BMW 3 Series review

Our Rating: 
2012 model
By Auto Express Test TeamComments

The latest BMW 3 Series is better built than ever and great to drive - it's one of the best compact executive cars ever

Great to drive, impressive quality, low running costs
Costly options, unadventurous styling, average space

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The BMW 3 Series has been a class leader for more than forty years, and the latest-generation car was a winner yet again when it arrived in 2012. The competition has upped its game in recent months, though, with the arrival of an all-new Mercedes C-Class and Jaguar XE – and a fresh Audi A4 on the horizon.

Not wishing to be outdone, BMW facelifted the 3 Series in mid-2015, adding updated lights and bumpers, new engines and a lightly revised interior.

The result is a superb-driving four-door saloon that’s better than ever, thanks to an appealing mix of upmarket badge appeal, an enjoyable chassis, smooth engines and low running costs. 

The 3 Series is very well equipped, too, with sat-nav, DAB and emergency eCall as standard across the range. 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 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 six trim levels to choose from, including: SE, Sport, EfficientDynamics Plus, EfficientDynamics Sport, Luxury and the ever-popular BMW 3 Series M Sport model. 

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 Plus

Engines, performance and drive


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 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 four different modes to choose from: EcoPro, Comfort, Sport 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). Sport+ ups the ante and limits the amount of electronic assistance – allowing very slight slip at the rear wheels. 

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. If your budget allows, the adaptive suspension transforms the way the 3 Series drives, allowing it to be sportier when you say so, but more comfortable on longer motorway drives.

A wide range of three, four and six-cylinder engines are available, with the 181bhp 320d 2.0-litre diesel offering a great blend of performance versus running costs. 

The performance king in the standard car is the 321bhp 340i's 3.0-litre turbo petrol; it reaches 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds, and will hit 155mph flat out. The Audi A4 offered four-wheel drive first, but the 3 Series xDrive (only available on the 320d, 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. There’s an ever-so-slight flat spot in the steering when driving dead ahead, but BMW’s claims this has been introduced intentionally to prevent jerky manoeuvres at motorway speeds. 

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. Keen drivers should look at the Jaguar XE, though, as it’s brilliant to drive and took the Compact Executive car crown in the 2015 Auto Express new car awards

MPG, CO2 and running costs


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 99g/km of CO2 and returns an excellent 74.3mpg for the automatic versions. Spec the sleeker-looking ED Sport model and that jumps just above the 100g/km threshold, but the improved residuals should keep costs down. 

The whole range is pretty good, in fact – even the turbocharged 2.0-litre 330i manages to keep CO2 emissions at a reasonable 151g/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. 

Prices are on a par with its rivals too, as the 3 Series range starts from around £24,000, but that’s only for the three-cylinder 318i in the basic SE trim. 

Interior, design and technology


Given the success of the 3 Series, it’s not surprising that BMW didn’t mess with a winning formula for the latest model. Facelifted in mid-2015, the traditional saloon shape was given a sporty twist courtesy of a purposeful stance, new headlights, low bonnet line and smart double-kidney grille. 

All cars now get LED daytime running lights and all-LED rear light clusters as standard. 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. 

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, and the graphics are spot on. 

We’ve no complaints about the classy materials, excellent build quality and solid finish, either. The popular M Sport looks great, but commands a healthy premium – so unless you really want it we’d stick with the mid-range Sport.

Practicality, comfort and boot space


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.

Reliability and Safety


The latest 3 Series finished 51st in our Driver Power 2015 satisfaction survey, with predictably strong showings for performance and handling. However, unhelpful staff and expensive repairs put BMW’s dealers 14th out of 32. 

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.

Last updated: 17 Jul, 2015