The 318i’s 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine is surprisingly willing, but needs to be revved hard to give its best. Move up to the 320i and there’s pace to rival plenty of hot hatches but for those not satisfied with that, the 330i and 340i are real sports cars.
We prefer the diesels though, with the exception of the 316d, which feels rather underpowered. We’d choose the 318d, or better still the 320d. The latter’s 2.0-litre engine has plenty of low-end shove for effortless everyday pace, and has the measure of rivals’ equivalent engines. The 320d ED is a bit slower than the standard 320d, but still serves up good pace for satisfying everyday progress, and is well worth considering for company car buyers. Like the larger petrol engines, the 330d and particularly 335d are very quick indeed.
In general, specifying the eight-speed automatic gearbox (it’s standard on top-spec versions) improves performance. Where fitted, the heavy xDrive four-wheel drive system tempers the car’s pace, although not by much.
BMW 3 Series Touring ride comfort
On adaptive suspension it’s controlled and comfortable
Considering how well the 3 Series wagon drives, it rides very well, too – at least when fitted with the optional Adaptive M Sport suspension. In Comfort mode you can plod around town over speed bumps and patchy surfaces, and not feel too ruffled. It’s the same story on faster roads, where the car remains wonderfully settled over rippled surfaces, and only a deep pothole is likely to make you wince. That said, some versions of the Audi A4 Avant on comfort suspension are even smoother.
Switch to Sport mode in the 3 Series Touring and the extra stiffness means you feel more movement since the car stays pinned to the road, but it’s still tolerable. The caveat to this is that we haven’t yet driven the 3 Series on the standard non-adaptive suspension, which is likely to be a little firmer.
Ultimately, the 3 Series is at its best with smaller wheels fitted, but even 19in wheels don’t spoil the ride.
BMW 3 Series Touring handling
Excellent apart from inconsistent steering
We’ve only driven cars with the Adaptive M Sport suspension. This offers a choice of settings controlled by a button on the dashboard. They cover steering weight, throttle response and, if it’s fitted, the automatic gearbox.
Even in the softer Comfort setting the 3 Series Touring feels well controlled and easy to handle. Switching to Sport stiffens the dampers and gives it real poise, making it a better driver’s car than just about any rival. The wonderfully balanced rear-wheel drive chassis gives you lots of confidence, with very little body lean in corners.
The only problem area is the steering; the weight isn’t consistent as you turn the wheel, although it is at least accurate. The optional Servotronic system doesn’t fully resolve this so we’d recommend ignoring this, as well as the more expensive Variable Sport Steering option.
For those concerned about traction in the winter months, the xDrive four-wheel drive system makes a lot of sense. It does take the edge off the more playful-feeling handling in the rear-wheel-drive models, but for most drivers that’s likely to be a small penalty to pay for the car’s better all-weather ability.
BMW 3 Series Touring refinement
Gruff diesels, plus wind and road noise let it down
The petrol engines are the most refined. The 316i can be a little raspy but it’s still reasonably muted, and the larger petrols – especially the six-cylinder 340i – are very smooth.
The diesels are quick and efficient but they’re not as refined as those in the Audi A4. Vibrations are well suppressed, but there’s too much engine noise when you’re trying to build speed, particularly around town. The exception to this is the 335d, which is much quieter but still not the equal of the A4 Avant 3.0 TDI.
Once settled into a motorway cruise, the engine noise does fade away, but then you’re bothered by wind noise from around the door mirrors, along with excessive road noise that’s most apparent when the larger wheels are fitted.
On the plus side, the manual versions have nice control weights which means they’re easy to drive smoothly in stop-start traffic, while the eight-speed automatic (optional on lower-end models, standard on six-cylinder engines) is one of the slickest gearboxes on the market.
Relatively smooth for a three-cylinder petrol, but needs to be revved hard to avoid it stalling when starting off. Delivers adequate rather than brisk performance when worked hard, but fuel consumption suffers as a result.
Relatively smooth engine that delivers reasonable low-rev shove. Performance is brisk when you rev it hard, but this takes its toll on fuel consumption. The eight-speed automatic transmission shows this engine at its best.
Despite the badging, it still uses a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Gives good performance with a decent spread of torque throughout its rev-range, providing effortless progress combined with comparatively reasonable fuel consumption if driven carefully. Works best when combined with the eight-speed automatic gearbox. Not available with xDrive four-wheel drive.
Ultra-smooth six-cylinder engine is very relaxing to drive. An excess of power makes it a great cruiser but also very quick when driven hard. It’s only available with the eight-speed automatic gearbox, but it isn’t available with xDrive four-wheel drive.
In theory this is one of the most economical engines in the range, but in reality it feels slightly underpowered in a car of the Touring’s size. We’d recommend you avoid it and go for the more powerful 2.0-litre diesel instead, which delivers better real-world economy.
Not as smooth as the equivalent A4 diesel, but offers great performance and fuel economy. If you want to maximise emissions and economy we’d recommend the ED version, and go for the optional automatic to make it a really great car to drive in any situation. Also good when fitted with the xDrive four-wheel drive system.
Our pick 320d ED
Our favourite engine in the range. Offers almost as much performance as the standard 320d but with improved fuel economy and low emissions, which is good news for both private and business users. Shame it’s not a bit more refined though. Can’t be had with four-wheel drive.
Uses a six-cylinder in-line diesel delivering fantastically rorty mid-range performance but also good real-world economy. Can’t quite match the refinement of some of its rivals but comes as standard with the excellent automatic gearbox, and can be specified with four-wheel drive. Fast enough to hassle plenty of sports cars, and to make the even more muscular 335d seem unnecessary.
The quickest diesel version offers effortless grunt and amazing straight-line performance. Six-cylinder engine is both smooth and efficient, bearing in mind the performance it offers. Comes as standard with the excellent automatic gearbox, and the xDrive four-wheel drive system.
The 3-series is the most sought-after small executive saloon thanks to its image, driving characteristics and performance. The rear seats are a bit of a squeeze for two adults and the boot is not as big as some rivals'. Base models lack some minor exec es