Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The entry-level diesel, the 148bhp 318d, has good mid-range flexibility so it never feels slow. If your budget can stretch, though, we recommend going for the 187bhp 320d. Its extra muscle means you don't have to work it so hard, and its performance is more in keeping with the 3 Series' sporty remit. If you desire a diesel with the ability to worry hot hatches, though, there’s the 330d. Its six-cylinder diesel engine offers rapid acceleration – 0-62mph is dealt with in just 5.5sec.
If petrol is your cup of fossil fuel, the 181bhp 2.0-litre 320i is a great place to start. It's perky enough for most situations, but it does need to be revved hard if overtaking on a country road. If you think you'll need more zip, head for the more powerful 254bhp 2.0-litre engine of the 330i. It still needs revs to deliver its best, but cracks off 0-62mph in a sprightly 5.8sec.
If straight-line performance is your main concern, though, the range-topping M340i will have you salivating; its 363bhp six-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine allows it to cover 0-62mph in 4.4sec. Alternatively, if you prefer the idea of a plug-in hybrid, the 330e offers similar performance to the 330i and a real-world electric only range of around 26 miles.
Suspension and ride comfort
There are various suspension options on the 3 Series, and even the softest choice (fitted to SE and 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 Audi A4.
M Sport models, on their stiffer M Sport suspension, are even firmer. Impacts over sharp road imperfections are more pronounced, so be warned: sportiness really does take a higher priority than comfort.
The optional adaptive suspension is available to alleviate this, but is pricey. It's part of the M Sport Plus Package and allows you to stiffen or soften the ride at the touch of the button. Select Comfort mode and the 3 Series is calmer around town than in either of the non-active setups, and is really quite smooth on A-roads and motorways. It's still not a patch on the A4 if ride comfort is your top priority, though.
The BMW 3 Series, Alfa Romeo Giulia and Jaguar XE undoubtedly rank among the sportiest executive saloons on the market and, with its class-leading body control and grip through corners, it's the BMW that reigns supreme in terms of outright ability.
You’ll not be disappointed by any 3 Series when it comes to handling, but versions equipped with M Sport suspension possess the best cornering skills – apart from the range-topping M340i, which is even better thanks to bespoke suspension.
The steering is another strong point of the 3 Series. It's not quite as measured or full of feedback as the XE's, being instead quicker and more reactive, if not quite as hyperactive as the Giulia's. But it ensures you always know how much grip is available, and, once you've acclimatised to its immediate response, you find yourself placing the car's nose expertly.
Noise and vibration
Wind noise is very well contained at motorway speeds, but road noise (especially on models with run-flat tyres) is slightly more pronounced than in many versions of the A4 and C Class. Suspension noise – again, probably not helped by the stiff sidewalls of the run-flat tyres – is also noticeable over bumps.
The six-cylinder engines (330d and M340i) sound sweet, while the less powerful four-cylinder engines have a gruffer but still acceptable tone. The big-selling 320d diesel isn't quite as hushed as an equivalent Audi A4, though.
Speaking of pedals, the one for the brakes doesn't have much resistance at the top of its travel, making it easy to unwittingly brake too hard. The 330e hybrid’s brakes are the worst affected, because they have to deal with recouping energy for the battery as well, but on the plus side, you get no engine noise when the car's running on electric power alone.