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Thought the 3 Series was losing its edge? Well it's back, with a facelifted version that offers improved performance and dynamics. Does it reclaim its top spot after our drive on UK roads?

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BMW 3 Series

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1 September 2015

What is it?

We all know what it’s like to feel pressure. But imagine the pressure you’d feel if you were a BMW engineer and your boss said: “Okay, next job on your list: improve the 3 Series.” Yikes.

Not only is it a massive seller for the Munich marque, accounting for 25% of all BMWs sold, but it’s also the benchmark small premium executive, and has been for the past 40 years.

Perhaps that’s why BMW didn't radically alter the looks of this facelifted version. The front air intakes have been enlarged and the headlights, which now include an LED option, have been changed. At the back, BMW’s signature L-shaped light design has been crystallised by new all-LED tail-lights. Cabin modifications are equally restrained, with the addition of gloss-black surfaces and some extra chrome highlights.

Of more interest, considering the challenges posed by the Jaguar XE and forthcoming new Audi A4, are the performance and economy gains achieved by this new modular 2.0-litre diesel engine, which uses Efficient Dynamics technology. Power and torque are up by 6bhp and 15lb ft respectively, while the all-important CO2 emissions are down to 111g/km and fuel economy has improved to 67.3mpg.

What's it like?

Those performance gains may be modest, but this was always a beefy diesel which is now even more meaty. Whatever the figures may say, in a real-world drag race the BMW will monster an equivalent Jaguar XE - especially with this superb eight-speed automatic gearbox, which knocks a tenth of a second off the zero to 62mph time of the manual version. Just keep 1500rpm showing on the tacho and you can rest easy that there’ll always be plenty of poke available.

We had hoped for some bigger improvements in refinement. It’s on a par with the XE's Ingenium diesel and better than the gruff-sounding Mercedes C220 Bluetech, but knowing how whisper-quiet this engine is in a 5 Series begs the question: why the background clatter here?

The 3 Series’ claim to being the best handling car in its class took a bit of a wobble when we drove the Jaguar XE. As a countermeasure, BMW has retuned the steering and stiffened the 3 Series’ suspension, which on this M Sport model, is even stiffer still and 10mm lower.

Our test car also had the optional adaptive dampers and 19in wheels, and while it’s always firm – even in the Comfort setting - it’s extremely well controlled. The body tracks the topography of a typical British B-road like a kestrel on the hunt: there’s hardly any rebound off crests, and it stays remarkably level through corners.

For such a stiffly sprung car, bump absorption is okay. It’ll take the edge off most lumps and bumps, but hit a vicious pothole and you will feel it. But if you prefer to tour in your car, rather than feel like you’re in a touring car, best go for SE trim and smaller wheels.

On a damp track, the 3 Series seemed a little grip limited – which could be down to the tyres - but still beautifully balanced. This is when you realise that banging on about 50/50 weight distribution is not only marketing spiel, but also smart engineering, too.

The revised steering is a bit of a mixed bag. This was the Servotronic set-up, which at speed lacks weight around the straight-ahead but throws in too much resistance thereafter, especially in Sport mode. However, stick with the standard rack (as opposed to the variable option) and that’s juxtaposed with excellent gearing that results in it feeling linear and accurate.

The optional M Sport brakes fitted to our car didn’t feel great, even though they do stop you well. The initial feel is okay, but start to lean on them and there’s a point where the pedal loses any progressive quality. 

As tends to be the case with big tyres, you get a lot of road noise at speed, although that said, a similarly shod XE is appreciably quieter. The old 3 Series’ issue of wind noise around the mirrors is still in evidence, too, but it’s the lesser of these two evils.

The small cabin upgrades feel greater than the sum of their parts. The gloss-black surfaces and additional chrome detailing enhance the premium feel; throw in the well-damped switchgear and functionality of the superb iDrive, and you’re left in little doubt that this is one of the better cabins in the class.

Otherwise it’s much the same as before. The driving position is good, apart from the slightly offset pedals and the lack of lumbar adjustment on the grippy M Sport seats. The cabin is also roomy enough to seat four adults easily, and the boot is the bigger than a that of a C-Class or an XE.

Should I buy one?

There was chat that the 3 Series was losing its sporting edge, but there’s no doubt that this M Sport version is plenty sporty enough. In fact, even though each change is individually small, they all add up to make this new 3 Series a demonstrably better all-round car.

Is it back to being the best small premium executive? Yes, but not by the huge margin it once enjoyed. The competition is just too good these days, and when the new Audi A4 breaks cover in a month or two, the pressure will be back on.

BMW 320d M Sport saloon

Location Bedfordshire; On sale Now; Price £32,085; Engine 4 cyls, 1995cc, diesel; Power 187bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1505kg; 0-60mph 7.3sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 67.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 111g/km, 20%

Join the debate

Comments
41

1 September 2015
It's not easy to offer a car that has to serve as 2-3 different cars. Sporty yet comfortable, high mpg yet powerful, quite and comfortable on long cross country drives. BMW manages to offer the best mix in this class. Biggest space in both cabin and boot, best engines, best engine/gearbox interaction for smooth power delivery. And more than enough sporty ride/handling.
Others may be better in one or two areas but BMW still offers the best cars in this class.

Dan

1 September 2015
bezor Ta wrote:

It's not easy to offer a car that has to serve as 2-3 different cars. Sporty yet comfortable, high mpg yet powerful, quite and comfortable on long cross country drives. BMW manages to offer the best mix in this class. Biggest space in both cabin and boot, best engines, best engine/gearbox interaction for smooth power delivery. And more than enough sporty ride/handling.
Others may be better in one or two areas but BMW still offers the best cars in this class.

That's amazing. You must have driven this face lifted version then and all its competitors to know all this then?


1 September 2015
No, I haven't driven this car or all of it's competitors but I've read and seen all comparison tests about BMW 3-series and it's main competitors. I know Cadillac ATS and the new Jaguar XE offer better ride/handling but falls short in all other areas that I've mentioned and been mentioned by all tests between these cars. Both Mercedes and Audi have also their strong and weak points but in total 3-series is class leading. Just watch all these tests from UK, US and Germany. There actually is a reason why 3-series is class leading. Have you driven all cars you comment about here or do you also use all these tests to have an informed opinion about them? As I do?

Dan

2 September 2015
bezor Ta wrote:

No, I haven't driven this car or all of it's competitors but I've read and seen all comparison tests about BMW 3-series and it's main competitors. I know Cadillac ATS and the new Jaguar XE offer better ride/handling but falls short in all other areas that I've mentioned and been mentioned by all tests between these cars. Both Mercedes and Audi have also their strong and weak points but in total 3-series is class leading. Just watch all these tests from UK, US and Germany. There actually is a reason why 3-series is class leading. Have you driven all cars you comment about here or do you also use all these tests to have an informed opinion about them? As I do?

I do t consider it to be an informed opinion unless I've tried it myself.


2 September 2015
Winston Churchill wrote:
bezor Ta wrote:

No, I haven't driven this car or all of it's competitors but I've read and seen all comparison tests about BMW 3-series and it's main competitors. I know Cadillac ATS and the new Jaguar XE offer better ride/handling but falls short in all other areas that I've mentioned and been mentioned by all tests between these cars. Both Mercedes and Audi have also their strong and weak points but in total 3-series is class leading. Just watch all these tests from UK, US and Germany. There actually is a reason why 3-series is class leading. Have you driven all cars you comment about here or do you also use all these tests to have an informed opinion about them? As I do?

I do t consider it to be an informed opinion unless I've tried it myself.

Is that why you no longer have anything at all relevant to say about the actual content being being discussed so you'd rather stoop to cowardly attacks on everyone else?? When was the last time you actually posted anything that was about the subject matter reported?? If you object so much to people commenting on an open discussion forum why bother being here at all? You add absolutely nothing, your not even funny anymore and was once your only redeeming feature. I await your pathetic attempt at a come back

1 September 2015
Winston Churchill wrote:

That's amazing. You must have driven this face lifted version then and all its competitors to know all this then?

ref: picture of Churchill, I imagine this is how you greet yourself in the mirror every morning, such self loathing is pitiful but entirely understandable.

2 September 2015
geed wrote:
Winston Churchill wrote:

That's amazing. You must have driven this face lifted version then and all its competitors to know all this then?

ref: picture of Churchill, I imagine this is how you greet yourself in the mirror every morning, such self loathing is pitiful but entirely understandable.

Yes, I'm sure you understand this and virginity quite well.


1 September 2015
Do you work for BMW? How about the awful run-flat tyres and lack of a spare wheel? The reason why the engine is not as quiet as in the the 5 series is the same as to why the Merc 2.1 is quieter in the E-Class as against the A-Class and its derivatives. Namely, poorer insulation.

1 September 2015
I just read and see all tests between these cars to have an informed opinion about them and all tests show that 3-series still offers best mix and why it's still class leading. But I think you have old information as run-flat was a problem that was fixed some time ago. Most cars on the market have no spare wheel and come with repair kit while a few others offer a spare wheel as an extra option.

Dan

2 September 2015
I'm well aware that many manufacturers don't provide spare wheels or only supply saver spares as an option. Indeed, I've test driving a number of cars recently as I'm in the process of changing my current car. For me having no spare is a deal breaker. As for run flats, did you know that Mercedes is stopping using them on new C-Class AMG vehicles? Wonder why that might - probably because the ride is absolutely awful. I'd have bought another Merc but the only one I could find with a saver spare was an E-Class petrol model. I've bought an Audi where a saver spare was standard.

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