It used to be that the BMW 3-Series cars were synonymous with in-line six-cylinder petrol engines.
Granted, when the original 3-series, the E21, was introduced in the mid-1970s, the model was exclusively powered by four-cylinder engines of various cubic capacities. But that didn't last long.
By 1977, new variants were getting bigger straight-six engines under their bonnets, and it was those models that sparked a surge in demand for what is now the world's most popular BMW.
POWER PLANT: 2979cc in-line six-cylinder direct- injection twin-scroll turbo-charged petrol engine, 225 kW 5800-6000 rpm, 400 Nm at 1200-5000 rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: Rear-wheel drive. Eight-speed automatic transmission with manual over-ride and paddles on the steering wheel. McPherson strut front suspension, multi-link setup at the rear. Electro-mechanical rack-and-pinion power steering. Full range of electronic handling and stability aids.
HOW BIG: Length 4624mm, width 1811mm, height 1429mm, wheelbase 2810mm.
HOW MUCH: $106,900. As tested, $119,300.
WHAT'S GOOD: Classic bodyshell design. Beautifully smooth engine performance. Rides on the proverbial rails.
WHAT'S NOT: The LCD screen on the top of the dashboard looks like it should be able to be folded away, but is in fact permanently in place.
OUR VERDICT: This new BMW 3-Series is a sitter to be a strong finalist in this year's Car of the Year awards.
But things do change, and the new sixth-generation 3-Series, launched in New Zealand a few months ago, is again more of a four-cylinder car than a six.
That's because BMW has become very much a part of the European trend to offer product with engines that might be small in capacity, but big in power thanks to twin-turbocharging and supercharging.
These engines really work, too.
For example, the 2.0-litre four that powers the new 328i (yes, I know the numbers in the badging are strange) can accelerate the car to 100 kmh in just over six seconds yet boasts an average fuel consumption of 6.3 litres per 100km.
And consider the diesel-powered 320d. It is powered by an improved version of the engine under the bonnet of the previous 3-Series, which offers better fuel consumption but no loss of power. Its sprint time to the open road speed limit is 7.6 seconds, and average consumption is just 4.5 L/100 km.
In each case, these BMWs offer really good drives, not the least because their lighter engine weights translate to superbly balanced handling. Personally, I'd be very happy to own either of these two models.
But my favourite remains the one model powered by a six-cylinder engine.
It's the 335i, which boasts a 3.0-litre direct injection twin-scroll turbocharged engine, which offers 225 kilowatts of power and, perhaps more importantly, 400 Newton metres of torque from just 1200 rpm.
That's sufficient to get this car to 100kmh in a low 5.5 seconds and on to a top speed - if we were allowed - of 225kmh.
And it does it so nicely, too. It has a beautiful exhaust note when under power, and I've got to admit that during a recent few days behind the wheel of the 335i, I spent quite a bit of time powering up through the eight-speed automatic's gears, just so I could listen to the gear change, which came complete with a "brrrt!" as the engine's computer wizardry worked to keep the twin-scroll turbocharging on boost.
What a big kid, I can almost hear you saying. Absolutely!
The thing is that this new 335i is a superb car, and the exhaust note simply adds to it all. And while I suppose it could be said that the heavier engine up front means the handling should be the worst of the 3-Series fleet, in fact it handles beautifully.
The car carries many performance and handling-oriented features, and our test vehicle was also fitted with optional Sport steering and Adaptive M suspension, all of which combined to present a great drive.
The new 3-Series boasts a much stiffer bodyshell than before, and this has allowed the suspension mounting points to be made more rigid, which in turn allows the suspension itself to work more efficiently.
This is particularly the case when a new standard feature called Driving Experience Control is used. The driver is able to select one of four driving programmes that range from very economical to ultra-sporty.
Comfort is the standard mode for ordinary highway cruising and around-town motoring, and on start-up the system defaults to this. But choose Sport and the car's throttle response is quickened, the automatic transmission's shift points altered, and the electronic power steering made more direct.
Hit a Sport+ mode and the threshold of the BMW's dynamic stability control is raised and dynamic traction control is activated. What that means is that the Sport+ will allow the driver to go faster and head further towards losing control before all the traction and stability controls take over.
Meanwhile, there's also an Eco Pro mode which encourages fuel-efficient driving by changing the accelerator mapping so that the same pedal travel delivers less power, and also adjusts the transmission's shift points so upshifts are brought forward and downshifts delayed.
BMW claims the Eco Pro mode can help reduce average fuel consumption by up to 20 per cent.
The new BMW 3-Series is considerably bigger than its predecessor, and this has removed the one major criticism of all 3-Series models so far - a lack of rear seat room. This car has 8mm more headroom and 15mm more rear legroom than before, and it now has more interior space than the larger BMW 5-Series did a few years ago.
Wheelbase is also 50mm longer, and the front and rear tracks have gone up by 37mm and 47mm respectively, and this contributes to very good ride and handling characteristics.
So these days, the 3-Series can be considered to be a bigger car than its placing in the luxury compact segment of the new vehicle market suggests. It's still a compact car, but there are now no issues regarding interior space.
Although this new 3-Series is a modest and fairly conservative re-interpretation of the former model, it is a lovely looking car with a sweeping bonnet line and new front end with headlights that now reach along as far as the kidney grille.
The car's extra length is accentuated by a new double swage line made up of two character lines that run alongside each other down the flanks of the BMW - one emerges out of the low- slung front end and flows over the front wheels, while the second starts lower down behind the front wheel arches and follows a slightly arching path towards the rear.
The new 3-Series is available in three new trim and equipment ''lines'' called Sport, Luxury and Modern.
Our test 335i was specified to the Sport Line, which meant the front kidney grille has eight black slats and black inserts in the front apron, while the interior - including the ignition key - uses contrasting red and black accents.
This new BMW 3-Series has to rate as one of the most accomplished vehicles I've ever driven; and, as I said earlier, I think my favourite of the fleet is the big-engined 335i. It's not because any of the others disappoint mind you, it is simply because I just loved the power, the torque, and the exhaust note presented by this lovely car.
- © Fairfax NZ News