BMW 3 Series review

Our Rating 
4.5
4.5/5.0
2012 model
By jumbo-bg Test TeamComments

The BMW 3 Series is well built, efficient and fun to drive, justifying its place near the front of the compact executive saloon class

For 
Fine handling, efficient petrol and diesel engines
Against 
Costly options, bewildering range of models, understated 2015 facelift

The BMW 3 Series has been a compact executive class leader for more than 40 years, and the latest model was a winner yet again when it arrived in 2012. The competition has raised its game in recent times, with the arrival of the latest Mercedes C-Class, Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia, yet the facelifted 3 Series does enough to keep it at the front of the field.

While the 3 Series' crown as the best handling compact executive saloon remains intact, the Jaguar XE comes close to matching it, and offers marginally lower running costs. However, the margins between the two are very slim, and you won't be opting for second best with the 3 Series.

The diesel models are powerful and refined, while the petrols deliver great performance, although while the 330e hybrid delivers low running costs, it's not the most efficient plug-in, while the handling has a softer edge.

Our Choice 
BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Sport

The BMW 3 Series is high up on the list of any motorist who has the budget for a premium saloon – particularly company car buyers. Prices start under £28,000 and surpass the £44,000 mark for a top of the range M Sport 330e hybrid model. There is, of course, also the full-fat M3, for which prices sit around the £60k mark.

Even though most drivers settle for the more mundane 3 Series variants, the German saloon has more than enough going for it to justify the immense popularity it has enjoyed over its 40+ year lifespan. Which is just as well, as the list of quality competition it faces keeps on growing.

Best executive saloons on sale

On top of the usual suspects from Germany, the BMW 3 Series also takes on the Alfa Romeo Giulia, Lexus IS, Infiniti Q50 and Jaguar XE, not to mention the more upmarket versions of mainstream cars such as the Mazda 6, Ford Mondeo and Volkswagen Passat.

While the BMW has got bigger, faster and more refined, it still retains its original format of in-line engines and rear-wheel drive. The model used to be available as a saloon, Touring estate, coupe and convertible and it still is, sort of. Nowadays the related coupe and convertible versions get 4 Series badges, along with the four-door fastback Gran Coupe.

BMW 3 Series specs are pretty comprehensive, even for the entry level SE model which has 17-inch alloy wheels, LED rear lights, DAB radio and sat-nav as standard. The ED Plus and ED Sport models – ED stands for Efficient Dynamics – are aimed at business users and have additional aerodynamic and economy tweaks plus leather upholstery, while the Sport trim level has black gloss air intakes in the grille (which has been made more aggressive with extra-wide slats) dark chrome exhaust tips, sports seats and a Sport+ driving mode.

The M Sport model gets bigger 18- or 19-inch wheels, go-faster bodystyling tweaks and an M Sport multifunction steering wheel. Finally there is the Luxury model, which comes with Fineline Anthracite wood trim, and a whole host of chrome accents on both the inside and outside of the car.

The 330e plug-in hybrid gets subtle pale blue detailing, although it could easily pass as a conventional model as it's offered in a similar range of trim levels, including SE and M Sport.. As you would expect, BMW offers a long list of options and packs so that you can personalise your car.

There are a wide range of engines available, although not every engine is offered in every body style. Petrol cars get an 'i' suffix, the diesels end with a 'd', and the plug-in hybrid uses an 'e'. However, the badge on the car's bootlid doesn't necessarily equate to the engine under the bonnet. The 318i petrol uses a 1.5-litre three-cylinder, the 320i and 330i use a 2.0-litre four, and the 340i has a 3.0-litre straight-six. All of these engines are turbocharged.

As for the diesels, the 316d, 318d, 320d and 325d have a 2.0-litre four cylinder with different power outputs, and the 330d and 335d use a 3.0-litre straight-six. In addition, the 330e plug-in hybrid has the 2.0-litre petrol from the 320i, plus an 87bhp electric motor. There are manual and eight-speed auto gearbox options across the range, while BMW's xDrive four-wheel drive system is also offered on selected models.

Engines, performance and drive

5
The BMW 3 Series gets a range of fast but frugal engines and is one of the best compact executive cars to drive

BMW has forged a reputation for making fun-to-drive cars, and the 3 Series is no exception. The excellent grip and direct steering mean it's easy to keep control of the car at all times, and its rear-wheel drive layout gives it a great feeling of agility and security on the road. All models get ESP to keep you on the straight and narrow if anything should happen in bad conditions.

A system called Drive Performance Control offers four different modes to choose from: EcoPro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+. It's not too hard to tell what each one does – EcoPro is set up for economy, while Comfort and Sport simply do what they say, adjusting the engine and gearbox settings (on auto models) accordingly. Sport+ ups the ante and reduces the amount of electronic assistance – allowing the rear wheels to slip.

Variable ratio Sport steering and Adaptive Drive damping for the suspension are also available as optional extras on the 3 Series, and are hooked up to the Drive Performance Control system when fitted. If your budget allows, the adaptive suspension transforms the way the 3 Series drives, allowing it to be sportier when you say so, but more comfortable on longer motorway drives.

Head down a twisty back road and the 3 Series feels secure and well balanced. The steering is positive, precise and well weighted, there’s plenty of grip and you can subtly adjust your line using the throttle. There’s an ever-so-slight flat spot in the steering when driving dead ahead, but BMW claims this has been introduced intentionally to prevent jerky manoeuvres at motorway speeds.

The Jaguar XE is the only car in the class that can come close to the 3 Series for handling, but the 3 Series still has the edge. The 330e plug-in hybrid pays a penalty for its hybrid drive system, as the car's extra weight means it's not quite as nimble.

Engines

A wide range of three, four and six-cylinder engines are available, with the 181bhp 320d 2.0-litre diesel offering a great blend of performance versus running costs.

The performance king in the standard car is the 321bhp 340i's 3.0-litre turbo petrol; it reaches 0-62mph in 5.2 seconds, and will hit 155mph flat out. The 335d offers impressive grunt too, with bags of torque for effortless overtaking.

The plug-in hybrid 330e starts silently – unlike some hybrids, there's no audible chime to let you know that the ignition is on. Simply select drive, and you’re away in electric mode. However, while rivals such as the VW Passat GTE will run on battery power alone for a period before the engine cuts in, the BMW relies on internal combustion more frequently.

If you start from cold, the engine will cut in almost immediately, while at speeds of more than 70mph the car automatically switches to engine mode, irrespective of how much charge is in the battery. Still, the switch between power sources is smooth and seamless, and only at high revs are you aware of the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine’s slightly gruff note. Overall refinement is good, although there’s some intrusive tyre roar, particularly on coarse surfaces.

While the hybrid system doesn't run in electric mode as often as some, there’s no arguing with the 330e's performance. With 249bhp it's capable of 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds, although it runs out of puff at high speeds. That’s because the electric motor boosts acceleration up to 70mph, but beyond that the car relies on the 2.0-litre petrol engine alone.

The M3 is, of course, the fastest car in the range thanks to its 425bhp 3.0-litre straight-six. As of early 2016 there’s also a Competition Package version, which ups the ante to 444bhp.

The Audi A4 offered four-wheel drive first, but the 3 Series xDrive (only available on the 320d, 320i, 330d and 335d) means extra grip is now available in a BMW, bringing with it extra peace of mind. All models get a six-speed manual gearbox and a smooth and very refined eight-speed automatic is also available as an option.

MPG, CO2 and running costs

4
Considering the powerful range of engines, the 3 Series returns admirable fuel economy and emissions

Thanks to special fuel-saving technology and the reduced weight of the current BMW 3 Series, all of the four-cylinder diesel engines now emit less than 140g/km of CO2. That makes it really cheap to tax, keeping running costs as low as possible.

We'd go for the 320d EfficientDynamics Plus model, which emits only 102g/km of CO2 and returns an excellent 72.4mpg. Spec the sleeker-looking ED Sport model and that jumps to108g/km, but the improved residuals should help keep costs down.

The whole range is pretty good, in fact – even the turbocharged 2.0-litre 330i manages to keep CO2 emissions at a reasonable 151g/km. But if you want rock-bottom running costs and have regular access to a charge point, then try the 330e for size. It has 44g/km CO2 emissions, and BMW claims it’ll do nearly 25 miles in electric only mode.

However, when jumbo-bg tested a 330e, it didn't perform as well as a VW Passat GTE hybrid on a similar test route. We managed 47.2mpg using a full tank of fuel and four full charges of the battery, but as the engine cuts in more frequently than in the GTE, it puts pay to the 330e’s economy. The 330's 41-litre fuel tank is 19 litres down on a 320d’s, too, so your range will be shorter if you always rely on the engine.

You can't recharge the 330e battery pack on the move, but you can store energy for low-speed use later in your journey. Stick in Eco Pro mode and on-screen guides will prompt you to stay below 50mph and lift off the throttle on the approach to roundabouts and junctions.

In full electric mode we managed 17 miles before the engine cut in, yet it takes a lot more concentration than in the VW to prevent the engine cutting in. Recharging from a standard mains plug takes around three-and-a-half hours.

List prices for the 3 Series are on a par with rivals, as the range starts from around £28,000, but that’s only for the basic three-cylinder 318i in SE trim.

Insurance groups

Insurance groups for the BMW 3 Series kick-off around 18 for a basic 316d SE. The 320d SE and 320d M Sport both sit in group 28, whereas the 335d xDrive M Sport sits all the way up in group 40 – bizarrely – a faster 340i sits in group 36. An M3 is in group 45.

Depreciation

No BMW 3 Series suffers from particularly bad depreciation, but if value retention is a priority then some models fare better than others. A manual M3 is the best performer, while a 335d xDrive is pretty good, too. Most 320ds retain around 45 per cent, but the plug-in 330e models fall slightly shy at between 38 and 40 per cent. The Jaguar XE and Mercedes C-Class are – broadly speaking – very similar.

Interior, design and technology

3
Inside, the BMW 3 Series can't compete with the super-desirable Audi A4, but it's not a bad place to be

Few cars are as recognisable as the BMW 3 Series. It’s gone through an evolutionary process over the years – although the latest model, launched in 2012 and facelifted in 2015, is arguably the best looking yet. With its familiar kidney grille and aggressive headlamp design that incorporates distinctive LED daytime running lights, there’s no mistaking it for any other car on the road.

Meanwhile, the low bodyline and wide track give it a lithe and athletic appearance. Go for an M Sport model, and the styling package includes 18-inch alloys, a subtle bodykit, gloss-black trim for the window surrounds and discreet M badges on the front wings.

Choose the 330 plug-in, and very little distinguishes it from the range. You get a 330e badge on the bootlid and eDrive logos on the C-pillars, while the charging flap on the nearside front wing is the only other obvious visual clue to the car’s hybrid system. Stick with the standard wheels and the BMW roundels are outlined in pale blue, but as with the bootlid badge you can choose to delete this feature at no extra cost.

Inside, there’s a minimalist wraparound dash, with only a few buttons, clear digital read-outs and a large centre console screen. We’ve no complaints about the classy materials, excellent build quality and solid finish, either but unfortunately it falls shy of the super-desirable Audi A4 with its crisp dials and upmarket appeal.

Again the 330e doesn’t advertise its hybrid system, with eDrive logos only on the door sills and in the instrument cluster. The only other clues to the hybrid system are the energy-flow meter in the bottom of the rev counter, plus a schematic view of the car showing energy use that can be displayed on the infotainment screen.

Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment

All BMW 3 Series models get sat-nav and a wide central screen as standard. The setup is controlled using the iDrive scroll wheel and buttons next to the gearlever. It’s intuitive to use, and the graphics are spot on. There’s no option for customisable dials like you get with Audi’s brilliant Virtual Cockpit, but they’re still slickly styled and easy to use. The orange back-light seems a little old-fashioned, though.

Practicality, comfort and boot space

3
Space in the back of the BMW 3 Series is a bit tight, but no worse than in key rivals

The current BMW 3 Series interior is roomy enough, meaning it rivals the Audi A4 closely. There’s decent enough leg and headroom for all passengers thanks to a 50mm longer wheelbase compared to the old 3 Series. Elsewhere, cabin storage is reasonable, with a decent armrest bin, roomy door pockets, a useful glovebox and several cup-holders. If outright space is key, then stepping up to the larger 5 Series makes great sense, but if the purse strings are tight then few will be disappointed with the 3.

Size

The BMW 3 Series is actually shorter than the Jaguar XE, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class – but only by a matter of millimetres. The Audi A4 is the longest and as a result is the roomiest, but the more compact dimensions of the 3 Series make it easy to manoeuvre in almost all situations. It helps make it a hoot to drive, too. Only the A4 is lighter, which helps the BMW’s cause further.

Leg room, head room & passenger space

Despite being shorter than a Jaguar XE, the BMW is surprisingly roomy. Space in the rear of the saloon is compromised by an intrusive transmission tunnel, but it has a
fraction more head and legroom than an XE. 
Up front, the 320d’s low-set driving position places you closer to the action with a sporty feel.

Boot

Open the tailgate and you’ll discover the BMW delivers 480 litres of space, which is the same as an Alfa Giulia. Yet it has an advantage with its underfloor storage and retaining net. The 40:20:40 split-fold rear seats are a zero cost option, which is ideal for those in need of a flexible cargo space.

Elsewhere, the BMW delivers decent storage, including a large glovebox, well shaped door bins and cubbies in the centre console. 

The hybrid system in the 330e eats into boot space, so you get 370 litres compared to 480 litres as standard. There’s no underfloor storage because the battery is there, and you get run-flat tyres as standard.

Reliability and Safety

3
The BMW 3 Series finished mid-table in our Driver Power survey, but safety is top-notch

The latest 3 Series finished 34th (out of 75) in the 2018 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey, with predictably strong showings for performance and handling. As a whole, BMW finished a disappointing 21st out of 26 manufacturers, which is behind Mercedes and Volvo, but ahead of Vauxhall.

As for safety, the BMW scored the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests, but it is second to the Lexus IS as it has six airbags as opposed to eight in the Japanese car.

Adaptive brake lights are also standard on the 3 Series, as well as automatic lights and wipers, and rear parking sensors. You can also buy lane change assist, blind spot warning and auto high beams as optional extras on the lower-spec models.

Warranty

All cars come with a three-year unlimited mile warranty (beating that of the Audi A4) no matter which 3 Series you go for. Of course, things like brake pads and tyres are not included – though some service plans will add these for extra cost.

The 330e gets an extra warranty for its battery pack over and above the standard cover. This lasts for six years, although the Passat GTE has cover for eight years.

Servicing

Various service packs are available for the BMW 3 Series. A comprehensive package covers your car for three years or 36,000 miles (whichever comes sooner). Service Inclusive, as BMW calls it, costs around £399 on standard models, or around £1,000 on the M3.

Last updated: 9 May, 2018