Source: www.motortrend.com, Words: Miguel Cortina Photos: Jade Nelson
For decades, the BMW 3 Series was the epitome of the luxury sport sedan. Its great handling, punchy power, and dynamic ride made it the leader of its class. "Ultimate Driving Machine" was more uncontested truth than mere advertising slogan.
But the Bavarian brand took a left turn with the previous generation, which lacked the emotion and precision that so defined the 3 Series of yore. Other brands—like Alfa Romeo—used that misstep to jump in the game, creating exciting machines that made up for the BMW's shortcomings. Now in its seventh generation, the 2019 BMW 330i is facing stiff competition.
With the Giulia, the Italian brand created one of the best sport sedans in the market. We liked it so much that we named it Car of the Year in 2018, mostly for reintroducing the world to the concept of thrilling driving dynamics in sedan form. In a recent comparison, the Quadrifoglio was superior on Streets of Willow, staying ahead of the Tesla Model 3 Performance and Jaguar I-Pace. With that in mind, we asked ourselves, if we are evaluating solely from the perspective of spirited driving, can the 3 Series retake the best-driving sport sedan title from the Alfa Romeo Giulia?
For this comparison we wanted to stay around the $50,000 cap, but BMW sent us a 330i with the M Sport package ($5,000), Track Handling package ($2,450), Drivers Assistance Pro package ($1,700), Premium package ($2,800), and Executive package ($2,100), which increased its price to a hefty $59,920. Equipped with a 2.0-liter turbo-four engine, the 330i develops a punchy 255 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque and is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission that sends the power to the rear wheels.
Our long-term 2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia Q2 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-four engine that sends 280 hp and 306 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic. Equipped with the Ti Sport RWD package ($2,500), Driver Assistance Static package ($650), Driver Assist Dynamic Plus package ($1,500), and Ti Sport Performance package ($1,200), the Giulia carries a wallet-friendlier price tag of $51,635.
Both cars have 19-inch wheels, sport-tuned suspension, paddle shifters, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (though in the 3 Series it's an option included in the Premium package). The Bimmer includes Eco Pro, Comfort, and Sport driving modes, while the Giulia comes with Natural, Dynamic, and All-Weather modes.
Driving the 3 Series on the hilly and twisty canyon roads above Malibu, testing director Kim Reynolds found himself feeling almost every other bump, ripple, and pebble, and not in a good way. "Its ride is odd, finding annoying bumps without the commensurate handling composure payoff," he said. Road test editor Chris Walton agreed, adding that the aforementioned packages were to blame for the stiff ride.
Not everything is bad news for the Bavarian model, though. Its punchy engine adds a good amount of character, though the turbo lag can be noticeable when passing on the freeway. Derek Powell, a guest judge in this comparison, described the transmission's shifts as "intuitive and crisp," and he enjoyed the bite of the M Sport brakes.
Because the 3 Series dominated the segment for decades, perhaps we were expecting too much from BMW. But for the brand that created the Ultimate Driving Machine slogan, you can't expect less. The 3 Series behaved differently as we engaged Sport mode, making the steering a tad stiffer and raising the volume of the exhaust. Powell disliked the digital amplification of the exhaust note in Sport mode. "It's another instance of BMW telling you that the car is sporty rather than delivering the experience."
Counter these impressions with the inherent Italian passion of the Alfa. We found the Giulia's ride and handling superior to the BMW's. "Alfa absolutely cracked the ride/handling code," Walton said. The steering is well balanced, and the suspension is firm enough to feel sporty yet comfortable when you want it.
Whether you're tearing through the back roads to the grocery store or gliding along the boulevards on your way home, the Alfa will deliver the driving pleasure we expect from a sport sedan. Its engine feels torquey for a four-cylinder, though there's a similar bit of lag when you tromp the gas pedal from a stop. "Once underway, the eight-speed always seems to have the right gear on tap and is quick to downshift," Powell said. Reynolds complained that it was hard to predict how the pedal would react.
And although the Italian gallant is a couple of years longer in the tooth than the just-redesiged BMW, the Alfa does a lot of things right. When driven in Dynamic mode, the car doesn't beat you up. It simply moves with composure and swiftness. The Giulia feels natural, an extension of your corporeal form. "It's just so good in many different ways," Walton said. "And in the ways it doesn't quite measure up, it really doesn't matter to me.
Each model offers a different approach to its interior. BMW's feels more modern; it has a nicely integrated 8.8-inch touchscreen with the latest iDrive infotainment system. The all-digital instrument panel blends well with the rest of the cabin, and we applaud the attention to detail on some of the trims—like the iDrive knob being located in the center console and the quality of the materials around the air vents. The blue stitching on the seats, door panels, and dash adds character to the cabin. it feels even more elegant at night when the ambient lighting is visible. But the large number of buttons on the dash and the steering wheel made us wish for a simpler cabin.
Although we applaud the use of the all-digital instrument panel and love the way the colors change with the drive mode, the navigation map's graphics leave something to be desired. We prefer Audi's Virtual Cockpit, which includes satellite images and great resolution. BMW could take a page from Audi's book in this regard.
Alfa's take on interiors is quite different from its Bavarian counterpart's. The Giulia's infotainment screen is completely embedded in the dash, but it lacks a touchscreen; the only way to control the infotainment system is through the massive knob in the center console. Although the system has simplified menus, it's just quicker to get around using a touchscreen.
Speaking of simplicity, we appreciated the Alfa's sparse interior layout: The only buttons are the HVAC controls. However, we'd like a quicker workaround to change the radio station; it takes time to get used to the sole knob to control the audio. "It's not overly complicated, and it's old-school in a way—it's definitely not showy like the BMW," Powell said. "But you know what? I don't care. It gets the job done."
We prefer the Alfa's seats, which provide more lateral support than the BMW's, and Reynolds also preferred the Italian's driving position. But we had different opinions on its second row. Whereas Walton described the Alfa's back seat as "the best of the bunch by a mile," Reynolds and I had problems with the headroom, as both of our heads brushed the headliner. The dual-pane sunroof gives back-seat passengers a nice experience, though. We all agreed on the new 3 Series' great interior space, including good legroom and headroom even for rear passengers.
As brands equip their cars with the latest tech, there was a strong contrast between the 3 Series' and the Alfa's approach. The BMW uses a virtual assistant that's activated by simply saying, "Hey, BMW." And you can ask for anything—from directions to your destination to help finding a nearby parking spot. You can use your smartphone to unlock and start the 3 Series, and it also does a great job parking itself in parallel or perpendicular spots with the touch of a button. Gesture controls can change the audio system's volume or skip or repeat a song.
Our Alfa, on the other hand, doesn't have any of these technologies, though that's not a deal breaker. "The infotainment is also decidedly low-tech—but really, it offers everything I need," Powell said. Given that the Alfa arrived a couple of years earlier than the 3 Series, its technology isn't as advanced as BMW's—you still have to park it manually and will have to carry the key in your pocket.
With the Wi-Fi hot spot, the 3 Series lets you use Apple CarPlay wirelessly, though there were a couple of times when my iPhone had trouble connecting to the system, leaving me with no CarPlay. On the other hand, you'll need a USB cord to use CarPlay in the Alfa, though it can be complicated to use given the lack of a touchscreen.
With safety technologies evolving every day, both Alfa and BMW are trying to pack the newest techs in their cars. BMW's Active Guard comes standard on the 3 Series and includes front collision warning, automatic city collision mitigation, and lane departure warning. But the Active Driving Assistant Pro, which is part of the Driver's Assistance Pro package, includes adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist with traffic jam assist. I tried this system in our loop, and it did a great job of keeping the car centered on its lane while driving on city streets. I thought the distance between the car in front was a bit too much, though, as other cars kept cutting me off. On the freeway, the system did a better job staying closer to the car in front and keeping the car centered in its lane.
The Alfa's Driver Assist Dynamic Plus package includes forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality. This last feature worked very well, with Reynolds saying it was second to only Tesla's Autopilot. "It has close following gaps, accelerates hard, brakes hard, and rarely gives up and throws emergency braking into your lap," Reynolds said. "But its steering assist is only lane departure warning, so it's of little use." We hope Alfa adds lane departure mitigation in the midcycle refresh of the Giulia, which should be shown soon.
Both cars offer different approaches with the same goal in mind: to be the best sport sedan. We appreciate the changes BMW made to the 3 Series to deliver a better ride and improve the dynamics over the last model, but the competition did its homework in the years BMW was looking the other way. The Giulia still keeps its promise of making drivers happy, as it transmits emotion while being a natural player.
With new players in the game, BMW must examine how and why the competition has surpassed its 3 Series in ways implausible a few years ago. To us, the Alf Romeo Giulia is simply a better driver's car. The Alfa is "the best, most satisfying, most visceral sport sedan—even in this lower-rung version," Reynolds said. "It's the modern 3 Series."
BMW 3 Series
Alfa Romeo Giulia