BMW 3 Series review

Our Rating: 
5
5.0/5.0
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

For: 
Great to drive, efficient petrol and diesel engines
Against: 
Costly options, space in the back could be better, facelift indistinguishable

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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 times, though, with the arrival of an all-new Mercedes C-Class, Jaguar XE and Audi A4.

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.

Our Choice: 
BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Sport

The BMW 3 Series is a four-door saloon car that rivals the Audi A4, Jaguar XE and Mercedes C-Class. It’s also available as a more practical estate (called Touring) and a hatchback-style 5-door GT – though the styling of the latter may leave some a little cold. All cars come well equipped, 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.

There are six trim levels to choose from. Entry-level cars kick off with SE, while Sport cars add a bit more flair to the design. EfficientDynamics Plus and EfficientDynamics Sport are the more eco-friendly versions, while Luxury and M Sport top the range.

There’s a smooth and solid range of engines for 3 Series buyers to choose from, too, with more economical three-cylinder petrols introduced for the first time during late 2015. The 2.0-litre turbo diesels take the bulk of sales, with the higher-powered petrol and diesel models appealing to performance orientated buyers. You can also opt for XDrive 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.

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.

Engines, performance and drive

5
The BMW 3 Series gets a range of fast but frugal engines and is one of the best compact executive cars to 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) accordingly. 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 on the 3 Series, 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.

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 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 on the Merc. 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.

Engines

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 335d offers impressive grunt too, with bags of torque for effortless overtaking. Those looking for some degree of emission free driving should look at the 330e, which will do around 25 miles on battery power while still sprinting from 0-62mph in only 6.1 seconds.

The M3 and M4 models are, of course, the fastest in the range, with both boasting 425bhp from a 3.0-litre straight six. As of early 2016 there’s also a Competition Package version, which ups the ante to 444bhp.

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.

MPG, CO2 and running costs

4
Considering the powerful range of engines, the 3 Series returns admirable fuel economy and emissions

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 help 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. But if you want rock-bottom running costs and have regular access to a charge point, then try the 330e for size – whereby 44g/km CO2 emissions make it free to tax and exempt from the London Congestion Charge. It’ll do nearly 25 miles on electric only, too.

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

Insurance groups

Insurance groups for the BMW 3 Series kick off around 20 for a basic 316d SE. A mid-range 320d or 320d EfficientDynamics sits in group 31, and there’s only a one group penalty (group 32) for the racier M Sport specification. A 335d commands a group 43 rating, while - bizarrely - a faster 340i sits in group 38. An M3 is group 45.

Depreciation

No BMW 3 Series suffers from particularly bad depreciation, but if value retention is a priority then some models fare better than others. A manual M3 is the best performer (53 per cent), while a 335d xDrive will keep 47 per cent of its value after three years. Most 320ds retain around 45 per cent, but the plug-in 330e models fall slightly shy at between 38 and 40 per cent. The Jaguar XE and Mercedes C-Class are – broadly speaking – very similar.

Interior, design and technology

3
Inside, the BMW 3 Series can't compete with the super-desirable Audi A4, but it's not a bad place to be

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. We’ve no complaints about the classy materials, excellent build quality and solid finish, either but unfortunately it falls shy of the super-desirable Audi A4 with its crisp dials and upmarket appeal.

Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment

All BMW 3 Series models get sat-nav and a wide central screen as standard. The setup is controlled using the iDrive scroll wheel and buttons next to the gearlever. It’s intuitive to use, and the graphics are spot on. There’s no option for customisable dials like you get with Audi’s brilliant Virtual Cockpit, but they’re still slickly styled and easy to use. The orange back-light seems a little old-fashioned, though.

Practicality, comfort and boot space

3
Space in the back of the BMW 3 Series is a bit tight, but no worse than in key rivals

The current BMW 3 Series interior is roomy enough, meaning it now rivals the Audi A4 much more closely. There’s decent enough 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. If outright space is key, then stepping up to the larger 5 Series makes great sense, but if the purse strings are tight then few will be disappointed with the 3.

Size

The BMW 3 Series is actually shorter than the Jaguar XE, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class – but only by a matter of millimetres. The Audi A4 is the longest and as a result is the roomiest, but the more compact dimensions of the 3 Series make it easy to manoeuvre in almost all situations. It helps make it a hoot to drive, too. Only the A4 is lighter, which helps the BMW’s cause further.

Leg room, head room & passenger space

Head and leg room is much improved over the previous-generation BMW 3 Series. An Audi A4 is roomier, but only just, and you’ll find enough room in the back for three adults at a push. The annoying transmission tunnel eats into middle-seat legroom, however, so if you regularly carry multiple six footers, we’d recommend the larger 5 Series.

Boot

With 480 litres on offer, the boot matches that of the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class – and it's a good shape for luggage, too. The lip is a bit high, which doesn't help when loading heavy items but at least the boot lid opens right back leaving a large, square opening that’s easy to fit bulkier items through. Handy levers unlatch the 40:20:40 split seatbacks, too, improving practicality even further.

The folding rear seats are a £650 optional extra, however, which adds a bit of an unexpected cost to the purchase price.

Reliability and Safety

3
The BMW 3 Series finished mid-table in our Driver Power survey, but safety is top-notch

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.

Warranty

All cars come with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, no matter which 3 Series you go for. That matches all its main rivals, from the Jaguar XE to the Audi A4. Of course, things like brake pads and tyres are not included – though some service plans will add these for extra cost.

Servicing

Various service packs are available for the BMW 3 Series. A comprehensive package covers your car for five years or 50,000 miles (whichever comes sooner). Service Inclusive, as BMW calls it, costs £525 on standard models, or £1,100 on the M3. Service Inclusive Plus retails at £1,470 or £3,440 respectively – though adding these to a used car costs extra. The Plus package includes things like brake pads and discs, as well as clutches and wiper blades.

Last updated: 11 Feb, 2016