BMW 3 Series - Engines, performance and drive
The 3 Series offers class-leading performance along with an improved ride and excellent driving dynamics
The BMW 3 Series has long been the default choice for those looking for an entertaining driving experience from their compact executive saloon. And for the most part, this latest incarnation of the 3 Series retains its crown as being the drivers’ car in the class. However, BMW has also attempted to increase refinement and ride quality to match the Mercedes C-Class. It’s a tough job to retain the 3 Series’ sporting appeal while also raising the bar in the comfort stakes.
Remarkably, BMW seems to have pulled it off, as the 3 Series is still a very entertaining car to drive, with impressive road holding and improved ride quality over its predecessor. Part of this improvement is thanks to BMW’s new stroke-dependent suspension damper technology, which is a standard feature on all models. When the car is carrying a light load, the damping rate is softer, resulting in a compliant ride.
However, when the car is fully laden with passengers and luggage, the damping is stiffer to take into account the heavier load, which results in appreciably better body control without unduly affecting the ride quality. For the most part it works very well, but part of the improvement in the 3 Series’ ability is also the result of using BMW’s latest CLAR platform. This has reduced weight – by up to 55kg – and increased body rigidity by up to 50 per cent. It’s an impressive feat given the 3 Series is larger than its predecessor.
The 3 Series lives up to the driver appeal expected of the model with excellent poise and agility, comfortably beating both the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class in this respect. But like its rivals it does suffer a little from having slightly lifeless steering that doesn’t offer keen drivers a huge amount of feedback. Despite this, the 3 Series is still a drivers’ car with excellent grip and composure. And while the steering rack lacks feel it is quick, allowing accurate and rapid corrections to your cornering line.
This can be improved by opting for one of the models with BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive system, which makes the 3 Series even more surefooted no matter the conditions.
Two transmissions have been offered – a six-speed manual or an eight-speed ZF automatic – but the manual was only available on certain lower-powered models, which were phased out with the facelift. The automatic is an excellent transmission with smooth changes throughout, whether the gearbox is left to its own devices or whether changing gear manually with the standard steering wheel-mounted paddles.
On the motorway the 3 Series is an accomplished cruiser, offering lower noise levels than it exhibited previously, which is in part thanks to the standard fit acoustic glazing. The ride is good too, and while in the past we might have recommended the optional adaptive dampers, this is no longer necessary thanks to the stroke-dependent dampers. On the largest wheels there is an occasional thump from the worst potholes, but it’s certainly no worse than its rivals in this respect.
Keener drivers who don't want to spend over £80,000 on a brand new BMW M3 will be best served by either the M340d or M340i. Both are effortlessly fast and – thanks to standard xDrive four-wheel drive – have loads of grip and traction.
However, it's best to consider this pair as fast, capable cruisers, as they're good to drive but don't feel much different to M Sport models. Adaptive suspension is standard making for great ride quality if Comfort mode is selected. Things sharpen up in Sport and while some may find it a little uncomfortable, it offers a marked improvement in dynamics on the right piece of road.
0-62mph acceleration and top speed
The petrol range used to start with the 318i, producing 154bhp, but now kicks off with the 182bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder 320i, which comes as standard with Sport automatic transmission and manages 0-62mph in 7.1 seconds; the 330i uses the same unit tuned to produce 254bhp and a 0-62mph time of 5.9 seconds.
The plug-in hybrid 330e mixes a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine with an electric motor for a total output of 288bhp and 420Nm; enough for 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds, in both rear-wheel drive and xDrive four-wheel drive forms. Meanwhile the sporty M340i has a 3.0-litre straight-six with 369bhp – 0-62mph takes just 4.4 seconds.
All petrol models use an eight-speed automatic and the 320i can be specified with xDrive four-wheel drive; M340i models get four-wheel-drive as standard.
The 318d has also been discontinued, and the popular 320d uses a 2.0-litre diesel engine producing 187bhp. The four-cylinder diesel 3 Series model comes with an eight-speed automatic and can be fitted with four-wheel drive. 0-62mph takes 6.8 seconds for the 320d, regardless of whether xDrive is fitted.
Performance-conscious diesel buyers were once served by the 330d, with a straight-six producing 261bhp. Post-facelift they’ll need to plump for a tuned version of the same six-cylinder unit that features in the M340d xDrive, producing 335bhp and dispatching the same sprint in 4.6 seconds.
In this review
- 1BMW 3 Series reviewThe BMW 3 Series offers the perfect blend of performance, driving dynamics, low running costs, technology and refinement
- 2Engines, performance and drive - currently readingThe 3 Series offers class-leading performance along with an improved ride and excellent driving dynamics
- 3MPG, CO2 and Running CostsExcellent economy and decent CO2 emissions make the BMW 3 Series a good choice for business and private users
- 4Interior, design and technologyBMW has introduced welcome improvements to the interior quality and on-board technology of the 3 Series
- 5Practicality, comfort and boot spaceLeg and head room are better than before, with the 3 Series now matching or beating its rivals for interior space
- 6Reliability and SafetyProven mechanical components bode well for reliability, while its safety systems are among the best in class