BMW 3 Series Review
Best-selling junior executive car lives up to its peerless reputation with a world-class blend of abilities.
Pros: All-round excellence, brilliant combination of engine performance and economy, driver-pleasing handling, overall appeal
Cons: Prices can reflect this excellence too
Trim range: ES, SE, EfficientDynamics, Sport, Modern, Luxury, M Sport
Petrol engines: 2.0T (184, 245), 3.0T 306, 3.0 hybrid 306
Diesel engines: 2.0 (116, 143, 184, 218), 3.0 258
Gearboxes: Six-speed manual, eight-speed automatic
What is the BMW 3 Series?
The BMW 3 Series is an institution. It is the car young upwardly mobile executives have lusted after for decades and today, it’s appeal stretches far wider than that – it’s a frequent top-10 UK best-seller. Covering all bases, the enormous model range ensures now more than ever there’s a 3 Series for everyone.
All BMW 3 Series have very strong engines, even the basic 320i (which has a turbo to punch above its weight). This version has the same power output as a Ford Fiesta ST and the 328i almost matches a Ford Focus ST, despite neither being out and out sports models. The six-cylinder turbocharged 335i is the current performance leader, reaching 62mph from rest in 5.5 seconds – and the ActiveHybrid 3, which adds an electric motor, is even faster.
Diesel engines from the core of the 3 Series range though. These too are effective. Yes, the 116hp 316d is economy-focused, but the 318d will surprise and the 320d, which reaches 62mph in 7.5 second, will impress. The green EfficientDynamics version of the 320d is almost as fast, too. BMW doesn’t stop there: the four-cylinder 325d produces 218hp and the 258hp 330d six-cylinder will, at 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds, make you question the petrol 335i.
Ride and handling
Handling has always defined the 3 Series and this version (codenamed F30) is exemplary in this respect. It feels sporting from the off, with firm steering feel, quick responses and an extremely well balanced poise through corners all making it feel a cut above. Push harder and the car responds just like a GTI.
The rear-wheel drive traction helps make it feel dynamic on the move, but with this latest model, BMW also offers a solution for those who want good grip in the snow: four-wheel drive xDrive variants of the 320i, 320d and 330d are available. Their very advanced electronic drive system performs well and there is minimal economy penalty.
A BMW 3 Series does have a firmer ride quality than some in this sector, but while it feels a bit stiff when you first drive it, you soon realise ride quality is still good. Bumps are absorbed well and good body control means float and lean on the move are kept in check, helping keep passengers settled. Even models with large alloy wheel options ride more comfortably than they did in the past.
Behind the wheel
Dashboard and driving position
The BMW 3 Series is back to focusing on the driver, with the sporty-look dashboard being angled to face the pilot. With everything clear and close to hand, this makes the 3 Series feel appreciably sportier than cars such as the Audi A4 or Mercedes C-Class, particularly as the seat can be set really low in the car. Factor in good pedal position and a multi-adjustable seat and steering wheel for a saloon car with the feel-good driving position of a sports car.
The dashboard is clearly laid out and the central freestanding colour display screen is a work of art – controlling it using the iDrive rotary dial is also simplicity itself. Unlike earlier 3 Series, there are far more stowage slots and cubbies. Build quality is excellent and the vast choice in colour and trim options is welcome. The way some of these are colour-matched to the trim line is also neat – red for Sport, for example; blue for M Sport.
A BMW 3 Series has a driving position that feels slightly forward-set in the car, which means you have a commanding view of the road with an easy-to-place front end. It also means the windscreen pillars can get in the way a bit until you learn to look round them. Big windows and mirrors, plus the fact there are no major blind spots, mean visibility is OK, but do note the saloon rear is a bit high when reversing (all models apart from base ES have parking sensors as standard).
Gadgets and technology
The BMW 3 Series has plenty of gadgets as standard, from digital radio to keyless go. Various technology packs that group key features are offered too: both Active Security and BMW Professional Media packages are recommended. Also optionally available are automatic parking, a ‘bird’s eye’ surround view camera and a colour head up display. You can even have a heated steering wheel.
- Smartphone connectivity: Standard Bluetooth links with smartphones and BMW also offers connectivity via USB. There’s a smartphone app to give information like how much fuel is in the tank
- Navigation: Two levels of sat nav are available, with BMW Business offering European navigation and BMW Processional adding multimedia services
- Personalisation: iDrive allows many key areas of the car to be configured
- Audio: A USB audio interface is standard across the range. Music streaming via Bluetooth is a no-cost option
- Internet: BMW Professional navigation can connect to the internet: BMW Live will feed news and weather reports to your car
- Can it Tweet or Facebook: BMW has developed Facebook and Twitter apps for the Professional navigation, so you can send pre-written status updates on the move
- What is the standout gadget on the BMW 3 Series? Optional Active Cruise Control with Stop and Go will peg the car’s speed to the one in front. If it stops, you will automatically stop; if it goes again, you will automatically go again – all without driver intervention
Passenger space and practicality
A BMW 3 Series used to be notorious for offering a very cramped rear passenger compartment but that’s been rectified on the latest model. It is still a bit tricky to get in and out (the door openings could be larger) but once there, decent legroom and headroom are available. Because it is a rear-wheel drive car, the big transmission tunnel means it is optimised for two people in the back, not three.
The 3 Series saloon has a 480 litre boot which is OK, and BMW has helped maximise efficiency with a clean, wide layout (although it does narrow appreciably towards the rear). Naturally, the saloon opening does limit what you can get into it – for more flexibility, you need the 3 Series Touring, whose 460 litre boot expands to 1385 litres with the seats folded (a split-fold seat is optional on the saloon). This BMW estate has a much larger opening and a lower load sill: we also like the neat separately-opening tailgate glass.
Generally, the BMW 3 Series offers a premium car level of refinement. It is smooth at speed, wind noise is low and the ride soothes bumps distantly. The engines are a bit more vocal than some may expect though, particularly the four-cylinder diesels. It’s not objectionable, just something you’re aware of – and as the six-cylinder cars make a really nice noise, it’s OK.
Five-star Euro NCAP and BMW’s advanced ESC stability control system as standard means both active and passive safety is strong. Lane departure warning is available, as is an all-encompassing Dynamic Safety pack – this tightens the seatbelts and closes the windows if it senses an impact, and automatically applies the brakes if it detects a looming collision the driver hasn’t responded to.
Running costs/Value for money/Pricing
No rival can match the BMW 3 Series here. Its engines are not only some of the most powerful and fastest against the clock in this class, but its fuel efficiency also beats many less-swift competitors as well. Remarkably, this is equally so for automatics as well as manuals – there’s often little difference in efficiency. The resultant low CO2 emissions mean the BMW is a tax-friendly choice, partly explaining its popularity in the fleet car sector.
A premium car with a quality finish, the 3 Series has the depth of engineering you’d expect of a BMW. Paint is smooth and deep, assembly is accurate and the feeling of substance on the move is clear even to passengers. The dashboard plastics are perhaps a little shinier than some may expect but that’s to take nothing away from the quality of them, or the 3 Series itself.
Pricing and equipment
Entry-level prices for the 316i are keen but we recommend you spend a bit extra on an SE or Sport rather than the base ES: these add the detail differences you expect in a 3 Series. Modern and Luxury trims are more expensive but very well finished, although our favourite is the M Sport grade. Do note, diesel engines are more expensive than petrol and there’s quite a price jump from the base 316d to the 318d most consider the bare minimum engine. Be careful with options prices too – they shoot up faster than you think.
Value for money
A BMW 3 Series is more expensive than a mainstream alternative – and it’s pricier than an Audi A4 too – but its exceptional blend of abilities mean that for many, it’s worth it. Excellent economy and low CO2 emissions offsets some of this price premium, and BMW’s excellent retained values means competitive leasing deals can still be had despite its premium prices.
There are two key rivals for the BMW 3 Series – the Audi A4 and Mercedes S-Class. Both continually up their game to try and match the 3 Series, although neither has quite matched it yet (the Mercedes is better than the Audi here). Mainstream cars such as the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Insignia aren’t considered rivals; more interesting alternatives such as the Ford S-Max are.
The BMW 3 Series is a class act whose popularity is easy to understand. Extremely competitive in all areas, BMW has also fixed the weaker areas of earlier versions to make it a great all-rounder that’s particularly strong in terms of driver appeal, performance and fuel efficiency. No wonder it sells so well.