Once BMW's 3 Series was the car equated with almost but not quite affordable prestige. Now most who do reach this height in life buy a Mercedes-Benz.
A year ago this month, unnoticed by all including Mercedes-Benz, its C-Class became the best-selling mid-size imported car. It hasn't happened every month since but it does occur as often as not - a German prestige car that starts just shy of $60,000 outsells some excellent Asian imports priced from half that sum by as much as two to one.
Not so long ago, you'd have been locked up in a quiet place with soft walls for so much as suggesting such a prospect. But so too would have been the prophet who foretold Holden's Commodore being beaten last month for the first time by a European car (albeit the much cheaper Volkswagen Golf).
Entry executive sedans - the C-Class and its traditional BMW rival - were once the cars we wanted but couldn't attain. Now more of us are reaching that bit further beyond the top end of the medium class. Merc reckons some of their new custom comes from those who previously bought top end Fords and Holdens. Not long ago, this too was inconceivable.
The bad news for BMW is that at the moment, aspiration takes the form of a Tristar rather than a blue and white propeller badge - the C not the 3. With an outgoing entry level 320i that is pound for pound the poorest car too much money can buy, the new sixth generation F30 3 Series - launched this week in Barcelona - simply must not fail.
BMW's people puckishly predict it will propel the 36-year-old model name back to number one in our part of the planet. If what they insist on calling "sheer driving pleasure" means a scintilla to prestige punters, it could do it by the width of its fat torque band.
We can talk more intelligently of this in February when the first three of four new 3 Series models is released hereabouts. Initially it's sedans only, wagons being possibly a year away.
The diesel 320d starts the lineup followed by the 328i with the all-new M20 direct injection turbo petrol four, to replace much loved but now obsolete 325i, the range topped by the 335i turbo six. The entry 320i is about eight months off. This, we wager heavily, will be worth the wait.
Prices will be up slightly on their current equivalents, but, we're credibly promised, with appreciably more fruit standard. There's three major equipment lines: Sport, Modern and Luxury, with M Sport to come shortly thereafter. Of these Modern is the "newest" with the most distinctive interior accents and trim. Essentially Sport means 18s, bright stitching, tauter suspension and glossy black bits. Luxury means more chrome.
All models cop stop/start and Driving Experience Control, which enables you to switch ride comfort and throttle response between relaxed and alert. Eco Pro, which runs leanest, is standard in this set-up. Only Sport Plus mode, which disdains the electronic safety net, is optional.
But, as we say, hold your naturally aspirated breathe for the 320i, which deploys a milder version of the 328i's twin scroll turbo power plant. Based on two days with the new 5 Series variant that uses this same engine tune, the entry car will not only be leagues of magnitude ahead of the outgoing sluggard, but the sweet spot of the range.
Many will lament the passing of free-breathing sixes in this now all-turbo and all eight-speed auto line-up. But then -- some pine for spats and fedora hats.
Sorry, but the direct-injection twin-scroll turbocharged M20 four-cylinder is a stunner, a big torquing yet revin' to seven device with an output surpassing the fabled 3.0-litre six, all of which is made accessible by that brilliantly intuitive auto. Which is well, given manuals will not be offered except by special order. You can lament that too, but you'll be the only one.
While standard kit is better than on the outgoing car, it wouldn't be a Bimmer if there wasn't a plethora of options. Of these, Variable Sports Steering - a genuinely useful ratio quickener, unlike Active Steering - is enjoyable but not essential. The full-colour head-up display is, once used, hard to do without. We'd tick that box. Lane-departure-warning should be mandatory in this land where those sufficiently stupid to text while driving are permitted to hold licenses.
Better. Much better, if a little too like the big brother 5 Series. Yet this isn't inapt given the 3 Series of today approaches the size of a Fiver of a decade ago.
The 3's not been pretty per se since the E46 of 1998 vintage, but this one is a step in the right direction. With the trademark accents in place, it really couldn't be anything else.
Within, the 3's moved miles ahead on the outgoing device. Austerity is out, enhanced opulence is in. BMW has emerged its cars aren't owned by androids so there's even space in the door bins. While those up front are esconsed in a cockpit, rear seat passengers breath easy, so long as there's two, not three. That said the finish in our pre-production Sport wasn't perfect.
Vast claims are being made by the maker, such as this is safest car in the history of its class. Suffice to say that five crash stars will follow and the formidable battery of active and passive life saving measures is in place - not the least of which is superbly responsive yet forgiving dynamics.
As ever, however, a Carsguide half star is lost to the absence of a spare tyre. Yep, ran flats are all very well, but just try copping one out back of the black stump and see where that gets you. Nowhere in a hurry is where. In a car that screams to be driven far and wide this just doesn't play.
You could drive the 328i tomorrow, having never set a foot on a BMW pedal and you would feel instantly at home. Everything is weighted and positioned just as it should be.
You could, like me, have driven every minor variant of every 3 Series of the past two generations and more besides, and feel immediately that the new 328i advances the game. It fits either of you like a chamois glove.
This is the genius of the 3 Series. It flatters the absolute beginner and enables the enthusiast. Throttle, brakes, steering - all are just ... well, just so. We loved the old sixes, we love manuals but we wouldn't swap this drivetrain. Capably amiable in milder modes, a weapon when the wick is lit, it comes close to being all things to all people.
With uber-direct steering - some 2.2 turns lock to lock - through front wheels unburdened by the task of driving, this remains a completely intuitive handler, incredibly adept when pushing hard through a mountain pass and hugely adjustable and forgiving of even ham-fisted corrections.
All torque kicks in from just above 1000rpm and it revs cleanly to 7000. It is a device that's thoroughly efficient grinding through the suburbs and wonderfully satisfying when the opportunity arises. In sport mode throttle response is enlivened and feel through the wheel tautens, yet comfort mode is more than adequate for 90 per of likely regular going. Ride on Catalonia's smooth rides was excellent even with optional skinny 19-inch rubber - you'd stick to 17s on our battered bitumen.
Indeed you needn't gild this lily with bling and extras. The 328's brilliance is in its driving essence.
God, it's good. If driving a prestige car means half as much to you as owning one, then you have to try this.
Price: $68,000 (estimate)
Warranty: three years/100,000km
Resale: 65 per cent
Service interval: 15,000km/12 months
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo petrol; 180kW/350Nm
Body: four doors, five seats
Dimensions: 4624mm (L) 1811 (w) 1429 (h) 2810 (wb)
Transmission: eight-speed automatic; RWD
Economy: 6.4L/100km; 147g C02/km
"The one for drivers and badge collectors alike. But wait for the base car if you can."
OTHERS TO CONSIDER
AUDI A4 2.0T
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo petrol four; 132kW/320Nm
Transmission: CVT auto; FWD
Thirst: 7.1L/100km; 154g C02/km
“Quattro costs extra, so why not look at the cheaper base 1.8?”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cylinder turbo petrol four; 150kW/310Nm
Transmission: 7-speed auto; RWD
Thirst: 7.2L/100km; 167g km
"Exceptional. The one BMW has to beat”
VOLVO S60 T5 GDTI
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo petrol four; 177kW/320Nm
Transmission: 6-speed twin clutch auto; FWD
Thirst: 8.3L/100km; 193g C02/km
“T5 has four cylinders, so does the T4, just a smaller capacity. Try that first”