While the 3-series may be the nucleus of the BMW range, so too is the four-door saloon the central core of the 3-series, from which all the other models extend like spokes on a wheel.

In design terms, the F30 3-series is a better looking and more distinctive shape than its ultra-conservative E90 predecessor. It’s a large car, longer overall than a 5-series of 30 years ago and with a longer wheelbase than a 5-series of 20 years ago.

Nic Cackett

Road tester
Tick BMW’s option box for Comfort Access and you’ll get an automatically opening bootlid that’s triggered by waving your foot under the bumper

Overall length has grown by 93mm compared to the E90, with over half of that being between the wheels. Yet proportionally the track has swollen even more, to give the car an unprecedented footprint. However, by using higher-strength steels, BMW has been able to reduce the amount of metal used while improving safety, increasing rigidity by 10 per cent and dropping weight by a total of 40kg.

The changes in proportion don’t make the 3-series appear as enlarged as it is actually is. Instead, it seems lower, sleeker and more sporting. This effect is enhanced by the front grille, which is lower and wider than ever, and narrowed headlamps giving a more gimlet-eyed appearance. There’s a double swage line at the side and strong horizontal creases at the back, all tasked with tricking the eye into disguising the car’s physical bulk.

As for the range itself, even if you’re not after one of the many different body types and restrict your trawl to the saloon only, you’re going to need to set aside a lot of time with BMW’s configurator, paper and pen to work out which is best for you.

There are, for instance, six different trim grades, from a base ES for petrol and diesel 316 models, progressing up through SE, Sport, Modern, Luxury and M Sport. In addition there are Efficient Dynamics versions of both the 320i and 320d, four-wheel drive variants of most models from 320d/320i upwards and a bespoke Active Hybrid version.

Petrol engines start with a 316i, progress past 320i and 328i but only provide six cylinders at fire-breathing 335i level. If, like most people, it’s a diesel that you’re after, the four cylinder choice is a 316d, 318d or 320d, while six-pot fans can choose between a 325d and a 330d.

An eight-speed auto is available on most models, including those with four-wheel drive.

Top 5 Compact execs

  • BMW 3-series
    The 3-series remains strong in the areas it has always excelled but now it's more rounded than ever

    BMW 3-series

  • Mercedes-Benz C-class
    The C-class shares a lot of its looks with the new S-class, furthering its desirability

    Mercedes-Benz C-class

  • The Audi A4 saloon is bigger, roomier and more aerodynamic than its predecessor

    Audi A4

  • The CC offers a handsome alternative to the staid Passat

    Volkswagen CC

  • Volvo S60
    The Volvo S60 is offered with an impressive new D4 diesel engine

    Volvo S60


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