What Car? says...
The BMW 3 Series is a well-built, sporty, rear-wheel-drive executive car that's always done the business for business people. This seventh-generation 3 Series sticks to the formula that has been so popular for more than four decades, but it's moved with the times too.
You have the option of four-wheel drive – xDrive in BMW speak – along with a range of strong yet efficient petrol and diesel engines to suit most tastes and budgets. There's now also a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version, which should slice chunks off your company car tax bill and can officially run on electric power for up to 37 miles.
The latest update also brought some exterior styling tweaks and updated tech inside. Once you've factored in all the infotainment goodies and the long list of safety equipment you get as standard, the 3 Series looks like one of the most desirable executive cars on sale today – but there are a few other models that give it a run for its money.
So, is the BMW 3 Series a better all-rounder than its two main rivals, the Audi A4 and the Mercedes C-Class? And, can it compete for sheer driver enjoyment against two other rivals that make that their primary objective, namely the Alfa Romeo Giulia and the Jaguar XE?
We'll answer both those questions and more over the next few pages of this review. We'll also rate the 3 Series for performance and interior quality, running costs, boot space, and tell you which engine and trim we recommend.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The petrol options start with the excellent 181bhp 320i. It's perky enough for most situations, including overtaking on country roads, and its rev-happy nature sits well with the 3 Series' sporty character. For extra zip, our favourite engine of all is the 330e plug-in hybrid (PHEV), which has brisk performance. It has an official electric-only range of up to 37 miles and managed 25-30 miles in real-world driving (the Mercedes C300e can officially do more than 60 miles).
For even quicker performance, check out the range-toppers, both of which have six-cylinder engines. The M340i petrol has 369bhp and chops the 0-62mph sprint down to a blistering 4.4sec, while the grunty M340d diesel is only just behind on 4.6sec. If that’s still not enough, you’ll want to turn your attention to our review of the BMW M3.
Suspension and ride comfort
There are various suspension options for the 3 Series, and even the softest of them (fitted to Sport trim versions) is set up more for poise and control than wafty comfort. You always feel more of bumps as they pass beneath the car than you do in the best versions of the A4.
M Sport models, with stiffer suspension, are even firmer. Impacts over sharp imperfections are more pronounced, so be warned: sportiness really does take a higher priority than comfort.
Optional adaptive suspension is available with M Sport models, but it's pricey. It comes as part of the M Sport Pro Package (which is standard on the M340i and M340d) and allows you to stiffen or soften the ride at the touch of a button. Comfort mode makes the 3 Series calmer around town than it is with either of the non-adaptive setups, and it's very smooth on A-roads and motorways. It's still not a match for the supple A4 if ride comfort is your top priority, though.
You won't be disappointed by the driving manners of any 3 Series, but versions with non-adjustable M Sport suspension have the best cornering skills. The stability and control through corners and across uneven roads is simply beautiful. The optional adaptive M Suspension is ever so slightly behind in terms of absolute control, but is still very, very good.
The 3 Series' steering is another strength. It's not quite as feelsome as on the Jaguar XE but it's quicker, more reactive and lets you know exactly how much grip is available. Once you've got used to its immediate response, you find yourself placing the car's nose just where you want it.
The 330e plug-in hybrid is heavier than the rest of the range, so it's the least agile 3 Series. It's still a very tidy handling car, though – much better than the Volvo S60 Recharge and by far the sportiest PHEV in the executive car class.
Noise and vibration
There's not much wind noise in the 3 Series at motorway speeds, but road noise (especially on 340 models with run-flat tyres) is slightly more pronounced than in many versions of the A4 and C-Class. Suspension noise (again, not helped by the stiffer sidewalls of the run-flat tyres) is noticeable over bumps.
The six-cylinder engines (M340d and M340i) sound sweet, while the four-cylinder petrols have a gruffer but still perfectly acceptable tone. The big-selling 320d diesel is fine, but not quite as hushed as the equivalent A4 40 TDI.
The brake pedal is progressive on most 3 Series models, except the 330e plug-in hybrid. In that version it feels a bit odd because it activates a regenerative braking system that harvests energy to top up the battery. It's still more confidence-inspiring than the brakes of many other hybrid cars though, and of course you get no engine noise when the 330e is running on electric power alone.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Driving position and dashboard
The driver’s seat in the BMW 3 Series is supportive and holds you in place very well when you're cornering quickly. It’s a shame that, as with most BMW cars, you have to pay extra for adjustable lumbar support even on the top-spec models. It's not that pricey, though, and definitely worth adding. With a steering wheel that moves extensively up and down and in and out, plus lots of seat-height adjustment, you won't struggle to get comfortable.
In fact, as you sit there with a large, well-padded armrest for each elbow, you might think ‘perfect’ sums up the 3 Series’ driving position, but it's not quite as good as the Volvo S60 for one key reason: the pedals are offset slightly to the right. It's a problem that also exists in the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class and isn’t a major blight.
The dashboard layout is very good for the most part. That makes most of the 3 Series’ functions simple to use, but it’s a shame that adjusting the climate controls now requires use of the touchscreen (the latest facelift got rid of user-friendly physical buttons lower down on the dashboard). The 12.3in digital driver display that comes as standard with all trim levels is clear and shows lots of information, but some drivers might find the steering wheel blocks the upper part of the screen. The optional Technology Package adds a head-up display.
Visibility, parking sensors and cameras
Forward visibility is great thanks to reasonably slim windscreen pillars, but saloons are never the easiest of cars to see out the back of. The 3 Series is no exception, with chunky rear pillars and an 'invisible' boot that sticks out past the rear screen by a couple of feet. The good news is that you get front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera and BMW's Parking Assistant system, which can identify a suitable space and steer you into it, all as standard.
There's an optional 360-degree camera that offers multiple views around the car, but the image flits from one camera position to the next as you get closer to objects. That's quite distracting when you're a few centimetres away from an imposing wall – it would be more helpful if the image stayed consistent.
At night, you’ll be particularly pleased with the high-intensity LED headlights that come as standard. You can upgrade them to adaptive laser units, which are ultra-bright and allow you keep the main beams on more often. They adjust the shape of the light to avoid dazzling other drivers.
Sat nav and infotainment
All 3 Series trim levels feature a pin-sharp 14.9in infotainment touchscreen. Standard features include sat-nav, Bluetooth, a DAB radio, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring (so you can run phone apps through the screen), and subscription-based connected services that provide internet access.
Options include the Technology Pack, which adds wireless phone-charging, a wifi hotspot, a 16-speaker Harman Kardon premium sound system and gesture control, which allows you to control some functions by making hand gestures in the air. There are a lot of menus and submenus, but the software is more responsive than the C-Class system.
You can control the infotainment using a rotary iDrive controller between the front seats, which is far less distracting than prodding the touchscreen when you're driving. It's one of the main reasons we prefer the 3 Series' infotainment to the touchscreen-only set-up in the A4 (or pretty much any other system, for that matter).
In the main, the 3 Series interior materials feel plush. However, some areas, such as the gear selector and the plastic around it, don't feel as classy as their equivalents in the A4. The plastic chrome around the air vents looks and feels a little low-rent too.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
There’s more leg room up front in the BMW 3 Series than you’ll find in the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class. We’re talking a couple of centimetres at the most, but that might be worth having if you’re really leggy. Anyone tall shouldn’t need to worry about the amount of head room, either, and the 3 Series’ interior is generously wide, so there's also room to stretch out sideways.
Storage space is pretty good, with a big glovebox and a useful cubby under the centre armrest. You also get partitioned door bins that help prevent loose items from rolling around.
Compared with its premium-badged peers, the 3 Series has similar rear head room to the A4 but more leg room, and more space all round than the C-Class. It's a better choice for three adults sitting side by side – they’ll have more shoulder room than they would in the two rivals.
Seat folding and flexibility
Regardless of which 3 Series you go for, the standard manually adjustable front passenger’s seat doesn’t have adjustable lumbar support. You can add that and electric front-seat adjustment for a reasonable price, though.
All versions come with versatile 40/20/40 split folding rear seatbacks as standard, which is much more convenient than the 60/40 split you’ll find on a lot of rivals, including the Superb. You can fold down the seats using handy levers in the boot.
The 3 Series has a very decent boot by saloon standards. It's slightly bigger than those of the A4 and C-Class, and the load bay is a usefully square shape, making it relatively easy to slide in bulky objects. If you need more space, you can fold down the rear seats – or consider the estate version, the BMW 3 Series Touring.
The boot can manage a set of golf clubs or a few suitcases. If you want a non-estate car with an even bigger boot and are prepared to sacrifice the premium badge, the Skoda Superb is truly vast.
It's worth noting that the 330e plug-in hybrid (PHEV) 3 Series sacrifices roughly a third of its boot space to accommodate the battery. The space that's left is pretty shallow and smaller than the boot of the PHEV Volvo S60 Recharge.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Costs, insurance groups, MPG and CO2
Broadly speaking, the BMW 3 Series is priced between the slightly cheaper equivalent Audi A4 and the slightly more expensive Mercedes C-Class. Resale values are predicted to be strong by executive car standards. You can expect a 3 Series to retain a similar amount of its value over three years to the C-Class, and a reasonable slice more than the A4.
The least expensive version to run as a company car – and our favourite version – is the 330e plug-in hybrid (PHEV). Its low CO2 emissions keep it in the lower company car tax bands. To get the best economy, you need to keep the battery charged. Even so, company car drivers would be advised to consider either the C300e C-Class, because that has an even lower tax rate, or the Tesla Model 3 electric car, which sits in the lowest tax band.
If you do opt for the 330e, charging it takes six hours from empty if you plug into a regular domestic three-pin socket, or just over three and a half hours if you plug into an electric car charging point using the optional type 2 lead.
The 320d diesel – which is RDE2 compliant – will feature on many company car lists, and is particularly efficient because it has mild-hybrid assistance. That means it's very economical in real-world driving, as it proved to be in our True MPG tests, with a figure of 47.2mpg.
Equipment, options and extras
Entry-level Sport is the cheapest 3 Series trim level, but it still comes with plenty of kit, including 17in alloy wheels, LED headlights, heated front seats, three-zone air conditioning, cruise control and BMW’s excellent iDrive infotainment system.
Stepping up to M Sport introduces 18in alloy wheels, black exterior detailing, more aggressive-looking bumpers for a sportier look, firmer M Sport suspension, and Sensatec (faux leather) and Alcantara trim for the seats.
While we recommend M Sport, we’d urge you to add the M Sport Pro pack to it. It's relatively expensive, but introduces lots of goodies, including adaptive suspension that can be stiffened or softened whenever you like. It gives the 3 Series a much plusher ride than any of the passive suspension setups, and is well worth the money. The range-topping M340i and M340d models get the M Sport Pro pack as standard, and have a more performance-orientated bespoke adaptive suspension setup.
BMW as a brand finished 16th out of 32 manufacturers in our 2022 What Car? Reliability Survey. That's behind Lexus but ahead of Audi, Jaguar and Mercedes. Petrol and PHEV versions of the 3 Series finished within the top 10 results of the executive car class. The diesel, however, finished at the bottom.
BMW provides a three-year warranty with no mileage cap, which is good for the class because many rivals have a mileage limit. You can extend the warranty for an extra cost if you intend to keep the car for longer.
The 330e plug-in hybrid has cover for the battery extended to six years (capped at 60,000 miles between years three and six).
Safety and security
All versions come with a healthy roster of active and passive safety systems. The list includes automatic emergency braking (AEB) that looks out for pedestrians as well as cars, lane-departure warning and traffic-sign recognition.
The optional Driving Assistant Professional pack further reduces your chances of an incident with the addition of lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert.
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It depends on your needs. The BMW 1 Series has a more practical hatchback tailgate at the back to make loading the boot easier, but the 3 Series is far better to drive and has a more extensive range of powerful engines.
|RRP price range||£39,605 - £58,925|
|Number of trims (see all)||8|
|Number of engines (see all)||5|
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)||petrol, diesel, hybrid|
|MPG range across all versions||188.3 - 58.9|
|Available doors options||4|
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)||£1,017 / £4,280|
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)||£2,034 / £8,560|