Ultimately for the BMW buyer, this is what it is all about and why they keep coming back, drawn like moths to a flame. For decades, BMW has prided itself on extracting more performance from its engines while providing lower fuel consumption than its rivals. With the modern 3-series, this trend is not simply maintained, but augmented.

To go into the individual performance characteristics of each engine option would take more space than we have, but just taking the key model – the mid-range 320d diesel – provides an example that, with a few variances here and there, is broadly representative of the range as a whole.

Steve Sutcliffe

Editor-at-large
Distinguishing performance has always been fundamental to the success of the overtly sporting 3-series

A standard, manual, two-wheel drive 320d hits 62mph from rest in 7.5sec and carries on to a top speed of 146mph.

The equivalent Audi needs 8.4sec and hits 140mph, while the C220CDI Mercedes also requires 8.4sec, although its top speed is 144mph. But in terms of what matters – the feeling you get when you put your foot down – the BMW is in a league of its own. Four-wheel drive versions are the merest fraction slower.

But there’s always more to a BMW than bald performance. The diesels are the smoothest, quietest powerplants in the class, while the six-cylinder petrol 335i motor is precisely the snarling, howling beast you’d hope for. It’s actually a twin-turbo unit, but so readily does it respond to your right foot that you’re rarely, if ever, aware of it.

Only the four-cylinder petrol engines fail to convince. Yes, they’re quiet enough and, in the case of the 243bhp 328i, deliver convincing performance, but it's never enough to make you wonder why on earth you’d not find the extra to buy the diesel. With advantages everywhere from range to resale via reduced fuel costs and low-down torque, the diesels are just better choices for all bar the genuinely low-mileage user.

And whichever 3-series you buy, you can be confident that it will come with either a first-class six-speed manual gearbox with expertly chosen ratios and a deftly judged clutch, or an eight-speed XF automatic transmission, widely regarded around the world, and, indeed, by us, as the best conventional auto on the market.

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

    1
  • 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

    2
  • The Audi A4 saloon is bigger, roomier and more aerodynamic than its predecessor

    Audi A4

    3
  • The CC offers a handsome alternative to the staid Passat

    Volkswagen CC

    4
  • Volvo S60
    The Volvo S60 is offered with an impressive new D4 diesel engine

    Volvo S60

    5

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • First Drive
    21 May 2015
    The DS 5 is hard to pigeonhole but it works as a package. Impressive French-style long-range cruiser, albeit at strong money for an unproven brand
  • Car review
    21 May 2015
    The industry's biggest power makes a plug-in hybrid for the masses
  • First Drive
    21 May 2015
    The 4C improves, and the Spider is a good conversion, but it remains dynamically troubled and absurdly expensive
  • First Drive
    21 May 2015
    More traction and nothing separating Jag's monstrous V8 mouthpiece from your ears. It's the shoutiest, priciest F-Type on sale, but is it the best?
  • First Drive
    20 May 2015
    The C63 may have lost its big V8, but its replacement makes it difficult to mourn