Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The entry-level diesel (the 148bhp 318d) has enough pull from low revs, 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 well worth a look. It's perky enough for most situations, although it does need to be revved hard if you're overtaking on a country road. If you think you'll need more zip, consider the more powerful 254bhp 2.0-litre engine of the 330i. It still needs revs to deliver its best, but it 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 do the 0-62mph sprint 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 suspension, are even firmer. Impacts over sharp road imperfections are more pronounced, so be warned: sportiness really does take a higher priority than comfort.
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 with either of the non-adaptive setups, and is very smooth on A-roads and motorways. It's still not a match for the A4 if ride comfort is your top priority, though.
You won't be disappointed by the driving manners of any 3 Series, although versions equipped with M Sport suspension possess the best cornering skills (apart from the range-topping M340i, which is even better thanks to its bespoke suspension).
The steering is a particular strength. True, it's not quite as feelsome as the XE's, but it's quicker and more reactive and lets you always know exactly how much grip is available. Once you've acclimatised to its immediate response, you find yourself placing the car's nose just where you want it.
Noise and vibration
There isn't much wind noise at motorway speeds, but road noise (especially on models with run-flat tyres) is slightly more pronounced than in many versions of the Audi A4 and Mercedes 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 340i) sound sweet, while the less powerful four-cylinder engines have a gruffer but still perfectly acceptable tone. The big-selling 320d diesel isn't quite as hushed as the equivalent A4 40 TDI, though.
The brake pedal of the 330e plug-in hybrid feels a bit weird when you press it, 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 hybrid cars, though, and on the plus side, you get no engine noise when this version is running on electric power alone.