The BMW 3 Series and BMW X3 are both What Car? award winners, and both are available for less than £30,000. Which is better, though, and which version of each should you buy? Here, we tell you everything you need to know.
What are the 3 Series and X3 like to drive?
Specify your 3 Series with the standard suspension set-up and you might be disappointed. It gives the car a slightly unsettled feel at low speeds, plus there’s too much body roll in corners and a noticeable amount of vertical movement under hard acceleration and braking.
You’re much better off with the optional Adaptive M Sport suspension, because this turns the 3 Series into the sweetest-driving car in its class. The handling becomes taut and responsive, yet the ride is more comfortable.
The X3 is also at its best when fitted with optional adjustable suspension, although here BMW calls the system Variable Damper Control. With it fitted, the X3 blends a forgiving ride with surprisingly agile handling for an SUV. Just don’t expect it to be as good to drive as the 3 Series; the X3’s taller body and heavier weight make it feel more cumbersome.
If you want a petrol engine, you’ll have to choose the 3 Series because the X3 is offered with diesels only. The pick of the engine range in both cars is the 2.0-litre 20d diesel, however.
In the 3 Series saloon this is offered in standard and Efficient Dynamics forms, and we prefer the latter. It has longer gearing and slightly less power to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, but it still pulls strongly from just 1400rpm, so you don’t find yourself continually changing down to keep the engine on song.
The X3, meanwhile, comes with the more powerful version of the 20d engine, which is more than strong enough to haul it around.
The one area where this engine disappoints is refinement, because it sounds gruff at town speeds and under hard acceleration. The four-cylinder petrols in the 3 Series don’t sound particularly sweet either, and you hear a bit too much wind and road noise at speed.
Can I get an automatic 3 Series or X3?
Both cars are available with BMW’s eight-speed automatic gearbox, and this is definitely worth having. It shifts smoothly and intelligently, whereas the manual alternative is rather stiff and notchy.
As a bonus, the auto gearbox doesn’t raise fuel consumption or CO2 emissions in either car.
What are the 3 Series and X3 like inside?
These cars both come with BMW’s iDrive infotainment system, which is good news because it’s one of the best of its kind. You access most functions by scrolling through well-ordered menus using a rotary controller, plus there are several handy shortcut buttons to take you straight to individual functions.
Both interiors are built from high-quality materials, too, and they feel like they’ll wear miles well. However, the pedals are offset on manual cars, which compromises driver comfort.
Things are much better if you go for an auto, and the 3 Series is roomy enough to let a six-foot rear passenger sit behind a similar-sized driver. However, it has a bulky central tunnel that makes life uncomfortable for a central rear passenger, whereas the X3 has a flat floor and it offers even more head- and legroom.
The X3 also has a bigger boot than both the 3 Series saloon and its estate sister, the Touring, but the Touring has a rear screen that opens independently so you don’t have to lift the whole tailgate to drop in smaller items.
Which one should I buy?
Our favourite 3 Series, the 320d Efficient Dynamics, is a standalone model that isn’t offered in the Touring bodystyle. If you want an estate, the 320d SE is the model to go for, because it comes just as well equipped and still strikes an excellent balance between performance and affordability.
SE spec is also the best option in the X3, and our favourite engine, the 20d, gets four-wheel drive as standard. Confusingly, not all X3 models are four-wheel drive despite its SUV ranking. The entry-level X3, which is badged sDrive 18d, is actually rear-wheel drive and is our least favourite of the X3 range, so avoid it if you can.
Four-wheel drive isn’t available on the Efficient Dynamics version of the 3-series saloon, and while you can have it on the regular 20d, we wouldn’t bother unless you live in an area of the country that regularly gets snow.
Should you buy a 3 Series or an X3? The 3 Series is better to drive and cheaper to run, while the X3 is the more practical car, so it’s really a case of which is the better car for you, not which is the better car.
In some ways the 3 Series Touring blends the strengths of the two, but it’s not particularly big by estate standards.