The 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine in the entry-level 318i model issurprisingly willing, but needs to be revved quite hard, while the 320i offers genuine pace – it’s quicker in the real world than an equivalent Jaguar XE and a match for its other rivals. For those looking for higher performance the 330i and 340i are very quick, while the 425bhp M3 offers a turn of speed to rival many supercars’.
We prefer the diesels, though, with the exception of the 316d, which feels rather underpowered. We’d stick with 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 similar-engined versions of its rivals. The even more efficiency-focused 320 ED models are a little slower, but not by much and still feel more than capable. Like the larger petrol engines, the 330d and particularly 335d are very quick indeed.
Those looking to drive mainly short distances may be interested in the 330e, which combines the engine from the 320i with an electric motor and battery pack. It offers similar pace to a 330i but with much lower CO2 emissions thanks to a 25-mile electric only range.
BMW 3 Series ride comfort
Like most cars, the BMW 3 Series rides best when fitted with smaller wheels, but even on 19in alloys it rides amazingly well for such a sporty car – 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, while on faster roads 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 are even smoother.
Switch to Sport mode and the extra stiffness means you feel more bumps, but the ride is still tolerable and the car stays pinned to the road. The caveat to all this is that we haven’t yet driven the 3 Series on the standard non-adaptive suspension.
BMW 3 Series handling
In an effort to keep it ahead of the fine-handling Jaguar XE, BMW sharpened the 3 Series when it updated the car in 2015. Even the heavy 330e hybrid gets round corners very well.
When the Adaptive M Sport suspension is in Comfort mode the 3 Series feels well controlled and easy to handle, while switching to Sport stiffens the dampers and turns the 3 Series into a real driver’s car that has no problem holding its own against the Jaguar. For those concerned about traction in the winter months, the xDrive four-wheel-drive system makes a lot of sense.
The only let down 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 recommending ignoring this, as well as the more expensive Variable Sport Steering option.
BMW 3 Series refinement
The best engine refinement comes from the petrols. While the 316i can be a little raspy it’s still reasonably muted, and the larger petrols – especially the six-cylinder 340i – are very smooth. Special mention should go to the 330e hybrid, which is eerily quiet in electric only mode and still very impressive when the engine kicks in.
The diesels are quick and efficient but they’re not as refined as the excellent diesels in the Audi A4. Vibrations are well suppressed, but there’s too much engine noise around town and when you’re trying to build speed. The exception to this is the 335d, which is much quieter but still not on a par with the A4’s 3.0 TDI.
Wind noise intrudes on the motorway, too, along with road noise when the larger wheels are fitted. But 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 some models) is one of slickest gearboxes on the market.
Relatively smooth for a three-cylinder petrol, but needs to be revved hard to avoid 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 torque throughout the rev-range for effortless progress combined with comparatively reasonable fuel consumption if driven carefully. Works best when combined with the eight-speed automatic.
This uses the same 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that’s fitted to the 320i but with the addition of an electric motor and battery pack. Performance is similar to the 330i with the added benefit of a 25-mile electric only range. It also has the lowest CO2 rating in the entire range. The eight-speed auto gearbox is standard.
Ultra-smooth six-cylinder engine is very relaxing to drive. An excess of power means it is great when cruising and very quick when driven hard. As with most of the 3 Series range, it’s quicker and more economical when you swap the manual for an automatic gearbox, but will still be relatively pricey to run.
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 instead.
Our pick 320 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.
Uses a six cylinder in-line diesel, which delivers fantastically rorty mid-range performance despite good real-world economy, even if it can’t quite match the refinement of some of its rivals. Comes as standard with the excellent automatic gearbox, and can be specced up 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.
With a colossal 425bhp the M3 offers extraordinary levels of performance to match some supercars, while still being easy to drive when you want to cruise. It’s not cheap to run, especially if you use the power, and doesn’t sound as tuneful as the Mercedes-AMG C63.