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The BMW 3 Series' outstanding performance and handling makes it a complete and consummate all-rounder - but then the Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Guilia arrived

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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.

The world’s top-selling premium-brand car now targets sporting sophistication

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 curiously shaped 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.

The current ‘F30’ generation continued Munich’s best traditions of outstanding performance and rear-drive handling. It also went straight to the top of our road test class rankings – where it stayed until very recently. But with an increasingly popular Mercedes-Benz C-Class, an all-new Audi A4, the vivacious Jaguar XE and the return of Alfa Romeo in the shape of the Guilia, the 3 Series needs to move forward just to stand still at the moment.

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In fact, standing still may not even be a guarantee of success. Thanks to the introduction of the 4 Series line and the demise of the 3 Series Coupé and Convertible, BMW’s wider 3 Series brand has undoubtedly lost a bit of its old lustre and quietly dropped out of the UK’s top 10 biggest-selling cars.

Which may partly explain the lengths to which BMW has gone with this unusually far-reaching mid-cycle update - there’s clearly a consolidation job to be done. And this is not just the usual headlights-and-bumpers revision – although new optional LED headlights and reshaped bumpers front and rear are included in it.

New turbocharged petrol and diesel engines come in under the bonnet, coupled to an updated optional eight-speed automatic gearbox, while extensive changes have been made to the 3 Series’ suspension, cabin and equipment. The first part of 2017 also saw BMW give the 3 Series a minor refresh, with the latest version of its superb iDrive infotainment system being fitted.

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.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 3 Series rear

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 the 161bhp 320d Efficient Dynamics; the former now cracking 0-62mph in 7.2sec when paired with the eight-speed auto 'box.

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

The automatic-only 330d churns out 255bhp and a hefty 413lb ft of torque, while the flagship 308bhp 335d sprints from 0-62mph in 4.8sec and offers combined fuel economy of 51.4mpg. 

There’s also a plug-in hybrid version – the 330e iPerformance, which combines a electric motor to a 2.0-litre petrol engine which produces 249bhp and 310lb ft of peak twist combined with CO2 emissions of just 44g/km.

INTERIOR

BMW 3 Series interior

You’d not be wrong to call it like a BMW, only more so. As ever, BMW has avoided the temptation to go for a luxury feel in either classical vogue like a Mercedes or of a more modern bent, like an Audi.

Instead, the interior design concentrates on proliferating the sense BMW would like you to have that all its cars are strong of limb, clean cut and functional to the last. So what we have here is a pared-back, simple approach to cabin design, long on ergonomic efficiency, and short on gimmicks and trivial surprise and delight features.

The red stripe emblazoned across the dashboard of our Sport-spec test car is likely to be a polariser

The driving position is impeccable and offers a vast range of seat and wheel adjustments. The central display now offers a 6.5in colour screen, on which all functions operated by the now world-class iDrive control system are displayed.

Even first-time users will find the system easy to operate, while those familiar with iDrive's ways will find it so intuitive that it can be used almost without conscious effort or thought as to which button to press or direction in which to push the controller wheel. The 2017 iDrive update saw a slick new interface added to the infotainment system and a numerous new online connectivity options, including the ability to stream music directly from Napster, Amazon Music, Deezer and Spotify, alongside numerous BMW tools to make you life easier.

All the extra space between the wheels has been dedicated to providing those in the back with some much-needed extra room. The front seat package has therefore hardly changed at all, while long journeys in the back are now if not exactly to be savoured, then certainly no longer to dreaded by anyone up to and including averaged-size adults.

The awkwardness comes when deciding which trim suits your needs best, with five trim levels and a host of optional extras it is quite easy to get carried away with the multitude of configuration options. There are six levels on offer: SE, Efficient Dynamics Plus, Sport, M Sport, M340i and M Sport Shadow Edition.

As standard, SE trim gets 17in alloy wheels, dual-zone air-con, DAB radio, Bluetooth, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers and sat-nav. Sport grade adds numerous sporty touches, including lots of red trim, gloss black exterior trim and sports seats.

M Sport models are fitted with unique 18in alloys, M Sport suspension, a more aggressive bodykit and M Sport seats, alongside added luxuries such as a Dakota leather upholstery, LED head and foglights, a rear armrest with built in cupholders as standard. While those who crave a six-cylinder engine in their lives can opt for the M340i M Sport which gains a twin chrome exhaust system, an eight speed automatic transmission complete with predictive gearshifts based on sat nav data, and a metallic paint job. The M Sport Shadow Edition trim adds 19in grey alloy wheels, tinted brake and headlights, dark chrome exhaust pipes, high-beam assistance, a Harman Kardon stereo system and an M Sport braking system to the 3 Series.

The Efficient Dynamic trims get more luxuries than SE spec with a focus on improving economy. The Plus and Sport models gain heated front seats, leather trim and low rolling-resistance tyres. Completing the standard 3 Series range is the 330e iPerformance, which gets all the equipment found on 320i models plus all the charging cables, BMW's eDrive Services, front and rear parking sensors, and numerous specfic hybrid touches such as blue interior lighting and badging.

Topping the range is the muscular BMW M3, which is split in two trims - standard M3 affair and Competition Pack attire. Standard M3s get 19in alloy wheels, an active differential, adaptive suspension, a carbonfibre reinforced roof, a rear spoiler, LED head and rear lights, parking sensors, auto headlights and wipers, and a wireless charging cradle. While the Competition Pack models gain 20in alloys, competition focussed springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, a sports exhaust, a improved audio system and 18bhp power increase too.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 320d side profile

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.

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 C 220 CDI 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 M340i motor isn't quite 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 330i, 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 ZF automatic transmission, widely regarded around the world, and, indeed, by us, as the best conventional auto on the market.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 3 Series cornering

For as far back as any of us care to remember, the BMW 3 Series has always been the one that enthusiasts could rely on to provide first-class ride quality served up with stellar handling characteristics. Indeed, if anyone were to opine that ride and handling were diametrically opposed objectives, you could do a lot worse than give them a few hours in a 3 Series to set them right.

Now, the void between the BMW and everything else in the class is, if anything, wider than ever, although at first it may not seem that way.

For diehard critics of runflat tyres, there’s one version of the car that does without them - the 320d Efficient Dynamics

Drive one back to back with a Mercedes Mercedes-Benz C-Class and you might conclude that the Benz steered just as sweetly as the BMW and offered equal poise over changing surfaces. The real differences only emerge when you up the rate of effort from a casual amble to a serious drive.

Then, the ease with which the BMW makes even its finest opponents look slack and slow-witted is something close to startling. At the point where you’d expect any family car designed as much for comfort as speed to start exhibiting the limitations of that design, the 3 Series is just getting into its stride.

Its body control and the accuracy with which steering inputs are translated onto the road would shame many an out-and-out sports car, let alone other family holdalls. And, it should be said now, you do not need the sports suspension option to enjoy these benefits.

Indeed, if it's ride quality that matters, you should stay on the standard springs. They let the car breathe with the road and, unless you’re at track speed, they have no ill effect on the handling. In such guise you’ll drive not only the best-handling car in the class, but the best-riding one, too. At times its ability to soak up long wave undulations at speed give the impression that the car is air sprung.

Four-wheel drive versions should only be looked at by those with a genuine need for one, rather than an ill-defined sense that it might somehow be better. There are no stability issues for the standard car in all weather conditions, save those in which you’d be better off not driving any car at all.

If you live somewhere inaccessible and prone to being cut off, it may make sense, but bear in mind not only the extra outlay, but also the additional running costs.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 3 Series

It is usual to find a massive disparity between what a car manufacturer says a car’s fuel consumption will be and what it actually is, and not just because we tend to drive cars harder than most.

With the 3 Series, however, BMW’s claims turn out to be more honest than most. Once more taking the 320d as our example, BMW says it will do 61.4mpg; our own tests driving the car in a gentle but hardly saintly style yielded 56.8mpg.

The BMW 320d offers such impressive performance coupled to great fuel economy

More to the point, perhaps, equivalent testing of other cars has shown a marked reluctance to better 50mpg, giving the BMW not only a longer range but dramatically lower long-term running costs.

 

VERDICT

BMW 3 Series rear

You might open your eyes a little wider at the sight of the full five stars here, but any fewer would be a perverse choice. Across the board from a 316 SE to It is not to say that the BMW 3 Series has turned into an awful car, in fact it is far from it, with its abilities still revered throughout the world. The difference between its launch in 2012 and the cars entering 2018 is that there is new young competition in the shape of the Jaguar XE and the Alfa Romeo Guilia, and BMW will to up the ante if it plans on putting these newcomers back in their place.

 

The 320d is in a league of its own on performance, economy and driving dynamics

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW 3 Series 2014-2018 First drives