One would have to be an ardent worshipper of the blue roundel or a certifiable car nut to immediately pick out the differences wrought on the face-lifted BMW 3-Series. The most obvious signs are the smoother grille design and a set of extra slashes on the bonnet. Aside from this, the head- and tail-lights have been given a slight tweak, both gaining swish-looking LED indicators and running lights.
Our review car was fitted with the optional bi-xenon headlights (AU$2200 by itself). These not only come with a self-levelling feature, so that other drivers aren't unduly blinded by the car's bright beam of white light, but can also be optioned up so that they'll swivel to help you see around corners (AU$940), a feature which country drivers in particular should appreciate. Also fitted was the AU$320 high beam assist feature which, if enabled, will automatically flick between high and low beam depending on the lighting conditions and whether the car believes there's any oncoming traffic.
While it worked accurately about 75 per cent of the time, our left hand was always poised over the indicator stalk, ready to turn the feature off for fear of inadvertently blinding someone. Likewise, the auto wipers work well in consistent rain, but for light sprinkles and erratic showers the performance becomes a bit of a lucky dip. More impressive were the anti-glare side mirrors and auto-dimming rear view mirror.
Except for the new iDrive system — more of which later — even fewer changes have been wrought on the inside. The soft touch plastics, rubberised hand grips, smoothly damped glovebox and the swathes of luscious leather adorning the seats and armrests all give the car the requisite upmarket feel, although we'd give our review car's tan-coloured leather a wide berth. We did, however, love the brushed aluminium accents (AU$920) and couldn't stop giggling deliriously with joy every time we showed off the spring-out cup holders.
As long as you're not trying to cram a team of basketballers into the 3-Series, seating comfort is fine. The front seats are grippy without being being bear-hug tight and comfortable enough that our bums barely noticed the number of kilometres they were being asked to cover. Although the front seats have powered adjustment for height and backrest angle, the sliding mechanism, while completely stepless, is manual. Rear seat passengers are treated to a set of adjustable air vents, while the rear seat itself splits 60/40 and folds flat.
In the boot, there's a handy 12V power socket, as well as a pair of flip-out luggage hooks and a bevy of nets help to keep shopping and the like in place. Although the rear tailgate is quite heavy, the windscreen lifts up separately and is, in a neat touch, connected to the luggage blind. So if you lift up the rear windscreen to pop in a few bags of shopping, (hey presto!) the luggage blind automatically retracts; you'll have to manually reset it afterward though. There's also a vertical net that can be raised to partition the boot off from the passenger space and, presumably, protect them from large flying objects.
Nowadays it's a slight exaggeration to say that the only thing standard on a European luxury car is the long options list, but tick every feasible box when purchasing a 320i wagon and you could end up wearing an extra AU$30k debt. In terms of safety kit, standard features include anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control; assistance for emergency braking (Dynamic Brake Control in BMW speak); Cornering Brake Control, which attempts to prevent oversteer when braking and cornering at the same time by braking individual wheels; and no fewer than six airbags.
Externally the 320i comes standard with a set of 16-inch alloy wheels, headlights that can automatically switch themselves on, and fog lights and roof rails but no roof rack (that's an option, obviously). In addition to interior lighting, which slowly fades in and out, and headlights that stay on for a short period after you leave the car, BMW has added puddle lighting that emanates from the bottom of the door handles every time you unlock the doors — it's oh so nice, but ever so slightly useless.
Also standard is a dual-zone climate control system and rear parking sensors, which if you have iDrive installed will display a proximity graphic on the screen. It's an improvement on the usual distance display and array of LED lights, but still no substitute for a reversing camera. When retracted, the panorama sunroof bathes all passengers in natural light and air, but the good case it makes for itself on sunny autumn days is undone by its AU$3080 asking price.
A single CD in-dash player, an auxiliary jack and USB port for MP3 players, and Bluetooth hands-free are all standard fare on all 2009 3-Series models. Want satellite navigation, hard drive music storage or DVD/TV playback? You'll have to stump up for iDrive and, confusingly, there are two iDrive versions available on the 3-Series: a Business Navigation system that features a 6.5-inch screen (AU$2650 stand-alone), and a Professional Navigation system that includes an 8.8-inch screen (AU$6750 stand-alone).
Before you start thinking that AU$4100 is a lot to pay for 2.3 inches of extra screen, the Professional system includes a TV receiver (both digital and analog), voice-activated commands and a hard-disk-based navigation system with 3D view, as well as music storage. Just as importantly, the Pro system, fitted to our review car, comes with BMW's second-generation iDrive system. Boasting a reworked menu structure that no longer hides new functions in obscure locations, the new iDrive is much easier to use.
Using the reworked iDrive controller located behind the gear stick, drivers can sit back at traffic lights and tweak their car's settings, chart a new course on the sat nav or rip a CD to the car's hard disk. Additionally, there's a row of shortcut buttons underneath the CD slot, which can be assigned to a radio station or any menu item. In a neat twist, lightly touch any of the shortcut buttons and you'll get a preview of what that button is assigned to.
Spec the new iDrive system and in addition to the steering wheel controls for phone, volume and track, you'll also get a voice control button. Over the last few years voice control has finally crossed the line from gimmick to being genuinely useful. Press the button, speak normally and you should be able to access any function in the iDrive system. With varying degrees of success it will even recognise names in your phone book, but as iDrive is nowhere near passing the Turing test, there are a few caveats. Firstly, you have to say the exact menu item name, so those of us with fish-like memories could spend a lot of time diving through the menus. Also, any background noise, such as conversations or open windows, will send the system into a tizzy.
For all the in and outs of the new iDrive system, check out our in-depth review and guide.
Bluetooth and entertainment
Sound quality through the standard-fit audio system is good. Deceptively so because nothing about it really stands out at first, but the bass, mid-range and treble are all well separated and our ears were sore well before we could induce any clipping. Allied with the car's effective sound isolation — Sydney's atrocious roads could only elicit only a hint of tyre grumble and the odd muted thump — the system reproduced everything from jazz and classical to hard rock and talk with the faithfulness that Mel Gibson's ex-wife would envy.
With the LCD screen sitting in a deep dashboard recess, DVD and TV playback is decent even in bright sunlight; FM reception was good, but TV and AM suffered in and around the CBD. Despite a hard disk boasting 80GB of storage, only 8GB is set aside for music ripped from CDs. There's also no usage indicator and the Gracenote database failed the Best of Frank Sinatra test, although standard iPod connectivity did assuage our pain.
Thanks to the car's internal hush, having long discourses over the Bluetooth hands-free system is no problem at all. Pairing a phone — a Palm Centro in our case — to the car is easy and the automatic re-pairing appreciated, although strangely phone-book syncing only worked with numbers stored on our SIM card, not on the phone itself.
Opt for the cheaper Business Nav package and you'll have to make do with the old DVD-based navigation system, but as our car came with the more expensive Profession Navigation option, we had the new hard-disk-based system at our disposal. The new system not only boasts faster load times, particularly noticeable when you're searching through street names and points of interest, but also a 3D view.
Destination entry is easily done by either scrolling the iDrive controller through a predictive list of letters or via voice control. While the system will happily repeat street names you enter via voice for confirmation, it's unwilling to utter street names in turn instructions. And with phrases like "at the roundabout exit at the second turning" there's also an oddly Germanic air to the computer guide.
As there's plenty of screen real estate, the navigation system works best if you have it set up in split-screen mode, with two-thirds dedicated to the map and the remaining third displaying upcoming turn instructions in the form of big, clear arrows. This space is also used to display a simplified graphic of freeway turn-offs and major junctions. Disappointingly though, any extra lane info the system chooses to display is buried at the bottom of the screen and cut in half. With the sat nav system hooked up to the car's gyroscope, navigation continues to work in tunnels and there were no drop outs when we drove through the CBD.
With a combination of neat handling, grippy yet comfortable seats, and a thick and meaty steering wheel adjustable for both reach and rake, the 320i Touring should have the performance section nailed, but several factors prevent this model from being the "Ultimate Driving Machine". We could moan about the slightly dead feeling in the steering wheel, but it's nothing compared to the lethargy masquerading as the car's 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine.
To say that the 320i's performance is underwhelming you would not only have to pull one's punches, but also wear kid gloves and, preferably, be a politician of some description. Even with your foot to the floor and the six-speed auto set to Sports mode, you'll still finish War and Peace before you get from A to B. Driving like this will not induce a loud aural protest from the engine, but also make the 320i drink like a footballer on a night out.
Should you want some landscape-bending action, you'll have to stump up at least another AU$10k for the 2.5-litre six-cylinder 325i. If you're more tortoise than hare though, there's still plenty to admire in the 320i. Stick the 320i on a highway and, once it's up to speed, it will eat up the kilometres like a sumo wrestler at a buffet. Thanks to its run-flat tyres the 320i has a firmish ride, but while it's never rock hard nor crashy, it keeps you up-to-date with what's happening underneath.
We might baulk slightly at the price of the options and it's less than rapid progress, but there's plenty to recommend about the 320i, such as its bank vault-like feel, luxury finishes, hushed progress and neat handling. Stump up for the new iDrive system and you'll also have a car that will sate your desire for up-to-date entertainment, navigation and control features too.