2020 BMW 3 Series: A Prototype Sneak Peek and Drive | Edmunds

2020 BMW 3 Series: Driving the Prototype

Fighting the Good Fight

BMW has long hung the 3 Series off "The Ultimate Driving Machine" tag, but only recently has that description not rung entirely true. Indeed, the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class make compelling alternatives, and some variants arguably better the 3 Series when it comes to driving fun.

The once dynamic benchmark and surefire sales hit BMW 3 Series is ready for an update. So it's a good thing the carmaker is preparing to debut the next generation of its compact luxury sedan staple in October 2018. What's different? We're at the BMW Nürburgring Test Center with prototypes of the new 2020 BMW 3 Series to find out.

2020 BMW 3 Series prototype

What's Under All That Camouflage?
Even disguised, the 3 Series looks much the same. There's no denying that it's a BMW sedan, but the camera-tricking cladding hides a sharper-edged, lighter and larger 3 Series. BMW has addressed one of the shortcomings of the outgoing car by increasing interior space. The wheelbase is slightly longer for more legroom front and rear, though the key gain is the 1.2 inches BMW's engineers have added to the track width.

That widening of the overall footprint allows BMW's chassis engineers to reassert the 3 Series' position as the most driver-engaging compact luxury sedan in the segment. They've been busy, too. The new platform is significantly stiffer where it meets the suspension, and new dampers feature a clever hydraulically controlled bump-stop replacement that allows more precise wheel and body control over a larger range of suspension travel.

Like the exterior, the interior's covered as much as possible. We can still see a digital gauge cluster with crisp instrumentation, and much of it is configurable via the steering-wheel-mounted controls. The center of the dashboard contains another large screen for information, entertainment and navigation functions.

Even in these preproduction prototypes, there's an obvious gain in materials quality. The parts of the interior we can access look and feel of a far higher standard than what's in the outgoing 3 Series. In a segment where you're competing against the Audi A4 and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, that's crucial.

2020 BMW 3 Series prototype

How Does It Drive?
On the roads around the Nürburgring, as well as a couple of fast laps around the famous track itself, the 3 Series reveals BMW's ambition to reposition it at the top of the class for driver appeal. That suspension is instrumental. The wheel and body control is exemplary, riding bumps with real composure, yet feeling agile and precise.

The steering is light and delivers some feel through the thick rim. But these preproduction cars have the advantage of running an optional electronically controlled limited-slip differential and performance-enhancing M Sport parts, such as a suspension that's lower by 0.4 inch and more capable brakes. BMW engineers say this setup shows the new 3 Series at its best, so this also means you'll need a fair bit of expensive options when it's time to order yours.

2020 BMW 3 Series prototype

What's Under the Hood?
Our 330i prototype has a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 255 horsepower, up 7 hp from last year. We expect the less powerful 320i to slide in underneath in terms of price, though it's uncertain whether the turbodiesel 328d will return with this new generation. The next step up will be a 340i that's powered by a turbocharged 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine.

As with the current 3 Series, rear-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive is optional. While a six-speed manual is the base transmission in Europe, with an eight-speed automatic optional, you can expect U.S. 2020 BMW 3 Series models to have the automatic standard. We hope the manual will be available, too.

More significant are the plug-in hybrid models. BMW anticipates to offer a pair, one with an electric motor mated to a turbocharged three-cylinder engine, and the other a replacement for the 330e iPerformance model with improvements to the current version's EPA-rated 14-mile electric-only driving range.

All these engines will be powering a bigger yet more fuel-efficient 3 Series. BMW's engineers removed around 120 pounds over the outgoing car and realized 5 percent improvements in fuel consumption and emissions. Helping achieve these results is a smarter stop-start system, reduced internal friction, advancements in aerodynamics and low-rolling-resistance tires.

2020 BMW 3 Series prototype

What About the M3?
A new M3 is a certainty, but not yet its technical specification. We're informed it'll retain a turbocharged inline six-cylinder, and the rumors suggest it'll use a water injection system like the one that debuted on the limited and racetrack-oriented GTS.

With 500 hp being the figure most commonly quoted, it's more than likely that the next M3 will feature a switchable all-wheel-drive system borrowed from the M5. We'll know more closer to its 2020 anticipated launch date. Whatever specification the M division applies to it, the next M3 has a better starting point with the new 3 Series.

2020 BMW 3 Series prototype

Is It Worth the Wait?
The existing 3 Series has been the object of some criticism, perhaps for a bit of complacence by BMW about its market position. In the meantime, key German rivals have caught up and bettered the compact luxury sedan in many areas. But now the new 3 Series seeks to address these concerns, growing in size, improving quality and equipment and, crucially to BMW, re-establishing its position as the driver's choice.

We'll find out for sure when we sample a wider range of new 2020 BMW 3 Series models early next year. Until then, our early access to preproduction models shows the 3 Series will do what BMW wants it to.

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