We prefer the diesel engines to the petrols. The 320d is quick and effortlessly flexible, and even the lower-powered 320d Efficient Dynamics offers vibrant performance. The turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol 320i is brisk and the 328i is rapid, but they sometimes feel rather stressed, while the 3.0 335i is sweet-revving and blisteringly fast.
Stick with the standard suspension setup and you might be disappointed. There’s a slightly unsettled feeling at low speeds, too much body roll in corners and a noticeable amount of vertical movement under hard acceleration and braking. Specify the optional adaptive suspension, though, and the 3 Series becomes the sweetest-driving car in the class. It rides beautifully, and the handling is agile and responsive.
Most of the engines rev smoothly, but the four-cylinder diesels are too audible at low revs when cold. The four-cylinder petrol engines don’t sound particularly appealing, either. You’re generally well isolated from road and suspension noise, but there’s more wind noise than you get in other compact executive cars.
Across the range, the 3 Series’ engines return excellent economy, especially the 320d Efficient Dynamics, which averages the best part of 70mpg. It also emits just 109g/km of CO2, making it extremely attractive to business users. Resale values are very competitive by class standards, which will help to keep whole-life costs down.
Few manufacturers are making better cabins than BMW at the moment, and the 3 Series is right up there with the best in class. The materials are sumptuous, the fit and finish are flawless, and most of the switches (stereo volume controls aside) work with a solid, positive action. BMW’s reliability record is reasonable rather than outstanding, but there shouldn’t be many unforeseen problems with this car.
Standard safety equipment includes six airbags and Dynamic Stability Control, which incorporates ABS, Cornering Brake Control, Dynamic Brake Control and Dynamic Traction Control. All this helped the car achieve a five-star crash rating from Euro NCAP. Among the options is the Active Security Package (with lane change and lane departure-warning systems), while an alarm is also standard on every model.
There’s lots of room for the driver and plenty of adjustment on the steering wheel and seat, although the manual seat adjusters are annoyingly imprecise and the pedals are offset. The controls on the centre console are nicely angled towards the driver, with many functions controlled by the standard iDrive system. This system is the epitome of clarity; you click through the infotainment menus with a rotary controller, and you view them on a colour screen.
There’s plenty of room in the front, and enough head- and legroom in the back to easily fit a couple of six-footers in comfort. The boot, too, is a decent size, capable of taking 480 litres, but split-folding rear seats to let you extend the space cost you extra. The saloon bodystyle limits the car’s versatility, too.
Even the entry-level car gets climate control, alloys and Bluetooth. Step up to SE – the best blend of kit and cost – and you add dual-zone climate, rear parking sensors and automatic lights and wipers. With Sport, you get sports seats and a sports steering wheel. Modern trim has part-leather upholstery, while Luxury and M Sport models get full leather and larger alloys. M Sport also adds a unique bodykit and sports suspension. We’d prefer it if all cars had the adaptive dampers as standard.
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If you’re a company car driver, then the BMW 320d Efficient Dynamics is the perfect 3 Series for you, but private buyers should stick with the standard 320d and enjoy the 3 Series at its brilliant best.