I attended the new BMW 3 Series launch in Cape Town last week. It’s quite an important model in the company’s portfolio, with over 15,5-million units sold globally. It is also a best-seller. I grew up in Durban so I can attest to the fact that people really love this car.

I’ve never been on a 3 Series launch in South Africa before, so it was my first drive in it. I don’t think driving my dad’s or my sister in law’s 3 Series briefly counts as a proper drive because I wasn’t paying attention to the features etc; it was more out of necessity.

Nevertheless, I’ve always been excited to drive a BMW, and the 3 Series was no different. We had the choice of two derivatives last week that started off in Camps Bay, which took us through Franschhoek and eventually back on the highway, through the CBD (sitting in traffic, too!) and back via Sea Point to Camps Bay. 

We drove the 140kW 320d on day one and the 190kW 330i on day two, with the latter being more enjoyable for me, although I appreciate how light the 320d felt on the drive. Apparently it will sell the most in SA, understandably. The 330i can go from 0-100km/h in 5.8 seconds; and the 320d can do the same in 6.8 seconds. Interesting to know is that the new 3 Series will only come in automatic now.

Later in the year, other models like the 320i, 330d and M340i will become available, and maybe the plug-in hybrid 330e – check updates with BMW SA for this. I’m certain an M3 will follow, but not sure when that will be unveiled.

ALL THE TECH

Firstly, the dashboard has been given an upgrade and looks quite modern now, which I love as BMW interiors were starting to feel a bit dated. The digital instrument cluster is neat, and the rev counter is flipped to be counter clockwise; could be an adjustment to some but I like it. I would have loved to spend more time playing around with the settings and changing it suit something I’d like, but I didn’t have as much time.

Then there’s the new semi-autonomous driving feature which is feet- hands- and eyes-off but I don’t think I’d be brave to go eyes off for extended periods of time – we recording videos of this (check the video on slide 2 here) and I only briefly looked into the camera while speaking.

Some of these features according to BMW are: “Lane Departure Warning, plus Collision and Pedestrian Warning with City Braking function, Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go function and the Driving Assistant with Lane Change Warning, Rear Collision Prevention and Cross-Traffic Alert.”

It’s the first time I got to test something like this on actual roads in South Africa (vs a controlled environment or parking lot). It was exciting (and a little scary) to be able to remove your hands off the wheel and foot off the accelerator, but the system prompts you every 15 seconds to put your hands back on the wheel or the car will switch off. The car steered itself on the curved roads and stayed in the lane for the most part, there were times I tried to activate it but it didn’t work due to various factors (speed being one of them).

There’s also a Park Distance Control that helps you manoeuvre in and out of bays; I have tested a feature like this on the 7 Series using a remote control but not this time around alas. Another feature is Parking Assistant that will take over steering, acceleration, braking and gear changes when driving into and out of a bay. But if you know how to park, I guess you don’t actually need these features, however they can be handy for narrow spots but then I’d rather not go into a narrow bay. 

HEY BMW

New to the 3 Series is the BMW Operating System 7.0 that powers the infotainment system. Now, this whole system can be accessed through a bunch of ways, and I’d be lying if I said it’s not confusing. You can access it via the touch-screen, the iDrive controller, the steering wheel buttons, gesture controls and voice commands. It can be very overwhelming; I tend to start with iDrive controller then switch to touch because I find something isn’t registering. You’d have to know what the gestures are to use this, something I played with on the 7 Series.

BMW now also has an intelligent personal assistant, similar to “Hey Mercedes” that I tried on the A-Class; and similar to what you find on your smartphone like Siri and Google Assistant. It responds to “Hey BMW”,  but the times I tried it, I didn’t have a good experience, and I’m wondering if the model I drove had the actual feature. The reason I am doubtful, is due to the fact that I had to press the voice command button on the steering wheel to activate it. Either way, it only responded to one of my commands, the playful one where you tell it “I’m bored” and it replied by saying I should try the Sport mode. I can only compare it to Mercedes, which understands the natural way we communicate, but I think BMW is more geared towards saying a specific command, and we didn’t know off hand what they were, as I couldn’t get it to adjust the air-con or open the blinds.

PRICING

Both the BMW models we drove at launch, the 330i and 320d start off at R649 000, and are priced similarly if you want the Sport model – R672 600 for both. Refer to the BMW website for more info.

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