New BMW 3 Series

17 Nov, 2011 12:01am James Disdale

We get behind the wheel of the all-new BMW 3 Series ahead of its launch in February 2012


The bad news for BMW’s rivals is that the 3 Series shows no sign of surrendering its compact executive crown. It’s bigger, more refined and just as good to drive, and it’s still one of the most desirable four-door models money can buy. The 320d delivers a winning blend of pace, economy and driving fun. We’ll have to drive other models before we can declare it the best ever, but on this evidence it fully deserves its five-star rating.

Ever since the first 3 Series made its debut in 1975, the sporty saloon has set the standard in the compact executive sector. It’s also the brand’s biggest money spinner, making up nearly a third of all BMW sales globally. So this all-new 
version is massive news.

Video: Watch our video review of the new BMW 3 Series

Code-named F30 internally, the sixth-generation 3 Series promises to be bigger, faster and more efficient than its predecessor. What’s more, it boasts powerful new engines, lightweight aluminium construction and a host of hi-tech extras.

But has BMW done enough to keep the 3 Series ahead of arch-rivals such as the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class? To find out, Auto Express grabbed the keys to what is expected to be the biggest seller in the line-up, the 320d, to deliver the definitive verdict on one of the most important new cars of 2012.

What’s immediately clear is that BMW hasn’t taken any risks with the styling. Viewed in profile, the handsome newcomer shares much with its successful predecessor. The nose drops lower, but the upright windscreen and trademark Hoffmeister kink in the C-pillars are familiar design touches. 

Yet move around to the front of the 3 Series, and you’ll spot bold new headlamps that flank the traditional kidney grille, while the rear of the car clearly takes its cues from the larger 5 Series. Our test car in Modern trim also gets a unique front bumper design and plenty of matt chrome. Further classy kerb appeal comes courtesy of the standard 17-inch, multispoke alloy wheels.

Inside, the 3 Series feels more upmarket than ever and is easily a match for the Audi A4 for quality. The slickly designed dashboard is angled around the driver, all the controls are perfectly placed, while a wide range of wheel and seat adjustment makes it easy to get comfortable.

The fit and finish are first rate, and the switchgear operates with slick precision. High quality materials are used throughout, helping to give the cabin an executive car ambience. Yet we’re not convinced about the heavily textured wood trim that comes as standard on Modern spec models – lesser cars get more tasteful finishes.

Still, you’ll happily overlook this quirk when you experience the extra space on offer. The previous 3 Series had a cramped cabin, but a 50mm increase in wheelbase means passengers in the back get a useful 15mm boost in legroom, plus there’s also 8mm more headroom. And while it’s no roomier than an A4 or C-Class, it’s now up to class standards, as is the 480-litre boot.

Compared to BMWs of old, there’s plenty of kit included as standard. All models get a 6.5-inch colour screen for the intuitive iDrive system, a Bluetooth phone connection and climate control. Yet it’s still possible to go overboard with options.

Our car was fitted with mobile Internet, surround view cameras and heated rear seats, as well as safety kit such as lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and a colour head-up display. However, all of these improvements and additions will be for nothing if the 3 Series isn’t as engaging to drive as its predecessor.

Under the bonnet is BMW’s twin-turbo 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel, which is a refined and punchy performer. Extensive use of aluminium in the car’s structure means the 3 Series is around 40kg lighter than the old model, which helps it feel even more sprightly and boosts efficiency – when fitted with a six-speed manual, the 320d sprints from 0-62mph in just 7.5 seconds, but emits only 120g/km of CO2 and returns 61.4mpg.

Our car came with BMW’s eight-speed automatic gearbox. At £1,525 it’s not cheap, and while it’s a tenth of a second slower from 0-62mph, economy rises to 62.8mpg and emissions are down by a further 2g/km. Spend another £135 and you can add the Sport function, which speeds up changes and adds crisp acting wheel-mounted paddles.

Turn into a corner, and it’s clear the 3 Series has lost none of its poise and precision. With a perfectly balanced rear-wheel-drive chassis, strong grip, well weighted controls and direct steering, it’s still the top choice for keen drivers.

Adding to the car’s appeal is Drive Performance Control (DPC). It’s fitted as standard across the range, and offers EcoPro, Comfort and Sport modes. The former tweaks the engine settings for greater fuel efficiency, while the latter sharpens throttle response and adds weight to the steering.

Our car also benefited from the £750 M Sport adaptive damper package. This adds a racier Sport+ mode to the DPC system that stiffens the suspension, virtually eliminating roll and further improving body control. 

But it’s changes to the Comfort setting that are most welcome, as the 3 Series glides serenely over poor surfaces, with only big bumps upsetting its composure. Combined with the marked improvements to refinement and noise insulation, it makes the 3 Series one of the most relaxed and comfortable cruisers in the class. However, it’s worth noting that experience with the similar system on the 5 Series suggests that standard cars are likely to have a firmer suspension set-up.

Even this issue fails to undermine the achievements of the new 3 Series. Its predecessor was still the class benchmark after six years in production, yet the newcomer improves on it in nearly every area. On this showing it’s going to take something very special to knock the BMW off the top step of the podium.

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Forgive me for I have sinned. I don't want to drive a BMW. I know they are the way and the light and I should kneel before its kidney grille and beg for forgiveness. It's just that I think there are more interesting cars around that are also better value for money to buy and service. And BMW's are all driven by those god-like drivers and I'm not sure that I qualify. Obviously I'm damned to automobile hell, but I've had more fun in this life driving cars other than Bimmers.

I keep looking at this car trying to like it. Alas, what has BMW done to the 3 series? It's so alike the current 3er yet uglier. I 'm sure it will be an ultimate driving machine and the streets will be flooded with it but I refuse to be one of the drivers. Sorry BMW, you're doing what Audi has done across its range, photocopying.

I concur with the general view of 'prosperity' and 'PAAdam' but for different reasons.
I stopped buying BMWs when Bangle took charge and then when he left I did think that things were going to change Hey.Ho. wishful thinking!
The front bonnet line should surely relate to the grill line and the rear lights seem to have been designed by two people - one to do the wing bit and another to do the boot bit.
It seems that there are a number of manufacturers who are being dictated to by their AD people and the video is a disgrace another example of the videographers doing a Henry Ford and giving us examples of how they have mastered their craft.
I will stick with MB for a good while longer yet.

As someone who recently gone away from the brand (old 330d and X5), this is an excellent return to form as far as I'm concerned. This is certain not uglier than the current 3 series that I do know. There even appears to be some proper rear leg room and inside has been freshened up a treat. I think people will be flocking back to the showrooms and maybe me. How someone can make a comment like 'I don't want to be a BMW driver' is absurd before actually trying it. By the way I'm a Skoda driver now before anyone gets arsey.

It probably won't be quite as refined or quite as efficient, but at least it will be more interesting. Anyway, I've seen one of these in the flesh (I live in Munich) and it just doesn't look right somehow. And that bonnet line, maybe for pedestrian regs, but surely it doesn't need to be that bad! Still, not as bad as the new 1 series that nearly got me run over as I was so shocked at how awful it looks.

Lacks the style of the 70s & 80s BMs.
BMW seem to be in charge of the "ugly stick" since Bungle was boss and haven't let go of it with this model.
Give the crayons to a bunch of primary school kids.
They couldn't make a worse job!

I total agree with most of you chaps, it just doesn’t do anything for me! What’s with the chrome strip bit under the number plate? And the bonnet, well it looks like they left the clay model hanging around overnight and someone has put a massive bowl over it and trimmed it (I am trying to make a reference to the old bowl haircut!), and when they came back in the morning, didn’t even notice!!
It just looks wrong and getting boring to look at. Definitely wait for the Jag!

Well, that's good news. Except styling wise. I dislike the direction BMW took under Dutchman Adriaan van Hooydonk. His designs are cluttered. There's simply too much going on which dampens the charisma factor. Then again, the 2005 predecessor (not the 2009 restyled one) was the best-looking 3 Series ever.

A contributor has written that it is "absurd" to suggest that you won't drive a make of car without trying it. I won't drive a VW because someone I idolised was killed in one about fifty years ago. I won't drive an (Australian) Holden because when I was only a child my father used to drive the family home in one, drunk as a skunk, and threatening to kill us all. I won't buy another Alfa because I watched the first one rust away before my startled gaze. And I won't drive a BMW because years ago a few of my friends drove them. They seemed to be trouble, trouble, trouble, and the service bills were beyond all human understanding. I imagine all that has changed. Excuse me for straying off topic but am I the only fruitcake or do some others harbour similar dark automotive hostilities?

If only I worked harder at school I could afford to buy one and if only I was shorter I could drive one comfortably, however I'm 6ft 7in and didn't work hard enough.

Though it looks like a lovely car, I shall just look from afar and dream

..... yet another BM I won't be wasting my money on. Whilst the ride improvement is to be welcomed (come on, Audi and Merc) it looks just that little bit uglier than the current model, which was itself that little bit uglier than the one before it etc etc.

Buy metallic paint and one other small option and you'll be paying over £30k - madness!

For arrogant people...

Obnoxious and ugly people only need apply!

Rivalled only by Audi for the most nauseating collection of ownership types...

..... yet another BM I won't be wasting my money on. Whilst the ride improvement is to be welcomed (come on, Audi and Merc) it looks just that little bit uglier than the current model, which was itself that little bit uglier than the one before it etc etc.

Buy metallic paint and one other small option and you'll be paying over £30k - madness!

It must be really embarrassing to drive a car as ugly as this.

Hooydonk doesn't know if he wants to continue in Bangle's direction or go back to pre-Bangle. Bangle's a genius and the cars designed under his leadership were the most advanced and innovative of our time.

I share the same view as toycollecter, this latest generation is mediocre in design terms compared to the predecessors before, especially Paul Bracq's E21 & Claus Luthe's E30 which were masterpieces. Currently, rivals like the Alfa Romeo 159 still better's it on style and design. So, to summerize then, brilliant technically, dynamically, for but short on style, charisma and 'want one' factor.

Hooydonk doesn't know if he wants to continue in Bangle's direction or go back to pre-Bangle. Bangle's a genius and the cars designed under his leadership were the most advanced and innovative of our time.

You do have to hand it to them. I'm not a lover of the brand but it turns in some impressive figures. But at what's going to be well over £30K with a few extras it's pushing well into 5 series territory. Nice but seriously expensive.

...that a car can split opinion so widely and angrily!

Interesting comments by iderek - I completely disagree and think Bangle ruined the BMW brand (and negatively influenced some other car makers) with such awkward designs that looked like they were penned by a 5 year old. Being different doesn't have to mean ugly - but everyone is entitled to their opinion and no-one is forcing anyone to buy their cars (which still sell in huge numbers, maybe because of the engineering and badge rather than looks).

Maybe its because I've got older and my values have changed but there's so much talented cheaper machinery around now that fits my needs that I'd feel a bit silly spending 30K on a four door saloon; especially as I have nothing to prove by owning a car with a prestige badge. That's what I bought my yacht for!

I accept the new 3 series is probably an impressive piece of kit though, and whilst I think the styling has improved, it still looks odd from some angles. So I'm assuming the diluted Bangle influence will take a few more refreshes to wash out completely - but BMW will be better for it.

i wonder if the 320d will still eat turbos?

The Emperor's new clothes. Who care or believes the hype? Oh, you do, sorry.
Someone has to save the euro is suppose.
Buy the new Focus, cheaper all round, and better generally.

THREE Series ?? I thought that was BM's Compact Salooon
But its as big as an older 5-series was. And I expect that the current 5 series is about 45 cm bigger & 25 cm wider than a previous Fiver was.

' Compact ' saloon - no more.

But their whole range of cars leaves me underwhelmed - somehow rather 'Corporate' & bland.

Seems like the typical mix of BMW hating and Class Leading car moaning all written down on here...

BMW is doing no different to people precious Mercs, Audis and I dare say at the end of the day the majority of cars get larger as each generation goes by.

You might not have the most fun in a BMW but people just seem to come on a forum like this and just slate it when it clearly does not deserve any slating at all because the previous generation 3 Series was better than everything in its class by a country mile so it shows you just how ahead of the game BMW is with the 3 Series.

When will autoexpress stop automatically playing the videos with sound ? it is extremely annoying. If the advert plays, the video can't be stopped. In an open plan office the only answer is to close down the web page (and to go to a different web site) or quickly switch off sound.

well you guys can give it all the criticisms but in truth there isn't really a car that can beat it in its class. The Audi A4 is too plasticky while the Mercedes C-Class is as inert to drive as ever. Ford Mondeo? Volkswagen Passat? Sure, if you like FWD. The only reason i won't buy this car is because i really prefer the 5 series much more.

No thanks.

I've had one for a couple of years now.

I am actually going to say something positive.........I rather like it. LegiolXhispana...If only arrogant obnoxious people drive BMW's and you obviously dont......Then god knows where that leaves you! Never read such a vicious diatrieb aginst people you cant possibly know!

1. Design is busy, uninteresting, a step in the wrong direction. I agree, not with most for certain, Bangle was much better. This is not Bangle.
2. How can these "journalists" give five stars for a car they've driven in the pouring rain?
3. Dammit! Stop the video autoplay. It's amateurish! Embarrassing!

some of the comments above are unbelievable!! it would be interesting to hear what some of these people drive,all audi's look the same these days,merc still have reliability issues and lexus is faultless but boring to drive,so come on guys what would you buy IF!!!! you had 30k to spend on a compact exec car,wanted sharp looks,fantastic driving experience and class leading economy the above car i guess!!

C'mon Alfa Romeo and Jaguar. Now is the time to release your competitors. The Germans are all rather dull and uninspired in their offerings in this category.

Why should I buy one of the automotive leaders vehicles? Just because BMW have some of the most reliable and well built cars on the road!!! HA! Who wants to drive around in some of the safes cars ever built as well? MADNESS!! I dont want to put my money into a company that spends millions on advancing the industry, LOW CO2 ( Who cares ), 60 mpg ( I'll rather buy more fuel ). I'm just going to sit here in my little bubble ( no not an AUDI TT! ) and shout abuse at this pathetic Industry leading brand. HA!

would rather own a wheel barrow, it will have more class than a German rep mobile THAT looKS LIKE THE ELEPHANT MAN DESIGNeD IT, even them cheep tube angel eyes cant lift it... interior is very minimal with loads of high quality expensive PLASTIC...

it is...

At Least BMW look different

Audi look bland

Mercedes look Naff

Jaguar look OLD

Everything else looks Japanese or Korean........

This car looks fugly to me. Hope they've at least sorted the driving position from previous 3 series iterations with their intolerable offset pedals. And I hope the wobbly gearknob doesn't feel like it's going to come off in my hand like the last one I drove. Funny I never read about these things in the magazines. Had to drive one to be fully underwhelmed.

Do you really want to part with circa 30k for such a boring car design? I had the cash and walked in and out of BMW having seen the minor adjustments and still dated interior. I bought a similar priced RR Evoque and it is fantastic inside and out and it's also a hatch. Look at the Mercedes CSC at least they are trying to break the mould! Even if that car looks like a beefed up Hyuandai.

Jags had a reputation of being an old mans car, but the three series is now starting to take this crown, come on BM where has the design flare gone?

Key specs

* Price: £29,080
* Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 181bhp
* Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
* 0-60mph: 7.6 seconds
* Top speed: 143mph
* Economy: 62.8mpg
* CO2: 118g/km
* Equipment: Climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth connection, parking sensors, start-stop, cruise control, auto lights and wipers.
* On sale: February 2012