It must have been an unenviable task for BMW designers and engineers to rework the 3 Series sedan. To pick out the best selling car from the BMW stable and expect to better its design and performance is likely to have weighed very heavily on their shoulders.

Even though there was the inevitability of a generation change, they would have been tremulous hands that picked up this car – a model which accounts for almost a third of BMW's car sales and which is also a benchmark amongst compact luxury sedans.

The new sixth generation 3 Series sedan which debuted in October this year at Munich will be launched globally in a phased manner starting February next year. It will attempt to replace the fantastically agile and one of the most enthusiastic performers of this segment. Naturally, I was bristling with curiosity when BMW invited me to Barcelona for the international media test drive of the new gen 3 Series.

Familiar design

For generations, the 3 Series has defined the concept of elegant, yet aggressive design in the compact luxury segment. And the existing fifth generation model is a fine specimen already. So, when I stepped out of the hotel in Barcelona and saw the line-up of the new 3s waiting for us to take out on our test drives, it was evident that BMW designers did not want to tamper too much with the design.

There are a quite a few bits from the existing 3's design that have been retained. The sixth-gen 3 Series' design also seems to have been influenced by a few other BMW family cars. For example, the front of the new 3 Series sedan and its wedge-shaped silhouette reminded me of the Z4 and the stubby rear looked a bit like the 7 Series. There are few lines that you can trace back to the 5 Series too.

But, quite apart from the obvious lineage, the new 3 Series design is still very distinctive. It is to the credit of the designers that the new look manages to be instantly recognisable and is yet very new too. Marking progress in design for this sports sedan, the new gen 3 Series also draws inspiration from some of the recent BMW concepts as is reflected by the new wider kidney grille design and the new eyelets of the flattened headlamps that join into the grille.

The bonnet slab is more defined with the prominent centre crease and the new ridge that increases the perception of width. From the side and at the rear, the new-gen is clearly identifiable as a 3 Series. The new tail-lamp combination gets the L-shaped LED tubes from the 7 Series and the 5 series.

The new 3 Series is not meatier due to the new lines that adorn its panels, it has also actually grown in proportions compared to the predecessor. The new model's overall length has increased by 93mm and its wheelbase is up 50mm, making it substantially longer even visually than the fifth gen. It is also squat and looking more planted due to an increase in its track width, which is up 37mm in the front and 47mm at the rear.

The longer wheelbase now frees up some more space inside the passenger cabin and the rear passenger gets 15mm of extra knee room and about 8mm of extra headroom – key factors for enhanced comfort in the Indian context. The boot space also gets a bump up to 480 litres, about 20 litres more than the predecessor.

Despite all that bulking up, it gets even better when you are told that the new 3 is actually lighter than its predecessor. Kerb weight is down by about 40 kg, thanks to the use of high strength steel and light alloys. BMW says that the intelligent lightweight body construction with flow optimised underbody structure uses their Air Curtain Technology. This improves air flow around the front wheels and together with its sophisticated chassis technology gives the car high torsional rigidity and contributes to its sporty handling.

Younger, plusher cabin

Designers have managed to retain the flavour of the interior of the 3 Series in the new–gen model. There is a distinct flavour of youth, there is practicality, user-friendliness and there is considerable experimentation too. The cockpit is driver-focused, literally turned towards him (by seven degrees) and makes every control stay within quick reach. BMW designers have also woven and number of crisscrossing design lines which gave me the impression of the car was being wrapped around me, without making me feel claustrophobic.

New materials have been tried out for the interior including new metallic trim elements, seat fabric like leatherette and a new oyster coloured plastic for the ignition key. Most importantly though, the new 3 Series will be available with three trim variants for each engine option – Modern Line, Sports Line and Luxury Line, each with its own variation of elements to reflect its nature. Later next year, an M Sport package is also expected to be introduced.

The new 3 Series sedan's seats are bolstered perfectly at all the right places to offer the most support for agile driving situations. Though I felt that there could have been just a bit more thigh support at the rear, there not much missing to make sure that even a long road trip is very comfortable.

Engine and performance

When it is launched, the new BMW 3 Series will be offered with a choice of four engines – two each in petrol and diesel. The highlight being the use of the company's latest TwinPower Turbo Technology, which makes these engines higher torque, better refinement and improved fuel efficiency.

In keeping with the BMW 3 Series' famed characteristics these longitudinally mounted engines will also be powering the rear wheels and will offer a balanced 50:50 front to rear axle load ratio. Also differentiating the new 3 with its predecessor will be the fact that this will be offered with a six-speed manual transmission as standard-fitment.

The eight-speed automatic gearbox is optional and can be combined with any of the engines. This gearbox is expected to help deliver better fuel efficiency. But also attempting to boost performance on this front will be the Auto Start-Stop function, which will be part of standard fitment.

In Barcelona, I got to drive the new 320d and the 328i, both fitted with the eight-speed automatic transmission. The 335i and the 320d EfficientDynamics Edition will join the first two during the launch in February next year.

328i – Petrol

For purists who are fans of BMW's famed straight-six engines, the 328i may be the new 3 Series' less popular choice. But they would be proved wrong about this all-new four-cylinder engine, if their expectation was sheer power. The 328i will sport this 1,997cc, which will be available in two output ratings. Though this lightweight engine seems to have been chosen with an eye on average emissions and mileage, it amazingly also offers a disproportionate amount of power and torque.

My lingering doubts were cleared after driving the 328i on the fabulously picturesque, windy roads along the hills surrounding Barcelona. The engine's magic is performed by the new tech that it is loaded with – high precision direct petrol injection, a new twin-scroll turbocharger in addition to the double-vanos variable camshaft timing and valvetronic variable valve timing.

This engine behaves very unlike a four-cylinder unit and is more akin to a naturally aspirated six-cylinder. The only give away is the relatively higher noise levels at high rpms. But, boy does it deliver. Thanks to all that tech boosting its performance, this easy-revving engine puts out a peak power of 245 bhp at 5,000 rpm – very respectable and much like a petrol engine, though it might be relevant here to mention that the redline is at about 6,800 rpm. It may also relevant here to mention that this only about 5 per cent lower than the peak output of the previous gen three-litre straight-six's power.

The punch for the new four-cylinder engine comes from the amount of torque that it generates for a petrol engine. A total of 350 Nm is developed from as low as 1,250 rpm and remains available all the way up to 4,800 rpm. All that twin-scroll turbo-charging contributes to massive pulling power for a diminutive engine. Pushing the 328i on the road and when on the track at the Circuit de Catalunya produced instant response. Though at times on the track, I did miss the higher refinement levels that a BMW straight-six might have offered, the new four-cylinder was still a revelation.

320d – diesel

The two-litre four-cylinder diesel of the predecessor has been picked up for improvements in the new 320d. Without sacrificing power, BMW engineers have worked on getting more fuel efficiency and on lowering emissions for this mill. The engine features the latest generation common-rail direct injection system, a VNT turbocharger and improved solenoid injectors to improve its efficiency. Peak power will remain unchanged at 184bhp at 4,000 rpm and maximum torque offered will be 380 Nm from 1,750 rpm to 2,750 rpm.

The engine is a classic diesel, which includes the fact that it is still comparatively more audible. A big improvement in fuel efficiency should however, be good news for Indian buyers. Fitted with the new eight-speed automatic transmission, the new 320d is expected to be about 16 per cent more fuel efficient than the predecessor. Emissions are said to be down similarly.

Taking off from the hotel in the 320d, I initially felt that the car was a bit too relaxed for my liking. I had by default started out in the new ECO PRO mode that BMW has created for the new 3 Series. The other Driving Experience Control modes are Comfort, Sport and Sport+. The new mode is meant to enable drivers to extract the most efficiency from the car during slow moving or relaxed driving conditions. Shifting into Sport or Sport+ mode completely alters the character of the car, the engine becomes more agile, the electromechanical steering tightens and the fun begins. At the track in Sport+ plus mode, with reduced stability control intervention, the real handling capabilities of the new 3 Series comes through. The car's legendary abilities have been bettered and there is no dearth of the kind of confidence inspiring on-track prowess in the new gen.

Softer ride

The best part is that while the chassis continues to be rigid, the suspension has become a bit more yielding. For all the back-benchers who find the current gen 3-Series too stiff and bouncy, this should be good news. The new suspension set up is more accommodating and dynamic. No more uneasy backsides and lesser worries about loosing control on bad roads at high speeds.

There is also a lot of new tech that the new 3 Series sedan gets from its bigger siblings in the form of a full-colour Heads-up display, adaptive cruise control, a lane departure warning system, BMW Parking Assist and Surround View. For Straight-Six fans the 335i with a 3-litre that puts out 306 bhp will be available. Other variants that will also make it next year include 320i (two-litre petrol), the 318d and 316d (both based on the same two-litre engine as the 320d).

I can't wait to lay my hands on the wheel of the new sixth-gen 3 Series when it arrives in India next year. I am sure your hands are itching too.

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Keywords: BMW 3 Series

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