BMW 3-series review – does it still reward the keen driver?
The 3-series majors on refinement and cutting-edge technology but still offers a rewarding, if not overly sporting, drive
Almost half a century since the BMW 3-series first hit the road, the recipe that made it such as success back in 1975 still stands today. Entertaining dynamics, strong powertrains, great build quality and a premium image make it one of the class leaders, but it's up against tougher opposition than ever. Arch rivals in the form of the Mercedes C-Class and the Audi A4 keep raising the bar, but BMW has succeeded in refining the 3-series to match while retaining its trademark sporting slant.
Thanks to a stiffer body (by up to 50 per cent in some areas), new damper technology and enhanced soundproofing measures the additional refinement box has been ticked. A thoroughly revised interior packed full of tech from the 5-series ensures the 3-series no longer looks like second best inside when compared to its German rivals.
The engine line up has been bolstered since its 2019 launch, with a range of 2-litre diesels and petrols, the latter in pure-combustion and plug-in hybrid forms, a 3-litre diesel and the 3-litre petrol M340i xDrive. Even the slowest model (the petrol-powered 320i) will crack 0-62mph in less than 7.5sec, with the M340i the quickest of the range with a quoted 4.4sec 0-62mph sprint.
The M340d’s engine is exceptional both in terms of output and refinement (it even sounds good), with the two 2-litre 320d also deliver the goods but without being particularly stimulating. Enhanced soundproofing over the older 3-series means both engines are more or less inaudible unless extended. A 0-62mph time for the 320d of 6.9sec is plenty quick enough, too.
The three petrol models (320i, 330e and M340i xDrive, for now) should, in theory, be more likely to stir the soul. The 320i and 330e share the same 2-litre turbocharged ’four and while they’re quick enough (the hybrid 330e xDrive dips under the 6sec barrier for the 0-62mph sprint) they’re not hugely engaging units, with a somewhat flat and uninspiring soundtrack. The M340i is the only petrol six-cylinder and is predictably potent, offering near-M3 levels of performance in a useable, surprisingly economical package.
While perhaps the 3-series’ engine line up isn’t as inspiring as it used to be the good news is that its chassis can still entertain, exhibiting the sort of confidence-inspiring balance that’s missing for many rivals. It’s a little dependent on specification though – Sport and M Sport models are entertaining if a little ragged at the limit while 'M' versions are considerably stiffer and corner more enthusiastically. The best compromise is to be found by opting for the M Sport Plus package which adds adaptive dampers.
BMW 3-series: in detail
- Performance and 0-60mph time – All 3-series engines deliver strong performance but the M340i xDrive is seriously quick.
- Engine and gearbox – Four-cylinder petrol is a little dull, but 3-litre six-cylinder models are excellent. All-wheel drive is an option with all but the 320i and 320d, with a manual no longer available.
- Ride and handling – Standard suspension delivers an excellent ride but less chassis poise, while the more focused M Sport chassis can prove too stiff.
- MPG and running costs – Even under WLTP regulations the 3-series can be surprisingly frugal and 330e PHEV has an impressive all electric range.
- Interior and tech – Typically excellent BMW interior now backed with the very latest infotainment technology to match, or beat, the best rivals can offer.
- Design – Safe rather than experimental styling ensures the 3-series won’t be mistaken for anything else.
Prices, specs and rivals
The BMW 3-series lineup now begins at Sport and in this guise you’ll need £40,205 for a 320i, £43,190 for a 320d and £46,985 for the plug-in hybrid 330e in rear-drive form – the 330e all-wheel drive will set you back an additional £1550. If you’re after more performance from your 3-series the range-topping M340i xDrive costs from £59,780, with the 3-litre M340d diesel now priced from £59,385 before options.
For most buyers the choice of junior exec will be between the 3-series and its two closest rivals, the Audi A4 and the Mercedes-Benz C-class. In their latest incarnations both are worthy rivals that offer similar pricing and performance but the 3-series has caught up where it was lacking before, mainly in terms of refinement and interior design and technology. While the 3-series’ driving experience may have been slightly diluted it’s still a better steer than these rivals.
But while the 3-series might have retained its crown as the best German compact exec to drive it’s worth considering what the Italians have to offer, specifically the Alfa Romeo Giulia. The Giulia Veloce sits between the 320i and M340i, and while it doesn’t offer the full Quadrifoglio experience it is a pretty brisk performer and with sharp, direct steering and a sweet chassis it does offer an excellent drive.