ul­ti­mate stan­dards? We’ll know once we’ve had a chance to drive the 2019 model, but un­til then we can con­cen­trate on mat­ters of ap­pear­ance.

One thing BMW has had go­ing for it was the abil­ity to keep front over­hangs re­ally short, im­prov­ing over­all pro­por­tions. There is more mass ahead of the front wheels in this one, and the hood is puffier to deal with pedes­trian safety re­quire­ments. But by an­gling the outer cor­ners of the body back in plan view, there is less sense of that mass. Even in pure side view, tak­ing a scal­lop out of the painted skin fools the eye a bit and leads to a sense that the car is not big­ger. There’s still a kind of lower pro­tu­ber­ance, rather like the cow­catch­ers on 19th cen­tury steam lo­co­mo­tives, but it man­ages not to shock, thanks to the big con­cave sec­tions on the lower cor­ners of the front end.

The cabin has been sim­pli­fied, but the im­pres­sion re­mains that it has all been shaped with the driver in mind. Sit in this car, and we doubt you’ll think only of tak­ing the kids to af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties or com­mut­ing to work. Both are more than pos­si­ble, but go­ing fast is still the leit­mo­tif for BMW. We only see that as a good thing. AM

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