It’s not until you own a BMW 3 Series that you realise you rarely need anything more in a car. This is especially true in Touring form, because the estate adds superb practicality to efficiency, excellent build quality and a driving experience that would put many hot hatches to shame.
However, while the 3 Series is undeniably a great car, this fifth-generation model is getting on a bit now. As a result you need to buy with care, because if you choose badly you could end up spending far more than you bargained for.
The fifth-generation 3 Series saloon (E90 in BMW code) arrived in January 2005, with the Touring (E91) following in September. Initially there were 320i, 325i and 330i petrols to choose from, plus 320d or 330d diesels. The 318i and 318d arrived soon after. By September 2006 there were also 335i, 325d and 335d options; within a year most featured more power, lower emissions or even a totally new engine. A facelift in September 2008 brought EfficientDynamics tech as standard, slightly revised design details and an improved iDrive interface.
The closest rival is the rear-wheel-drive Mercedes C-Class, with its wide engine choice. It’s less fun than the BMW, but it’s superbly built, reliable and has a cast-iron image. Prices are high, though. Audi’s A4 Avant is front or four-wheel-drive, with the latter well suited to towing. As with the BMW all are superb quality, practical and have efficient engines. The Honda Accord and VW Passat have strong value, good engines and ready availability, but can’t match the BMW’s image.
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These 3 Series have ‘condition-based servicing’ (BMW terminology for variable servicing), which means the car flags up when attention is needed. The system takes into account the condition of a wide range of service items. Only those parts that need replacing will be renewed, so no two maintenance costs are the same. However, services are usually every 15,000-20,000 miles, typically at £800 every 40,000 miles. One small saving is that the coolant never needs replacing, while the brake fluid should be renewed every two years, at £93. All engines are chain-driven; no fresh cambelts are needed.