BMW 3 Series review
The latest BMW 3 Series is better built than ever and great to drive – it’s our Best Compact Executive Car of 2014
Now in its sixth generation, the BMW 3 Series is a constant in the compact executive class. It’s a superb-driving four-door saloon that’s better than ever in its current guise, thanks to an appealing mix of upmarket badge appeal, an enjoyable chassis, smooth engines and low running costs.
Competition in this sector is hotter than ever, but the arrival of the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class last year didn’t knock the BMW off the top spot. However, in 2015 with the new Jaguar XE and a revised Audi A4 arriving, the BMW has its work cut out.
But it has the qualities to succeed still. The 3 Series is very well equipped and it's more spacious than previous versions. Thanks in part to an excellent range of petrol and diesel engines it's also a very refined and a comfortable way to cover long distances. It's such a good premium saloon, in fact, that it’s taken our Best Compact Executive award two years running.
It’s available as either a saloon, estate (called Touring) or 3 Series GT, which mixes the practicality of the Touring with the sportiness of the saloon - although the bulbous rear looks might be a stumbling block for some. There are eight trim levels to choose from, including: ES, SE, Sport, EfficientDynamics, Modern, EfficientDynamics Business, Luxury and the ever-popular BMW 3 Series M Sport model.
For the first time ever on a BMW 3 Series buyers can also opt for four-wheel drive in the UK, which means customers who would usually only be looking at Audi's quattro models have more choice when they come to buy a new car.
There’s a smooth and solid range of engines to choose from, too, with more economical 2.0-litre turbodiesels ranging to high-power 3.0-litre turbocharged petrol models.
The BMW 4 Series is closely related to the 3 Series, being a coupe version that replaces the previous 3 Series Coupe. There’s also a BMW 4 Series Convertible that replaces the previous 3 Series Convertible.
At the very top of the range is the BMW M3 saloon, a four-door version of the blisteringly quick BMW M4 Coupe. It’s powered by a storming 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight-six engine with 425bhp.
Our choice: 320d EfficientDynamics
Given the success of the 3 Series, it’s not surprising that BMW didn’t mess with a winning formula for the latest model. The traditional saloon shape is given a sporty twist courtesy of a purposeful stance, low bonnet line and smart double-kidney grille.
Elsewhere, the M Sport styling package includes 18-inch alloys, a subtle bodykit, gloss-black trim for the window surrounds and discreet M badges on the front wings. However, you’ll pay £710 for the xenon lights with their distinctive LED rings – these are standard on both the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4.
Inside, there’s a minimalist wraparound dash, with only a few buttons, clear digital read-outs and a large centre console screen that’s controlled using the iDrive scroll wheel and buttons next to the gearlever. It’s intuitive to use.
Overall, the dash is easy to get along with, although the orange climate control display looks dated and it doesn’t feel as luxurious as the C-Class.
Still, we’ve no complaints about the classy materials, excellent build quality and solid finish. The popular M Sport trim offers a nice balance between standard kit and affordability, with supportive Dakota leather sports seats, Bluetooth, cruise control and a DAB radio all fitted.
BMW has forged a reputation for making fun-to-drive cars, and the 3 Series is no exception. The excellent grip and direct steering mean that it's easy to keep control of the car at all times, and its rear-wheel drive layout gives it a great feeling of agility and security on the road. All models get ESP to keep you on the straight and narrow if anything should happen in bad conditions.
A system called Drive Performance Control offers three different modes to choose from: EcoPro, Comfort and Sport. It's not too hard to tell what each one does – EcoPro is set up for economy, while Comfort and Sport simply do what they say, adjusting the engine and gearbox settings (on auto models). Variable ratio Sport steering and Adaptive Drive damping for the suspension are also available as optional extras, and are hooked up to the Drive Performance Control system when fitted.
A wide range of four- and six-cylinder engines are available, with the 181bhp 320d 2.0-litre diesel returning 64.1mpg and emitting 120g/km CO2 without sacrificing performance – it's a great engine for this model.
The performance king in the standard car is the 302bhp 335i's 3.0-litre turbo petrol; it reaches 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds, but mpg does suffer at 34.9mpg for manual models. The Audi A4 offered four-wheel drive first, but the 3 Series xDrive (only available on the 320i, 330d and 335d) means extra grip is now available in a BMW, bringing with it extra peace of mind. All models get a six-speed manual gearbox and a smooth and very refined eight-speed automatic is also available as an option.
Head down a twisty back road and the 3 Series feels secure and well balanced. The steering is positive, precise and well weighted, there’s plenty of grip and you can subtly adjust your line using the throttle. The all-new C-Class may have closed the gap when it comes to involvement and agility, but the 3 Series still has the edge.
Take things easy and the tables turn, though. With the optional M Sport suspension, the BMW crashes over bumps. On the plus side, it’s possible to specify the slightly softer Sport suspension at no extra cost on M Sport models.
Even better are the £515 adaptive dampers, which soften the ride further, allowing the 3 Series to cruise almost as serenely as the C-Class. Unfortunately this system doesn’t reduce wind and road noise.
The latest 3 Series finished 14th in our Driver Power 2014 satisfaction survey, with a top 20 result for reliability and predictably strong showings for performance and handling. However, unhelpful staff and expensive repairs put BMW’s dealers 24th out of 31.
As for safety, the BMW scored the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests, but it is second to the Lexus IS as it has six airbags as opposed to eight in the Japanese car.
Adaptive brake lights are also standard on the 3 Series, as well as automatic lights and wipers, and rear parking sensors. You can also buy lane change assist, blind spot warning and auto high beams as optional extras on the lower-spec models.
The current BMW 3 Series interior is roomy enough, meaning it now rivals the Audi A4 much more closely. There’s plenty of leg and headroom for all passengers thanks to a 50mm longer wheelbase compared to the old 3 Series.
Elsewhere, cabin storage is reasonable, with a decent armrest bin, roomy door pockets, a useful glovebox and several cup-holders. With 480 litres on offer, the boot matches that of the Audi A4 and it's a good shape for luggage, too.
The lip is a bit high, however, which doesn't help when loading heavy items – although the boot lid opens right back and the large, square opening means it’s easy to load bulkier items. Handy levers unlatch the 40:20:40 split seatbacks, too, improving practicality even further.
The folding rear seats are a £650 optional extra, however, but the folding rear bench can be bought on its own for £390. It adds a bit of an unexpected cost to the purchase price, though.
Thanks to special fuel-saving technology and the reduced weight of the current BMW 3 Series, all of the four-cylinder diesel engines now emit less than 120g/km of CO2. That makes it really cheap to tax, keeping running costs as low as possible.
We'd go for the 320d EfficientDynamics model, which emits only 109g/km of CO2 and returns an excellent 68.9mpg for both the manual and automatic versions. The whole range is pretty good, in fact – even the turbocharged 2.0-litre 328i manages to keep CO2 emissions below 150g/km.
Running costs were praised by owners in the Driver Power survey, and it's clear why. There are even some decent pre-paid servicing packages to keep the car running smoothly at minimal cost.
Only the residuals are a bit of a letdown, with our experts predicting the 3 Series (320d model) will hold on to 42 per cent of its value after three years – both the Mercedes C-Class and the Audi A4 will give you a better return on your investment.
Prices are on a par with its rivals too, as the 3 Series range starts from £24,255, but that’s only for the 1.6 petrol 316i in the basic ES trim.
Our pick of the range – the 320d EfficienctDynamics – costs £29,475, while the range-topping 335i xDrive in Luxury trim trim will set you back £41,720.