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.

Disqus - noscript

Ugly, over priced rep mobile. Noisy, rattly diesel engines. Better off with a Golf.

@petrolhead...what are you talking about??? Have you driven one? Do you own one? The new design is striking and a significant improvement over the previous version, with lots of curves, creases and detail. I have a new 320d Sport in Melbourne Red pearlescent paint, with upgraded alloys and full leather. You can't argue with 0-60 in 7.5 secs, 62mpg and £30/year road tax!!! Also, it drives and handles superbly, with a spacious and comfy interior. This is NOT like a Golf, but much better. Also, from new as a private buy, it is competitively priced due to subsidised PCP deals and high residuals. PS. I am not a long standing BMW fan, as I've just moved from a string of 3 Audi A4's, but I am converted!!!

My wife has one and its the best 3 series that she has owned (4 up to date) - but you would expect that as it is the latest. Too basic, as standard and the auto box can get very confused accelerating up a hill. Haven't found out what causes the stop/start, as it seems entirely inconsistent. It is very economic and goes very well, but I find that inconsistent too.

Too common

Petrolhead must have been sniffing petrol, and difinately has never driven one. BMW are THE world leaders in diesel refinement. Sure if you prefer a petrol driven car I can understand not wanting any diesel. Why do reps love them? Because they do more driving than you ever know a great car when they drive it. Golf? pretty good for what they are, but compared to ANY 3 series they are garbage - I have driven Golfs.
Mike, you can disable the stop/start by way of the screen menu, if it bothers you.

Well LarryGold and AverageJoe, you're both obviously taken in by all the hype... and I deeply suspect the rep mobile "badge". I used to own a E46 330 coupe, so I'm not anti BMW, I'm just honest and realistic. I'm sorry if the truth hurts. Both the Golf and the 3 series get good reviews (both are good cars) so you take your choice - but to say the 3 series is better is just complete nonsense (in what way is it better?). The 3 series is grossly over priced; it is the ugliest version yet - especially with its droopy front and, undeniably, it makes a terrible racket. I have compared the 3 series back to back with the Golf, and I spent my money on the best car - IE the Golf (when you're spending your own money, trust me, you do a lot of test drives and research until you're absolutely certain. I have test driven the petrol 3 series, but not the diesel. However, I have been a passenger in the diesel - both this current model and the last. You cannot possibly deny, that at the diesel sounds like a rattly ol' tin can... it does - there's simply no getting away from that... it's there for everyone to hear. It's possible to feel it in the cabin, and you can feel it on the gear knob! Taste is a personal thing, and if you guys like it then fair enough. With regard to calling the Golf garbage in comparison, well... that's just a very silly comment isn't it - particularly as it's at least as good as the 3 series in most areas, and better tan the 3 series in many. PS, I'd take those performance figures with a pinch of salt if I were you - I'm afraid you'd be lucky to get 0-62 in the low 8s if you're going down hill with the wind behind it... and have you really achieved 62mpg on a normal run?... I don't think so!! Once again, it's all hype.

Mike. The stop/start can also be disengaged using the button directly above the stop/start switch. Also it will de-activate if the car is in low temp conditions and hasnt yet reached running temps. We have just received the new 316d Touring and I was expecting a really basic underpowered model but a) its built and fitted to mid-range levels (eg tailgate powelift as std) and b) pulls well thanks to the new twin scroll turbo diesel. Only comment would be that the gap between 5th and 6th is a little wide ie 6th too long for normal A roads.
The feature most noticeable is the ride quality - superb ie firm but comfortable.

I'm sorry but BMW are know where near markeing the most refined diesel buy a long shot audi quieter vw quieter ford quieter Renault quieter great car to drive thou but thee diesels need more refinement and suspect when they bring out some new ones they will be .buy the way being a rep doesent mean you no a good car when you drive one matter of fact some of the worst drivers on the road are reps and to call a golf garbage is ridiculous and as for stop start a complete waste of time irritating utterly inconsistent marketing tripe you would probably save a litre of fuel in a year if you was lucky

wind noise like a cabrio!

My new 330D M Sport is a fantastic car to drive, with huge amounts of linear power; however, mine has been let down by squealing brakes since it was first delivered. Be warned, as this seems a recurring problem with this model. Nearly 1200 miles now and the brakes still squeal as I brake to a standstill. BMW UK know of no resolution to the problem, dealer can't help, finance company (Privately leased) seem to want to wriggle and point the finger back to BMW....

I don't like this new front design that the eyes (lamps) mix with the nose ( grill). I will stay with the old models

same sausage - different length - yawn .....

Lets compare the Passat with the 1 series whilst we're comparing completely different cars.

A Passat (which is competes with the 3 series) is a Golf with a boot. They are also similarly priced. There's nothing "completely different" about these cars at all. I mentioned Golf as I have a preference for the hatch over the boot, and in fact the Golf is a much nicer place to be than the Passat or the 3 series.

Yes I have driven one, and I have been a passenger in several - it's hard not to be with so many rep-mobile 320d's on the road. Surely you cannot deny it's awful rattly noise. -at standstill it's absolutely terrible. In my opinion the latest version really is ugly, the nose droops out of all proportion to the rest of the car, and the little lights in the middle make it look cheap. The Golf feels a much higher quality car to sit in, and is also a far nicer ride. As for your figures, I certainly can argue with them. Not only do I sincerely doubt you'd be able to get anywhere near those quoted figures (BMW is notorious for over stating), but in any case, even if you could they are not special at all, and considering as the 3 series is outrageously over priced, those performance figures are very poor - very poor indeed, you'll be left behind by many cars which are much cheaper.I would agree with one thing though - the last time I looked at a 3 series, they were willing to bite my hand off - 15% discount just walking through the door (but still over priced against the competition).

A Passat is not a golf with a boot, that would be the Jetta

Look, let's say you compare a 3 series with a 1 series, I'm sure everyone would agree that they're nothing like each other. You only have to look at them, and sit in them for a few moments to see that. They feel nothing at all like each other except for the orange dash lights and the badge. I'm not making any comment re preference for either of those cars here, I'm just pointing out that fact.

Now, I've made that observation because this brings me to my point about a Golf just being a Passat with a hatch rather than a boot. When you move from a Golf to a Passat & back again, they have a very, very similar feel, both in design, looks... pretty much everything, and in the way they drive at normal speeds. With regard to size, the Golf is actually now slightly wider internally at the front than the Passat (it feels at least as roomy), and about 5cm less wide at the back.

I had a ride back & forth to my house a couple of months ago in the dealership Passat during my service, and other than the dash layout (which are identical quality), although personally I prefer the Golf's dash, everything feels so similar to being in the Golf. The VW chap & I had this very conversation and we both said it is a "Golf with a boot"

The Jetta, Golf and Passat are all pretty much the same car in this regard, and if we were to go into detail, then in fact the Golf now rides on a different platform to the Jetta, and the new MQB platform will be shared between all cars so there'll be pretty much no difference underneath anyway. So why do VW produce the Jetta and a Passat? The next Jetta will likely be longer than the current Passat, so I really don't see the point - maybe there are a couple of people who need a car that's 130mm shorter than an almost identical car to fit in their garage. The same question is being asked about the A3 saloon, in that the A4 saloon already exists.

Feel Alive I've got the activehybrid which is a 335i with KERS !!!! Quite bonkers in sheeps clothing.
Second hand bargains to be had 12 month old fully loaded at same price as 318d !!!
306bhp with city silent running 5 years inc servicing for£425.
Only BMW could make a hybrid which is faster and more fun than a non hybrid !
Just got to love the F30 3 series.

Common and boring.

Not sure it worth the 5 when the average star score is just above a 4, 5 i don't think so and as someone whos spent alot of time in a brand new 2013 320d model(company tax reasons) its not all that, not all that at all

This review confirms what I thought, the Lexus is better.

How can this be a 5 star car, when it doesnt achieve 5 stars in any of the categories and actually achieves only 3 in one of them..

BMWs are no longer yobs car like they used to be as they've all moved to Audis. The diesel engines are quite rattly but the performance and economy more than make up for it. The quality of the the materials inside and out are top notch and far better than say a Golf.

BMWs feel special WVs don't,

..and on what basis do you come to that conclusion? The fact is that VW's materials, inside & out, are far better than BMW's. Have you tried pulling on the cheap & nasty plastic, wobbly, hand brake lever that is found on a 320D? Have you tried moving the awful seat adjustments on BMWs? The fact is that VWs not only feel more special than BMWs to sit in, they are actually much better made with much better materials. The two best interiors of all the mainstream German cars today are VW & Audi (and you can't pick between them for quality and feel good factor). Unfortunately BMW, and especially Merc, have fallen behind.

Bmw all day every day

That's "nowhere" by the way, not "know where".

"Doesent" is spelled "doesn't"

Ever heard of a full stop?

Too much time wasted watching Top Gear?

You pay the German man-hour working price...just that. Inside of the car there is Bosch,Continental chips, rubber used in Peugeot,Renault etc. Wake up! Always doing facelifts to the car, they blow like the others!

If I take any average of the different component scores (basically all 4 star) I get a total score of 4 star, not 5 star.

It's a 2.2 not a 2Litre....!

Last updated: 17 Jul, 2015