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Best-selling 3 Series of all time gets restrained update. Is it enough to keep it at the top of the class?

You’re looking at the most successful BMW 3 Series of all time. The G20 has been on sale since 2019, and in that period it has sold 1.1 million units globally – more than any other 3 Series in the same time, despite all the global crises to contend with. It also achieved the full five stars in the Autocar road test. Impressive stuff.

So, with all of that success, you can see why BMW has opted for an understated mid-life refresh. If it ain’t broke, and all of that… Key differences include a freshened front with completely redesigned, slimmer headlights and a tweaked kidney grille that gets a new ‘double bar’ design but – thankfully – isn’t any bigger.

M Sport models also get new air vents at the extreme corners of the front to emphasise the width and, according to BMW, evoke something of the brand’s classic shark nose. Oddly, though, foglights have now been removed, optionally or otherwise.

The trim options have been simplified and equipment levels upped, so it’s now just Sport or M Sport and even the entry-level car has tri-zone climate control, heated leather sports seats and a full gamut of new, curved-screen infotainment goodness. Keyless entry, wireless phone charging, electric seat adjustment, adjustable lumbar support and adaptive dampers (available on M Sport only) remain some of the options that are likely to tempt a lot of buyers into the inevitable optional kit packages.

Even so, the 3 Series is competitively equipped by the standards of its peers, including the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class. The big changes have been made inside, where a single curved screen features a 12.3in digital instrument readout and a 14.9in touchscreen, with BMW’s latest Operating System 8 software (already seen in the iX). That means fewer buttons for a sleeker dashboard, the minimalist look further complimented by a new gear stick that has morphed and shrunken into more of a gear flick.

And yes, the climate controls are now on the touchscreen. Boo. For what it’s worth, the temperature controls are permanently fixed and visible at the bottom of the display and aren’t difficult to prod while you’re driving. We also credit BMW’s voicecontrol system with being one of the best out there. It’s not infallible, but it responded correctly whenever we asked it to change the temperature.

Bmw 3 series 05 front tracking

In better news for button advocates, there’s still a simple volume dial, not to mention BMW’s familiar iDrive rotary controller for the infotainment and shortcut switches, which remain a very welcome feature in every 3 Series. The touchscreen itself responds quickly, the icons are mostly big enough to hit accurately and the graphics are second to none. Over-the-air software updates, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and an excellent native sat-nav system should keep everyone happy.

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Overall, the interior is the biggest upgrade. The frameless, curved screen really does also add a very classy touch to a set-up that remains one of the best in the class, thanks to excellent layout, ergonomics, perceived quality and materials. Nothing has changed in terms of packaging and space for this facelift, so you can get two adults in the back comfortably and the 480-litre boot will be fine for family use if you’re not fussed about a hatch opening.

The 3 Series remains much the same mechanically, too. The diesel options are now down to the 320d (with rear or four-wheel-drive) and the M340d with its lovely 3.0-litre straight six. The 330d is no longer, which is a great shame in our books.

The petrols run from the four-cylinder 320i and 330i up to the plug-in hybrid BMW 330e, which uses the same 2.0-litre four-pot plus an electric motor and a 12kWh battery to deliver an electriconly range of up to 39 miles. All variants get ZF’s Steptronic eight-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox. There’s no manual option.

Bmw 3 series 06 dashboard

Prices start at just under £38,000 for the 320i and up to more than £54,000 for the range-topping M340i xDrive that we’re testing. That means 369bhp and 369lb ft from the peachy turbo six delivering a 0-62mph sprint of 4.4sec. For a bit of yardstickery, that’s compared with 336bhp and 4.6sec for the (diesel) Audi S4 or 444bhp and 3.2sec in the (electric) Tesla Model 3 Performance.

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More important than the numbers game is that the M340i, while clearly a way short of the full frothing lunatic that is the M3, looks to be a proper M car in the ways that matter. Over and above standard 3 Series variants, it gets M-specific tuning for all of the important bits, including the suspension and its adaptive dampers, the rear-mounted electronic differential lock, the gearbox software and the launch control. The xDrive four-wheel drive system also gets more of a rearward bias, so on paper there’s some proper M magic to look forward to.

And of course it doesn’t disappoint. Our test route around Regensburg took in a variety of rapid autobahn sections through to small villages and flowing rural roads, which did a brilliant job of showing the breadth of talents that this car has.

This is really where the 3 Series has always excelled, almost regardless of which variant you pick. The 320d Tourer estate that we also spent time in was also as ruthlessly brilliant as ever. Yet arguably the M340i saloon is the best of them at balancing superb touring sophistication with proper enthusiast’s handling.

Even in standard Personal mode (‘Normal’ was clearly deemed far too self-explanatory), the car feels taut and responsive. The steering is light but tactile enough to feel reasonably engaging and communicative, even on faster bits, and it’s only in properly spirited driving that the heavier response in Sport mode becomes a little more confidence-inspiring.

There’s a delightful cheekiness to the set-up of the xDrive system. It gives you a safe yet fun little squirm of oversteer if you accelerate hard out of a tight corner, but it generally does an excellent job of delivering unflappable security without compromising the fluid, alert cornering style that has always set the 3 Series apart.

Bmw 3 series 21 back static

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The Steptronic gearbox also wakes up a bit in Sport mode, but paddling your way manually through the ratios is always more fun and gives you more control. It does hold the gear, too, even if you reach the limiter. Sport Plus mode ups the ante further with looser traction control and more enthusiastic booming and banging from the exhausts.

Such is the smooth, lengthy mid-range of the straight six that you really don’t need to wring its neck to have the best from it. It really is a supremely lovely engine, whether you’re using everything it’s got or just mooching around and enjoying the understated purr and effortless responses.

Even with some spectacular four-cylinder and battery-electric options out there, the M340i is a reminder that the six-cylinder engine is still king if you really want the finest executive-to-enthusiast transport. And when you calm down and just want to drive home, the M340i reverts to being a seriously refined commuter. The engine noise dies down, the gearbox blurs its shifts perfectly and you can just relax.

It’s also surprisingly comfortable, given that we found the M340i a bit stiff when we drove it previously. The M340i comes on adaptive M Sport suspension a standard, but it might well be the 19in Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres of our test car that are the real trick to improved ride comfort.

On the evidence of admittedly well kept German roads, it soothed over coarse surfaces and sunken drain covers with little fuss or bother. Only a bit of overly taut, bobbing vertical damper movement over some scruffy town roads let it down a touch.

Overall, then, the 3 Series remains as ruthlessly brilliant as ever. We would have given the M340i the full five stars were it not for previously documented qualms over ride comfort in the UK that we can’t yet confirm either way. The full 3 Series range remains a five-star job, no doubt. It’s now a bit sleeker and a bit techier but ultimately unchanged; the same but better.

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clatteruncertain 15 January 2024

 My Jaguar had all the defects during the warranty period and when the warranty ended they got worse.

evedevilish 28 June 2023

I'm guessing you ditched the product before the warranty expired. BMWs, and perhaps all German luxury brands

Bimfan 22 September 2022

Very strange all this 'unreliable BMW' talk. It's almost taken on a life of its own now. Must be true if you repeat it often enough I suppose.

I have had six BMW's since 1998 and seven Jaguars. Every Jaguar had faults during the warranty period and when they were out of warranty they were even worse. If ever a car needed an extended warranty it was them. The BMW's, not one fault with any of them. So you keep reading your reliability surveys and I will continue buying well built fault free BMW's.

As far as the facelift 3-series goes it's hard to better the G20/21 current models in my view and a bit of a cabin and bumper refresh doesn't cover the crazy hike in prices. It's still a great car to cover miles in relaxed luxury or deploy it's playful side when you are in the mood to drive. 

Peter Cavellini 22 September 2022
Bimfan wrote:

Very strange all this 'unreliable BMW' talk. It's almost taken on a life of its own now. Must be true if you repeat it often enough I suppose.

I have had six BMW's since 1998 and seven Jaguars. Every Jaguar had faults during the warranty period and when they were out of warranty they were even worse. If ever a car needed an extended warranty it was them. The BMW's, not one fault with any of them. So you keep reading your reliability surveys and I will continue buying well built fault free BMW's.

As far as the facelift 3-series goes it's hard to better the G20/21 current models in my view and a bit of a cabin and bumper refresh doesn't cover the crazy hike in prices. It's still a great car to cover miles in relaxed luxury or deploy it's playful side when you are in the mood to drive. 

I agree, five years ago, a 320i sport could be had for about £33K, it's now about two two and a half grand more, reason given, wanted to move up, be more premium?, the 3 series is there best seller,  an they be that sure past owners will just keep repeat ordering regardless of how much?