Even BMW probably didn’t anticipate just how radically the 3 Series would change its fortunes.
In the 44 years since the original ‘E21’ replaced the dainty 02 Series, more than 15 million Threes have been sold across seven model generations. Even in a global market increasingly populated by SUVs and crossovers, only the larger BMW 5 Series accounted for more of BMW’s sales in 2018 – and by a mere 0.8% at that. Since its 1975 introduction, the 3 Series has not only become the Munich-based manufacturer’s meat and potatoes but also the benchmark by which all other contenders in the compact executive class are measured in so many ways.
Such immense, genre-defining success inevitably means the weight of expectation lays heavy on the new generation’s shoulders. Not only does this 3 Series have to be demonstrably better than its rivals, there must also be a qualitative dynamic improvement over the standards of its immediate predecessor – considered ‘soft’ by a great many BMW devotees.
This new ‘G20’ model certainly has its work cut out, then: when this magazine road tested the ‘F30’ 3 Series back in 2012, the result was a full five-star rating. It goes without saying that we don’t award such endorsements casually, but it was the F30’s class-leading blend of economy and performance, impressive handling and stylish, practical interior that saw it earn its stripes.
So, does this new G20 model better its rivals in quite the same fashion? Our £36,515 320d M Sport’s rivals have never been more competitive. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is sharper to drive and more luxurious than it’s ever been; and a recently refreshed Jaguar XE has staked its claim to the title of standout driver’s car within the segment, after the Alfa Romeo Giulia shook things up a few years ago.