BMW 3 Series Saloon Review
The benchmark - that’s what the BMW 3 Series represents. The car to which all others in the segment aspires to. And while there have been many pretenders to the throne, the 3 Series remains king of the executive saloons.
The 3 Series celebrated its 45th anniversary this year and for a car so long in the tooth you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking it’s a vehicle that might have lost some of its allure. Yet, almost five decades on, the 3 Series remains the pacesetter in the class. It’s a car that’s aspirational, yet also attainable, a car so accomplished it still dominates the more expensive offerings in the BMW line-up.
So no surprise, then, that it’s BMW’s best-selling vehicle and a model that epitomises the entire firm’s ethos: attention to detail, solid dependability, a no-nonsense yet quality feel to the interior and - most importantly - boundless degrees of drivability. The 3 Series has real motorsport pedigree, too, which has been translated to the modern driving dynamics owners enjoy today.
The original E21 3 Series, released way back in July 1975, shined in numerous track competitions, and became a watch word for chassis dynamism and precision steering.
And then there’s the way the 3 Series looks. BMW describes the 3 Series’ silhouette as ‘unmistakable’ - and you can’t argue with that.
While there’s been no reinventing of wheels, the 3 Series has continued to evolve while somehow still remaining true to the original vision, with modern cars boasting all the sculptured contours and flowing lines you’ve come to expect.
It’s also telling that a BMW survey of 3 Series owners also found that 80% struggled to think of anything that could be done to improve the car. And that’s praise indeed.
Select's rating score* - 4.6 / 5
The 3 Series - now in its seventh generation - enjoyed a hefty facelift at the start of 2019, where its proportions were revised to give it a wider track, longer wheelbase, as well as reduced weight and drag. Styling tweaks focused on ‘clean, precise lines to emphasise superior driving dynamics’, according to BMW, and a new range of standard options for the instrument panel and centre console were added.
Most importantly, however, was the introduction of the BMW 330e plug-in hybrid. The 330e was available in ‘M Sport’ trim, and combined a TwinPower Turbo 4-cylinder petrol engine with an electric motor, which equated to a combined 252hp and a 0-62mph speed of just six seconds.
As you can imagine, the 330e proved a popular beast - so popular, in fact, that BMW has currently suspended sales as it simply can’t match supply to the overwhelming demand.
The 330e went on to win the “Hybrid Executive Car of the Year” at the What Car? Electric Car Awards in August of this year. Yet if you aren’t one of the lucky 330e owners there are still plenty of other options.
And it’s important to note that many of the different engines feature 48V mild-hybrid technology, using energy generated while braking in order to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy.
There are, essentially, four iterations of the 3 Series, and each version is available as either a petrol or diesel.
The bottom rung of the line-up is the ‘SE’, which comes as standard with 17 inch alloys, adaptive LED headlights, ambient lighting in the interior, Parking Assistant and reversing camera, automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, as well as BMW’s ‘Live Cockpit Plus’ infotainment system, which itself features 8.8" display with touch function.
Moving up you have the ‘Sport’, priced from £32,510. It improves on the SE with the addition of 18 inch alloys, styling tweaks to the front and rear bumped as well as the roof mouldings, heated leather sports seats and a larger 59 litre fuel tank.
Next you have the ‘M Sport’ and ‘M Sport Pro Edition’, with prices starting at £36,200. With the M Sport you get new aerodynamic body styling as well as the all-important M badging, ‘M’ leather steering wheel, upgraded sport seats, M Sport suspension and braking, as well as a larger 12.3" Digital Instrument Display and 10.25" Control Display with Touch Function.
M Sport Pro Edition trim improves the experience further. Here owners will enjoy 19 inch alloys, unique ‘Edition’ paint job, M seatbelts, sun protection glass, anthracite headlining, Adaptive M suspension and the M sport differential when you opt for the all-wheel-drive ‘xDrive’.
Meanwhile the range-topping M Models, priced from £49,845, include an M spoiler, styling flourishes to the grille, air intakes and mirror caps, square cut double exhaust pipes, sport automatic transmission, as well as BMW’s advanced ‘Loudspeaker’ audio and communications system.
Another big selling point of the 3 Series is its versatility. That means a spacious, roomy interior and a large 480 litre boot - which is level pegging with its nearest rival, the Audi A4.
Whether you want blistering pace or a more sedate ride, there’s something to suit all tastes in the 3 Series range. Here we take a look at the choice of engines, starting with the petrol versions. Unfortunately, though, none of the petrol mills feature mild-hybrid tech.
The petrols start with the entry-level 318i, producing 156hp and with an acceleration time of 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds.
The 320i ups the stakes a little, the 0-62mph time lowers a little to 7.1 secs in the rear-wheel drive version and 7.6 secs in xDrive form.
In the 330i, power increases to 258hp while torque ratchets-up to 400Nm of torque. The 0-62mph sprint comes down to 5.6 secs - and the 330i will keep accelerating until it hits an electronically limited 155mph. The pick of the petrol, the 340i is powered by a 3.0 litre turbocharged straight-six engine with 374 hp to play with. As you can imagine, this engine is exclusively allocated to the M Model.
Four diesels are available on the 3 Series. The base diesel, the 318d, produces slightly less power than its petrol equivalent, with 150hp, but boasts the same 0-62mph time of 8.4 seconds. You can also opt for mild-hybrid tech, which reduces that time to 8.3 seconds.
The 320d again features mild-hybrid tech, and boasts 190hp and a 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds, courtesy of a 2.0 litre turbo diesel engine, in rear-wheel drive form, or 6.9 seconds in xDrive guise.
Topping the diesel array is the 340d, launched earlier this year. In short, it’s one of the quickest diesels you can buy, with 340hp and a 0-62mph time of just 4.8 seconds. That’s quicker than an Audi S4. And, again, the 340d is only available in the M Model.
As mentioned previously, you’ll be very lucky to get your mitts on the plug-in hybrid 3 Series, the lavishly praised 330e, with links now removed from the BMW website. Those who do have one in the garage enjoy 292hp, a 0-62mph time of 5.8 seconds, and fuel economy up to 217 miles to the gallon
The introduction of mild-hybrid wizardry to many of the engines means the 3 Series has never been more economical and affordable to own. Heck, you’ll still get around 34 miles to the gallon with the snarling, ferocious M340i - even more in the M340d.
Costs on the road aren't likely to cause much of a headache, with the trusty 320d diesel serving up the most impressive figures north of 60mpg. The petrol counterpart, the 320i, will do you around 44mpg and produces upto 164g/km of CO2. The best running costs outside of the standard petrol and diesel fare are, unsurprisingly, found on the the 330e model which offers somewhere in the region of 215mpg on a standard SE model and produces similarly impressive CO2 figures in the region of 30g/km.
The BMW 3 Series’ interior might not be the most flashy, but it is brimming with state of the art tech. And the understated styling is almost reassuring in its conservative nature.
BMW says the interior is ‘designed to accentuate the spaciousness of the cabin and the driver- focused cockpit’ while the instrument panel has a’ modern, light look with horizontal lines, high- quality electroplated trim strips and contours that extend into the doors.
The most recent update also saw subtle changes to the layout of the cabin, with a newly-designed instrument cluster and Control Display forming a large surface screen grouping. The range of standard and optional interior trim elements available for the instrument panel and centre console were also improved with the recent facelift. You can now opt for open-pore fine wood options, as well as a variety of aluminium trims, including a new Aluminium “mesh effect” interior.
The cloth or leather interior options are numerous - from black ‘Vernasca’ leather with striking orange stitching to suede brown Merino leather, and even a two-tone red and black leather offering.
There’s also a range of extra ‘packages’ to improve the interior, too. With the ‘Premium’ package you get an electric sunroof, better lumbar support on the chairs, as well as better seat adjustment and seat memory.
A ‘Technology’ package includes enhanced Bluetooth with wireless charging, a head-up display, BMW’s innovative ‘Gesture Control’ - which allow drivers to use simple hand gestures to perform various actions in the vehicle, such as turning the volume up or down or accepting a call - as well as a harman/kardon Loudspeaker system.
The ‘Comfort’ package features automatic tailgate operation, smart mobile phone door opening function, extended storage and a heated steering wheel.
And there’s a good chance you’ll be happy with the standard kit. Even base models boast BMW’s Live Cockpit Plus, which comprises a 8.8" Touch Display, sat-nav, BMW’s ‘Intelligent Personal Assistant2’, remote software upgrades, and BMW’s iDrive controller with Touch Function.
Meanwhile you can also access BMW’s online services as standard, which supports Apple Car Play and Android Auto
When the 3 Series was most recently updated, BMW made a point of talking about how the car had grown to more practical proportions.
It is now 4,709mm long, 1,827mm wide. The A4 is fractionally longer and wider, but not be any significant degree. The firm increased shoulder room in the front of the cabin, while passengers in the rear also now benefit from more legroom. The distance between the front and rear seats has been extended by 11 millimetres, and all occupants have more headroom.
Getting in and out of the car is also now easier than ever before for the rear passengers, because the door aperture height has been increased. The rear is now so roomy it’ll accommodate a row of three child seats, two of which can be locked into place using ISOFIX anchor points. And standard 40:20:40 split-folding backrests on the rear seats give maximum flexibility.
Boot capacity is 480 litres - and a new partitioning into primary luggage compartment and separate storage compartments has created an additional 36 litres of space. That again measures up well against rivals - with the Audi A4 having an almost identically sized boot, the C Class falling short with a 455-litre capacity.
Meanwhile an automatic tailgate and electrically retractable towbar are optional extras.
The 3 Series has gained the full five stars in the NCAP ratings. And perhaps more interesting to note is the fact the 3 Series also scooped the ‘Safest Car of the Year’ prize at the What Car Awards earlier this year, fending off competition from the Mercedes CLA and Telsa Model 3.
It gained some of the highest scores ever seen in Euro NCAP impact testing and was also praised for its automatic emergency braking (AEB) system, which can detect other vehicles along with pedestrians and cyclists. All 3 Series arrive, as standard, with what it calls ‘Active Guard Plus’, which comprises front collision warning with brake intervention, Lane Departure warning and Speed Limit Assist.
Meanwhile there’s a host of optional extras, including parking assistant tech. The ‘Driving Assistant Professional’ package - an extra costing £1,250 - includes active cruise control with approach control, active lane guidance, automatic speed limit Assist, crossing traffic warning, front crossroads warning and city braking function, evasion aid, lane keeping assistant with active side collision protection, steering and lane control assistant, and wrong-way warning
While the 3 Series is ubiquitous on UK roads, there’s a good choice of colours across the range, which should keep you marked out from the Jones’ down the street. There’s a choice of 13 metallic colours, a mix of blues, blacks, silver, red, orange, grey and white. And there’s just one non-metallic colour - Alpine White. Meanwhile the ‘Metallic Portimao Blue’ is reserved exclusively for M Sport and M340i/d xDrive models.
There’s an attractive, if limited, choice of alloy wheels, with just one 17 inch option, three different 18 inch rims, and four to choose from in the 19 inch catalogue - including the eye-catching jet black double spoke efforts.
If you want the swankiest 20 inch wheels, you can choose from two different M Performance rims.
As the market segment pacesetter, the 3 Series has a lot of work to do to stay ahead of the chasing pack. And the number of suitors has increased in recent years.
Take the Kia Stinger, for example, which starts at £32,925 and can be enjoyed in hot ‘GT S’ form, with a sizable 361 bhp on tap. Or if you’re looking for some quirkier alternatives still, you might even opt for the stylish Alfa Romeo Giulia, starting at £34,995, or the more expensive Volvo S60, with prices there starting at £39,160.
If more excitement is your thing, then the £33,330 Jaguar XE might represent a car more likely to stir the soul, coming with a 300 PS turbocharged petrol engine in top-spec R Dynamic mode.
However, when we’re talking main rivals, you can look no further than the Audi A4 and the Mercedes C Class. The C Class is a slightly more expensive option, costing from £35,845 in SE diesel trim, before going all the way up to the £75,000, 503 bhp Mercedes-AMG C63. And, like the BMW, there’s a good range of petrol and diesel engines - as well as interiors and tech - with the C Class.
Meanwhile the 3 Series and the A4 are such close rivals you’d struggle to get a cigarette paper between them. The starting price is identical - £31,110 - and as Audi points out, the A4 is a ‘classic all-rounder with style’, just like the 3 Series. In base A4 ‘Saloon’ form there’s a choice of five trims, which work their way up from ‘Technik’ to ‘Vorsprung’. The A4’s base petrol engine, the ‘35 TFSI’, also boasts an almost identical 150 PS power output to the BMW 318i.
The Audi does, however, have a couple of trump cards. Not only is the sporty ‘S4’ and ‘S4 Avant’ part of the A4 canon, so is the much-lusted-after and recently revived RS4 Avant, which costs a hefty £83,445 and boasts 450 PS of power.
The 3 Series is, then, an award-winning, ever-evolving colossus of a car, one that’s dominated the segment for decades and which shows no sign of letting up. But it’s not without its competitors - and the list of rivals seems to grow each year.
If we had to narrow it down, we’d say the A4 represents the 3 Series’ biggest threat, as the two heavyweights continue to trade blows in the market without ever giving each other a bloodied nose. And the choice between the two is perhaps not about what they offer in terms of practicalities, spec or power outputs, it arguably boils down to personal preference between the two brand names instead.
With the BMW, you’re buying into a 45 year pedigree. With the A4, you’re plumping for a car that’s only been around since the mid-Nineties. What will be interesting to watch from hereon in is how BMW responds to the overwhelming popularity of the 330e.
And the sooner they get that back on UK forecourts, the better.
Lease price: from £293.29**
*Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top six leading independent car website reviews of the Focus.
**Correct as of 17/09/2020. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £2,639.63 . Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.