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BMW 330i review: Still a mighty 3
1982'S TELEVISION series Knight Rider might have featured a perm-tastic David Hasselhoff, but the real star of the show was KITT, a talking, self-driving Pontiac.
Thirty-seven years on, the new, seventh-generation BMW 3 Series is basically KITT. It's a fast, supremely capable machine that you can converse with, and it can even drive itself (albeit with caveats).
At speeds below 60km/h,the new Driver Assistant Plus system lets you take your hands off the wheel (and feet off the pedals) completely. So much for heavy traffic being a chore.
Audi's big A8 limousine can do that as well, but like the 3 Series, both are unlikely to be allowed to do so in Singapore. That level of autonomous driving is currently only legal in the United States and China and, like many other countries, Singapore hasn't created the legal framework for it.
But talking to the BMW is very much on the cards. The 3 Series debuts BMW's Intelligent Personal Assistant, which is basically an in-car version of Apple's Siri.
Voice command isn't new in cars, but this time the speaker isn't limited to specific phrases. It can decipher different accents and voice pitches, making it the most capable form of in-car voice control we've experienced to date.
You can ask it almost anything, from finding a specific place ("Find me a hairdresser for my perm") to dictating information ("How far can I drive?"), and even ask for help with the car itself ("When's the next service due?").
Like Siri and KITT, it even has a wry sense of humour: Proclaim you're bored and it recommends Sport mode.
Fittingly, the cabin is thoroughly futuristic. It features the latest "BMW OS 7.0" cockpit interface that gives the driver a 12.3-inch virtual instrument panel and 10.25-inch touchscreen system.
The latter can be manipulated via a trackpad, touchscreen, and gestures. Thankfully, BMW has also opted to retain the rotary controller, which we find much less distracting than touchscreen-only systems.
Life inside also feels airier, due to a size upgrade.
The 3 Series shares its basic architecture with larger siblings such as the 5 and 7 Series, and has grown as a result. It's almost eight centimetres longer overall, but weight-saving measures such as an aluminium bonnet and front fenders keep the flab off. The 330i, which arrives for a preview at next month's Singapore Motorshow, is 25kg lighter than before.
That's a plus for all aspects of driving performance, and hints at the fact that the new 3 Series is quite a different beast from behind the wheel.
While cars in this segment are termed "small executive sedans", the 3 Series defies that a little. On first impression it feels rather large, but that's more a consequence of its refinement than its physical size.
It even feels, deceptively, less quick than before. The new 330i takes the same 5.8 seconds to hit 100km/h that the last one did (even though the improved 2.0-litre engine actually has a slight increase in power and torque), but its speed is masked by comfort.
Thanks to improved aerodynamics, more sound insulation, a noise-blocking windshield and front windows, the 330i slips through the air like a grand tourer rather than a sport sedan. If anything, it's eerily quiet, so much so that if you're in a hurry and the rear passengers ask what the speedo is showing, it's best not to tell them.
The Business Times tested the M Sport variant, which comes with firmer suspension, quicker steering and racy styling elements (body kit, steering wheel, pedals and more), as well as a newly developed, electronically controlled rear differential.
BMW also touts an innovative suspension component it terms "lift-related dampers" that give the conventional hydraulic dampers a more flexible, adaptive nature.
The stiffer setup means the car does feel lumpy on small town roads with bad paving, but as the driving pace increases, so does the car's poise. At high speeds on tight B-roads, the car stays admirably composed and stuck to the tarmac, a sure booster of driver confidence.
The 330i may be no quicker in a drag race, but its precise steering, excellent chassis and sheer tractive ability means it preserves the best quality of its forebears - that of being an absolute blast to drive any time the tarmac isn't straight.
If anything, the sheer drivability and high technology mean a little of the analogue charm the 3 Series used to have is lost in the trade-off.
But a 3 Series can't simply toe the line against rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4; it has to be more than outstanding. Globally, it has never been outsold, so the new one has to be the class leader from the get-go.
Luckily for BMW, it is. Unlike David Hasselhoff, the 3 Series looks like its best days are ahead of it.
BMW 330i M Sport
Engine 1,998cc, inline 4, turbocharged
Power 258hp at 5,000-6,500rpm
Torque 400Nm at 1,550 to 4,400rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic
Top Speed 250km/h
0-100km/h 5.8 seconds
Fuel efficiency 6.0L/100km
Price To be announced
Agent Performance Motors Ltd
Available Q2 2019