The BMW 3-series is not so much a range of cars as a statement of intent. While an ever-increasing number of models may swirl around the peripheries of the marque, the 3-series has been BMW's rock-solid nucleus since 1975.
If a Martian fell to earth and asked what a BMW was, an introduction to a 320d would be all an alien species would need to understand the essence of the brand. Which is why BMW may feel free to play fast and loose with some of its more, eclectic, niche models, but never with the 3-series. It must simply be as good as it can possibly be.
Which is not to say BMW is unaware that, even within the bedrock, some flexibility can reside. On the contrary, when you have a commodity as universally respected and revered as the 3-series, you want to make sure that asset is exploited to the very limit.
Which is why, when the Three was first launched, there was only a two-door saloon; today, there is a saloon, estate and that curious construct the 3-series Gran Turismo hatchback. In the meantime, the long-serving coupé and convertibles have now been rebadged as the 4-series, but underneath it all it’s still the same car.
But amid all this brand manipulation, one key quality has come to characterise the 3-series, almost regardless of which model is under the microscope: class leadership.
While the Mercedes-Benz C-class or, less often, the Audi A4 may in one specific guise or another give the equivalent 3-series an unexpectedly good run for its money (on occasion it’s even been beaten), the general picture not just of recent times but of the past few decades is that the 3-series as a range has sat unchallenged and indomitable at the top of the pile.
Put another way, it has developed what can almost be described as a sense of entitlement to be thought of as the most coveted medium-sized car that mere mortals could ever hope to own.
But none of us must ever assume any car’s position at the top or bottom of the class. When it comes to assessing a new product, the past is irrelevant. The only question in need of an answer is how the 3-series stacks up as proposition today.