BMW 3 Series review
The latest BMW 3 Series is the best yet - it's better built, more efficient and just as great to drive
The BMW 3 Series has dominated the compact executive sector since it was first introduced back in 1975. This all-new, sixth-generation model has a lot to live up to, then - especially since recent improvements to the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class have weakened its grip on the class crown – but the result is a car that’s raised the bar even further. It’s bigger, better built and more refined than ever before, plus it comes packed with kit and is available with a wide range of punchy and efficient petrol and diesel engines. In fact, it was crowned Best Compact Executive model at our New Car Awards 2012. As you’d expect, it’s offered as a sleek saloon and a practical Touring estate model. But as of 2013, it’s also available as an even more spacious 3 Series GT model, which BMW says offers the “dynamic, sporting” qualities of the saloon, with the “practicality and versatility” of the Touring. The manufacturer’s intelligent new xDrive four-wheel-drive system is now available in the UK for the first time, and gives BMW a direct rival to the popular Audi quattro models. The new 3 Series Coupe has already been revealed in concept form and will be badged 4 Series when it arrives in showrooms by the end of 2013, with a 4 Series Convertible and more practical four-door Gran Coupe following.
Our choice: 320d ED SE
The latest 3 Series is virtually indistinguishable from the car it replaces from the side, thanks to the same low nose, relatively upright windscreen and trademark kink in the C-pillars. However, from the front, you’ll find distinctive new headlamps with LED running lights, while at the back it looks much more like the larger 5 Series. There are six trim levels to choose from – ES, SE, M Sport, Luxury, Modern and Sport – with all cars getting 17-inch alloy wheels, air-con, cruise control, keyless start and a choice of either wood or metal-effect trim inserts as standard. SE cars come with dual-zone climate control, parking sensors and automatic headlights and wipers, while M Sport trim adds 18-inch wheels, a leather interior and an M Sport steering wheel, suspension and body kit. Sport models are marked out by racy black trim that outlines the windows and lower grille and a garish red finish to the interior. The cabin is slickly styled, with a clearly laid-out dashboard that’s orientated towards the driver. All the materials have a classy look and feel, and build quality is first-rate. Thanks to a good mix of high quality materials and slender multifunction steering wheel, it feels just as upmarket as the Audi’s only more modern. The latest version of BMW’s excellent iDrive cabin controller – mounted next to the gearlever – is more user friendly than the A4’s standard centre console info screen. The excellent driving position and extended wheelbase allow the driver and passengers to get comfortable.
The previous-generation 3 Series set the standard for driving dynamics, so it’s no surprise that BMW's engineers have worked hard to make the latest car just as engaging. As you’d expect, the steering is direct and well weighted, there’s plenty of grip and the rear-wheel-drive chassis feels beautifully balanced. Noise levels are lower than before, too, and can now easily match the refined Audi A4. All models get Drive Performance Control, which allows you to select from Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes – each setting lets you fine tune the steering, throttle and ESP settings to suit road conditions. Optional Adaptive Drive damping and Sport steering deliver an even sharper drive, while the comfort setting serves up a softer ride. The engine line-up is made up of a four and six-cylinder engines, with the flagship 335i managing 0-60mph in just 5.5 seconds while returning an official fuel consumption figure of 35.8mpg. However, our pick of the range is the excellent 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel in the 320d, which is capable of sprinting from 0-60mph in 7.5 seconds while returning an average mpg figure of more than 60. Every car comes with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, while a slick eight-speed automatic is available as an option. The 320i xDrive model, which features the firm’s advanced, electronically controlled permanent four-wheel-drive system, offers more reassuring wet weather handling.
Every 3 Series feels solidly built and BMW’s reputation for reliability is impressive. The brand finished 66th in the 2013 Driver Power survey with a rating of 85.74 per cent, leaving it one place ahead of Audi. The old car finished 46th in the Top 100, with a brilliant sixth place in the handling category, ninth for braking and 13th for performance. Although, owners were less complimentary in other categories – the harsh ride and lack of practicality were picked out as the BMW’s biggest problems. The BMW 3 Series has a full five-star crash test rating from Euro NCAP. All versions come fitted with six airbags, electronic stability control and tyre pressure monitoring. Also included is BMW Assist, which automatically calls the emergency services if the car is involved in a serious accident. The lengthy options list includes blind spot monitoring and lane keep assist systems, but they are expensive.
BMW has answered criticism of the previous-generation 3 Series’ cramped cabin, by making the new car bigger in almost every area. The wheelbase has been stretched by 50mm, which has paid dividends inside. It now rivals the Audi A4 for space, with rear seat passengers getting decent head and legroom. There’s also plenty of storage, thanks to deep door pockets, a large glovebox and plenty of cupholders. The boot has also been made bigger, and it’s now capable of carrying a decent 480 litres of luggage. It’s a good shape and it matches the A4 for size, although the BMW does have a higher loading lip, which makes loading more difficult. Unfortunately, you’ll have pay around £650 extra if you want the flexibility of 40:20:40-split folding rear seats, plus luggage nets behind the front seats and across the boot – although the folding rear bench can be bought on its own for £390.
The latest 3 Series is one of the most fuel-efficient compact executive models money can buy, thanks to a reduction in weight and BMW’s EfficientDynamics technology. All diesel models emit a maximum of 120g/km of CO2, but the 320d ED model is the most impressive – although it has a slightly higher price than the standard 320d it emits just 109g/km of CO2 and promises average fuel consumption of 68.9mpg. However, even the scorching 242bhp twin-turbo 328i petrol manages almost 45mpg and emits 149g/km of CO2. BMW also offers a range of great-value pre-paid servicing deals, which should help to keep the cost of mechanical maintenance to a minimum. Lastly, if you want to keep your bank manager happy, we’d recommend steering clear of the expensive options list.