For 30 years BMW's 3-series has combined desirability with driveability. John Simister celebrates a beautiful automotive career

A new BMW 3-series is a significant event. No car better illustrates attainable aspiration, accessible quality, the maintaining of standards when they could so easily slip without too many people noticing. People like owning a quality object that engages its driver in the driving process, and they like the status conferred upon them by that ownership. No other car has been so aspirational yet so usable for so long. Thirty years, that's how long.

A new BMW 3-series is a significant event. No car better illustrates attainable aspiration, accessible quality, the maintaining of standards when they could so easily slip without too many people noticing. People like owning a quality object that engages its driver in the driving process, and they like the status conferred upon them by that ownership. No other car has been so aspirational yet so usable for so long. Thirty years, that's how long.

Upon the 3-series is built BMW's success. The company sells more of them than Ford sells Mondeos, such is buyers' willingness to pay extra for the brand name. And, unlike some brand names whose underlying brand values are pared to the bone in the hope that buyers won't be aware, a BMW is a bespoke BMW right through, in substance, engineering and creative independence. That matters for true brand integrity; think Apple, Sony, Braun.

That said, maybe there are just too many 3-series on the roads. Pundits say there's a danger of dilution, and it's true that the supply/demand equation has led to a softening of secondhand values, but this is not the point. The numbers do not make the 3-series any less good a car, they just mean that more people can experience it.

So, what about this new one, launched (coincidentally) 30 years after the first version's arrival? The last one hardly seemed due for replacement, as it still appeared fresh, yet it was launched nearly seven years ago. It has had a good run.

The new one continues the formula in today's BMW idiom. However, while some recent BMWs have fuelled fierce debate over their radical styling, concave surfaces and discontinuous forms, the new Three is a little calmer, to avoid alienating its ownership aspirants. BMW's design director, Chris Bangle, is both credited with and accused of knocking BMW off its former straight track of design direction, but this new 3-series inhabits the outer 'burbs of Bangledom, not its regenerated city centre. It's almost attractive, even if the rear lights do look as if created by a Japanese or Korean designer to mimic a true BMW's.

The front three-quarter view is the best, showing the unique face and the wedgy stance. The concavity on the flanks, below the ridge that runs through the door handles, is broad at the front and tapers to nothing above the rear wheel arch; you need the right reflections to pick it out. But is there one ridge too many at the aft end, the one that continues from the waistline into the rear wing? Under the glare of spotlights it seems cluttered, but out in the open it makes sense. Long in the bonnet, short in the tail, with the front wheels pushed well forward, the new 3-series has as authentic a BMW stance as you can get.

The concept has not changed much over the previous car's, though. It's just a 2005 reinterpretation of a good idea. So, it still has rear-wheel drive (a feature now shared only with Mercedes-Benz in this size class), and top models have straight-six engines (now unique to BMW, as everyone else has moved to V6s). But beneath the new look, and a new interior to match, lies plenty of detail honing.

That new cabin is calmer-looking than those of a 1-series or an X3, a handsome and relaxing interpretation of BMW's new angular idiom. Just behind the gear lever is the iDrive on-board computer and control system, much reviled by Luddites (including me) but claimed to be easier to use. I have to concede that it is, and mental conversion to its modus operandi is no longer a task of discouraging insurmountability.

There's good space for four (unlike in the 1-series, whose underpinnings the Three broadly shares), although five is a squeeze because the edges of the rear seat's backrest curve forward a lot to help the comfort of the intended two occupants. The boot is bigger, too, but that's mainly because there's no spare wheel. Its lack partly makes up, in space released, for the reinforced rear structure needed to pass the latest US rear-impact tests. You also get a neat pullout drawer under the rear window in which to store a laptop, for example.

BMW has embraced aluminium in the current 5-series, but the 3-series has no such exoticism except in parts of the suspension and subframes. Despite that, the new bodyshell is both stiffer and lighter than the previous model's, so the car weighs about the same as before, despite extra equipment. The six-cylinder engines are lighter, too, thanks to a magnesium block. There are 325i (218bhp) and 330i (258bhp) versions of these, while the four-cylinder engines are a petrol 320i (150bhp) and a diesel 320d ( more powerful than the petrol engine at 163bhp). I'm delighted to report that all model numbers refer correctly to engine size, far from a given in recent years. All the petrol engines have throttle-less Valvetronic variable timing and lift, and a lower-power petrol engine joins the range later in the year. Six-cylinder cars have the option of Active Steering, the system launched with the 5-series which dramatically speeds up steering response at low speeds and progressively calms it to normal as speed rises. It can also apply automatic steering correction if sensors detect a skid before you do.

All cars have an ingenious braking system. If you lift abruptly off the accelerator, the braking system is "primed" for a quicker response. If the wipers are on, the brake pads are periodically nudged against the discs to dispel water, so they can "bite" better. System pressure is automatically reduced as you come to a halt, to avoid a jerk. Hill starts are easy because the brakes automatically stop you rolling back. And finally, an extra portion of the brake lights shines if you're braking especially hard. Such are the wonders of electronics.

You can also have headlights that point round corners, and a keyless entry system. Gearboxes, manual or automatic, have six gears. And you press a button to start the engine, all of these features typical of the new-age automotive must-haves. Here is the 3-series updated as logically as it can be. But what it must not lose is what the industry is fond of calling the DNA; and the 3-series has more of that than most.

The 1975 interpretation of the idea set the template well, even if the car itself - internally designated E21 - was small by today's standards. It replaced the 02 series, itself a two-door derivative of the 1500 range which, in 1961, had kickstarted a near-bankrupt BMW back into life. These post-1961 BMWs had a neat overhead-camshaft engine which formed the basis of many racing units (its block was even used in the Brabham-BMW turbocharged Formula One cars), and it was these cars that got the "Ultimate Driving Machine" advertising line under way.

That E21 was a neat, understated, good-looking car with a forward-sloping nose and, in its fastest, six-cylinder 323i version with four headlamps and twin tailpipes, a reputation for lurid powerslides. So much power in a compact car made for much driving fun, and the 323i was a great image-builder for both the company and the car's owners. Profligacy was out in the post-oil-crisis mid-1970s, so the 323i and the then-new Golf GTI were the perfect solution.

The second-generation 3-series, codenamed E30, was the breakthrough car for BMW, though. Launched in 1984, softer-edged but otherwise similar, it sold in droves to become almost obligatory yuppie transport (remember the yuppie?). Understated but thrusting, high in quality but affordable, it became the core BMW and set the tone for all Threes that followed.

The Touring estate-car version was popular even though the E30 range was five years' old by the time of the Touring's arrival; but best of all - and arguably the most enthralling 3-series there has ever been - was the M3 of 1987. Built to go racing but a delight on the road, the left-hand-drive-only M3 had a 2.3-litre, four-cylinder engine, and suspension that gave handling so easy and driver-involving that you wondered why all Threes could not be like that. Bulging wheel arches and a high-set, plastic bootlid identified the M3; it's one of the defining cars of the 1980s. Meanwhile, BMW's South Africa operation was heading off in its own direction with a 333i and then a 335i.

In 1991 we saw an entirely new 3-series look, the precursor of what we have today. E36 was the codename, and this time the BMW was launched with four doors instead of two. The two-door coupé, with nearly every outside panel changed, came later, and its M3 version lacked the purity of the original, even if its powerful six-cylinder engine was a work of aural art. Curiously, the scarce four-door M3 was a better car to drive, with more flowing handling and a smoother ride. It's a great buy today.

The E36 brought 3-series sales to new heights, sometimes entering the British sales top 10. Still the formula of rear-wheel drive, high quality and a sporting ambience was a badge of status, of being in control of your destiny, so the E46 of 1998 predictably built on the formula. But something went missing: where was the ultimate driving pleasure now? BMW had been listening too closely to its American buyers, who liked the driving-machine idea but not the reality, preferring something softer and less responsive. With the E46 the fire went out, even though by most standards it remained a fine and very handsome car.

It took the launch of the truncated-tail Compact version, resurrecting an idea tried with the E36, to put things right. For this nippy, sporty car, the engineers sharpened the steering and quickened the reflexes, and the transformation was huge. Within months, all E46s were like this, and credibility was restored. There's a lightweight CSL version of the E46 generation's M3, and cars don't get much more responsive than that.

Can the latest car live up to this heady past? It can. On a racetrack, the 330i revs with a typically BMW silken ease, its exhaust note a metallic blare and its handling balance impeccable. (It won't let you blip the accelerator for a smooth downshift under heavy braking, when the car is about to trigger its anti-lock system, but the engineers have promised to fix that.) Out on the road, it rides smoothly for a car with such crisp responses, and the Active Steering is easy to get used to. Acceleration from a standstill to 62mph takes 6.3 seconds, incidentally, and the price without options will be £28,455.

There's just one dynamic flaw, a tendency to follow road cambers on a bumpy road at speed, which also afflicts the non-Active, and also rapid, 320d. The steering wheel tugs in your hand and sometimes feels as though working against friction; the suspension engineer told me it was the price paid for the precise handling. If so, fair enough, because it's a while since I've driven a saloon as intimate, as invigorating, as "flingable" as this one.

The Ultimate Driving Machine? Certainly. Straight in at number one, and this time there's no doubt. Sales start in March.

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