Flame surfacing – not a description of a catastrophic oilfield blow-out but a term BMW used to describe the fresh direction its car design took with the big 7-Series saloon, the Z4 sports car, X3 4x4, 5-Series saloon and 1-Series hatchback that followed. So controversial has this new look proved that a 'Stop Chris Bangle' website has been set up to agitate for the removal of BMW's design director. At the time of writing, it had collected nearly 12,000 signatures.
Still, resistance has weakened and BMW's rising sales suggest many like Bangle's designs. But BMW has been a little less adventurous in the 3-Series. This model is its best seller by far and one whose design would have been frozen when calls for Bangle's head reached their peak. The new 3 shares its surface language – car designer-speak to describe the sculptural style of a car – with its new-wave brothers, but your eye will be less troubled by its contours.
Which frees us to check how the rest of it stacks up. And the answer is extremely well. When buying a 3-Series, you face a multiple choice of engines. There are four – with three more to come – but unless you're keen to hit 155mph and scorch to 60mph in just over six seconds, which is what the range-topping 258bhp, six cylinder 330i manages (it costs £28,445), I'd suggest the four-cylinder 161bhp 320d. This is cheaper at £22,890 and, being a turbodiesel, will cost less to run.
Although it employs the same propellant as most taxis – diesel – it's a civil device, free of rattling vibrations. You hardly suffer on the performance front either: this car will do the sprint to 60mph in 8.3 seconds, run to 140mph, and turn in close to 50mpg. As such performance and the BMW badge imply, this is a mildly sportif motor. A highly adjustable driving position lets you feel confidently in control, while steering wheel and pedals move with satisfying precision, even if the gear lever is a slightly unwilling accomplice.
BMW's engineers claim a body shell 25% more rigid than the past model's, and besides improving crash performance, this also enables the suspension to function more effectively. The result is a car that not only corners with an unlikely combination of zeal, athleticism, poise and decorum, but allows you to enjoy the experience too.
And it makes excellent transport. It's comfortable, quiet, rides rough surfaces better than any car in its class, and provides a tasteful interior. True, the hooded binnacle housing the infotainment screen (for stereo, satellite navigation and more) is ugly, but the rest of the cabin has modernist flourishes decidedly less controversial than a flame-surfaced bonnet.
Like the previous 3-Series, this is pretty much the best-in-class, a position the previous model had barely relinquished in its final months. If there's a criticism, you could say the 3-Series formula – this is the fifth generation – is getting a bit samey. But it must be right – this pricey car is often one of the nation's top 10 best-sellers.
Price £22,890 (BMW 320d)
Max power 161 bhp
Max torque 251 lb ft
Max speed 140 mph
0-62 mph 8.3 sec
Fuel consumption 49.6 mpg
Emissions 153 g/km
Audi A4 2.0 TDI £21,340
Facelifted with a bold grille and refinements, but not enough to head off the (pricier) BMW.
Mercedes C 220 Cdi Classic £24,915
Much better for its recent facelift. More focused on comfort than the BMW – and pricier.