This is the car BMW has to get right. The 3 Series accounts for a fifth of the company’s global sales, and every year over 20,000 Brits buy one. So it’s no surprise that the newcomer is bigger yet lighter, faster yet more efficient and promises to deliver a more engaging mix of handling and comfort.
It still looks the part, as conservative but elegant detailing neatly masks the larger dimensions. At the front, the headlights and grille form a continuous line – a throwback to the MkI and MkII 3 Series – while from the side, a double shoulder line and curved arches give the body plenty of definition. At the rear are LED tail-lights and a wider track.
Video: Watch CarBuyer's video review of the new 3 Series
There’s now more scope for tailoring the 3 Series to your taste. The range starts with SE trim, but for an extra £1,000, you can choose either Sport or Modern spec, each with different styles of alloy wheel.
Step up to the Luxury and M Sport models and the contrasting themes are taken to the next level. Each has different interior details, but the fundamentals of the new car’s cabin – like the increased passenger space – remain. The wheelbase is 5omm longer than before, so rear legroom is better than in the Mercedes and a match for the Audi’s. It’s the same story with the well shaped 480-litre boot.
Up front, the slender button panels, smart switchgear and multifunction steering wheel all impress. The classy and modern cabin is immediately welcoming, not least because the wide range of wheel and seat adjustment makes finding the right driving position easy.
Sport models like ours get supportive seats and a red strip across the dash, with matching stitching on the steering wheel. However, the quality improvements and more modern design are what anyone upgrading from the old car will appreciate most.
So the 3 Series can now challenge the Audi A4
for interior quality. But the BMW has traditionally held the upper hand when it comes to driver enjoyment, and losing this long-standing advantage would make all the cabin improvements pretty pointless.
Unsurprisingly, that hasn’t happened, but the engine’s thrummy nature at start-up and low revs contrasts with the smoother diesel in the Audi. However, thanks to its effortless power delivery, the BMW has the punchiest in-gear performance here. It also sprinted from 0-60mph in 7.3 seconds – which is 1.1 seconds faster than the A4.
The engine is much more refined at cruising speeds, so aside from a slightly gruff noise as you accelerate, it’s actually one of the car’s real strong points. As is the slick six-speed manual gearbox.
Crucially, BMW hasn’t tampered with the 3 Series basics, and the rear-wheel-drive chassis, 50:50 weight distribution and agile handling make it a pleasure to drive. The 320d reacts to driver inputs faster and with more precision than its rivals, while body control is excellent.
Electromechanical steering is standard and you can also add Servotronic steering (a £180 option fitted to our test car), which allows you to alter the weighting via the standard Drive Performance Control button; or Variable Sport Steering (£375), which gives you a variable ratio for even quicker responses.
The 3 Series allows you to choose from ECO PRO, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ driving modes, and we found the steering felt most natural in Comfort. Sport and Sport+ increase weighting, sharpen throttle response and stiffen the £750 Adaptive M Sport suspension fitted to our car.
In Comfort mode, even with our car’s optional 18-inch alloys (17-inch wheels are standard), the ride is more supple than the old model’s. In fact, the 320d is the best of our trio at dealing with rough surfaces.
Better to drive, more comfortable and more efficient: the new 3 Series makes a lot of sense. And that’s before you consider its class-leading residuals, fixed-price servicing and low company car tax bills, not to mention 40mpg economy. This car will be hard to beat.
Chart position: 1WHY: The outgoing BMW 3 Series is our favourite compact executive car, so expectations for this all-new model are sky-high.