BMW 3 Series review
Our Best Compact Executive Car of 2013, the latest BMW 3 Series is better built and a great drive
The BMW 3 Series is now in its sixth generation, and it's better than ever thanks to its blend of upmarket image, great driving dynamics and low running costs. But thanks to the Jaguar XE, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 being more and more competitive, it's got a lot more work to do to be the best in class.
The 3 Series is very well equipped and it's more spacious than it has been in the past, and partly thanks to an excellent range of petrol and diesel engines it's a very refined and comfortable way to travel as well. It's so good at being an executive car that we gave it the Best Compact Executive award in our 2013 ceremony.
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 - but the bulbous rear might be a stumbling block for some. The car is available in eight specifications: ES, SE, Sport, EfficientDynamics, Modern, EfficientDynamics Business, Luxury and the ever-popular BMW 3 Series M Sport model.
The BMW 3 Series can be bought with four-wheel drive in the UK now, which means buyers who would usually only be looking at Audi's quattro models have more choose when they come to buy a new car.
The BMW 4 Series is closely related to the 3 Series, being a coupe version that replaces the previous 3 Series Coupe. There will also be a BMW 4 Series Convertible to replace the previous 3 Series Convertible. BMW has also revealed the new BMW M3 saloon alongside the new BMW M4, and it will feature 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. 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 and solid finish, while M Sport cars boast supportive Dakota leather sports seats, Bluetooth, cruise control and a DAB radio.
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.
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 u for economy, while Comfort and Sport do what it says on the tin. Variable ratio Sport steering and Adaptive Drive dampening are available as optional extras, too.
A wide range of four and six-cylinder engines are available, with the 320d 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel returning 64.1mpg without sacrificing performance - it's a great engine for this model.
The performance king in the standard car is the 335i's 3.0-litre turbo petrol; it reaches 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds, but mpg does suffer at 35.8mpg. The Audi A4 offered four-wheel drive first, but the 3 Series xDrive (only available on the 320i) means the extra grip is now available in a BMW rival. All models get a six-speed manual gearbox and an optional eight-speed automatic is also available.
Head down a twisty back road and the 3 Series feels secure and well balanced. The steering is positive 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 IS.
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 old BMW 3 Series interior was a bit small, so this new one is a big improvement thanks to a 50mm longer wheelbase and plenty more room inside the car as a result. There's enough leg and headroom for all passengers, which means the car now rivals the Audi A4 much more closely in this area.
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. Handy levers unlatch the 40:20:40 split seatbacks.
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 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 68.9 mpg. The whole range is pretty good, in fact- even the turbocharged 2.0-litre 328i manages to keep CO2 emissions below 150 g/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.