First Drive

BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE vs VW Passat

Our judging panel cast their votes as the new Jaguar XE takes on the revised BMW 3 Series and the latest Volkswagen Passat

Words ByWhat Car? team

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The BMW 3 Series is used to being top dog. Over the past decade, weโ€™ve voted it our Compact Executive Car of the Year no fewer than eight times, and itโ€™s been top of the saloon sales charts almost all of that time.

However, in the past two years the trophies have dried up, as itโ€™s been squeezed from below by cheaper yet similarly premium alternatives โ€“ such as the Audi A3 Saloon โ€“ and from above by BMWโ€™s very own 5 Series, which is bigger and classier yet costs barely any more to buy.

Does the 3 Series still have a place? BMW thinks so, and to make sure buyers agree itโ€™s updated the engines and the suspension, and made the interior a bit more upmarket. Weโ€™re testing the popular 320d M Sport auto โ€“ not quite the most efficient version but one that offers appreciably low company car tax bills.

Headline competition comes from the Jaguar XE, the car that recently displaced the 3 Series as best driverโ€™s car in this class. The VW Passat could also upset the established pecking order, because this latest model is surprisingly plush inside and, in R-Line trim, better equipped than its rivals.

The contenders

BMW 3 Series 320d M Sport auto

The 3 Series has been improved in a number of important ways, even though it looks the same as ever.

Jaguar XE 2.0d 180 R-Sport auto

The benchmark for handling but the XE is far more than just a one-trick pony.

Volkswagen Passat 2.0 TDI 190 R-Line DSG

Cheaper and better equipped than its blue-collared rivals. Can the Passat cause an upset?

What are they like to drive?

The XE is built using lots of lightweight aluminium, so itโ€™s surprising that itโ€™s the heaviest of our trio. That, along with the fact it has the least powerful engine, helps explain why it was the slowest in all but one of our acceleration tests.

Oddly, leaving the Jagโ€™s eight-speed automatic gearbox in its standard โ€˜Driveโ€™ setting (rather than Sport) gives punchier upshifts and allows you to build speed more swiftly, but the XE still takes around half a second longer to sprint from 30-70mph than its rivals.

The 3 Series is ultimately the fastest, and it always feels more eager to respond when you press the accelerator pedal thanks to its brilliant automatic gearbox. It swaps cogs smoothly and has a knack of always being in the right gear at the right time.

By contrast, the Passatโ€™s seven-speed auto โ€™box is jerky at low speeds. The Jaguarโ€™s is smoother, but thereโ€™s often a lengthy delay when you ask for a sudden burst of acceleration, something thatโ€™s a particular nuisance when pulling out on to roundabouts.

However, the Jag makes amends in other ways. It steers with a fluency that the other two canโ€™t match, and it stays wonderfully balanced through corners. True, the 3 Series grips harder and stays slightly flatter (at least when equipped with the ยฃ515 adaptive M Sport suspension that featured on our test car) but its optional Servotronic steering (ยฃ85) is inconsistently weighted and uncommunicative at higher speeds. Weโ€™ve yet to try the new 3 Series without this system.

Our test Passat came with the optional R-Line Sport Pack (ยฃ550) that, among other things, brings lower suspension and a faster โ€˜progressiveโ€™ steering rack. However, weโ€™d save the money, because the ride isnโ€™t particularly smooth, especially around town where the Passat struggles to cope with potholes and beaten up, patchy areas of road.

Admittedly, with their lowered suspension and optional arch-filling 19in alloys, neither the BMW nor the Jaguar rides with the suppleness of the best executive cars โ€“ the XE is slightly more comfortable around town and the 3 Series more settled on the motorway. However, both handle very well in different ways, whereas the Passat isnโ€™t as nimble or as entertaining, and its quick steering makes it slightly tricky to judge how much steering angle to apply through faster bends.

What are they like inside?

You wonโ€™t have too much trouble finding a decent driving position in any of these saloons, no matter what your size or shape. All three have a good range of seat and steering wheel adjustment (part electric in the case of the Passat and XE), allowing you to set everything up just the way you want it. The BMWโ€™s manual seats are a bit fiddly to fine-tune, but on the plus side they are the most supportive around the shoulders when youโ€™ve done so.

However, itโ€™s disappointing that both the BMW and the Jag miss out on adjustable lumbar support. This important feature, which helps you to maintain a good posture on long journeys, costs ยฃ265 on the 3 Series and ยฃ235 on the XE, whereas itโ€™s standard on the Passat.

You might imagine the cheaper VW would be shown up for interior quality, but itโ€™s actually the classiest of the three inside. The BMW runs it close, thanks to improvements including a new gloss black centre console, and the Jag isnโ€™t too far off the pace, even though it doesnโ€™t feel quite as solidly constructed as its rivals and some of its switchgear is a little lightweight.

If you plan to ferry around more than one adult on a regular basis then avoid the Jag. A couple of six-footers will fit in the back of all three cars, but theyโ€™ll enjoy far more leg- and head room in the 3 Series and Passat, and more space to put their feet, too. To make matters worse, the Jagโ€™s high windowline makes the rear cabin feels even more cramped than it is.

Likewise, itโ€™s best to steer clear of the XE if boot space is a priority. Itโ€™ll swallow a sizeable suitcase, but youโ€™ll struggle to squeeze in a large golf bag. The BMWโ€™s boot is usefully longer and wider, although itโ€™s no match for the VWโ€™s vast load area. The Passat is also the only one of our trio with split-folding rear seats, although these are available on the BMW and Jaguar for an additional ยฃ255 and ยฃ400 respectively.

What will they cost?

If youโ€™re a company car driver the Passat will work out the cheapest. Yes, it emits the most CO2, but not by enough to outweigh its sizeable price advantage. Choosing the VW over the Jaguar will save you ยฃ690 of your salary over the next three years while the 3 Series will set you back ยฃ120 more than the XE over that same period.

The VW is also cheaper if youโ€™re a private buyer. Sizeable discounts help its cause, but itโ€™s also predicted to lose you the least in depreciation during the first three years, and it is by far the cheapest of our trio to insure and service.

The desirable Jaguar will have relatively small discounts initially. Even though itโ€™s predicted to depreciate more slowly than the BMW, itโ€™ll work out more expensive over three years by around ยฃ2500. Itโ€™s thirstiest in our real-world driving, too, averaging just 44.9mpg (compared with the BMWโ€™s 47.5mpg and the Passatโ€™s 45.4mpg).

The Passat is the most generously equipped, despite being the cheapest. Like all of these cars it comes with 18in alloys, climate and cruise controls, automatic lights and wipers, keyless start and rear parking sensors, but it also adds parking sensors at the front, power folding door mirrors and an adaptive cruise control system.

The Jaguar comes with xenon headlights and heated front seats, and a lane-departure warning and speed limit sign recognition. Both it and the Passat come with automatic emergency braking as standard, whereas BMW charges extra for this important safety feature.

Our verdict

There isnโ€™t much to split this trio โ€“ each has at least one key strength over its rivals and none disappoints enough in any area to make us suggest you show caution before parting with your hard-earned cash.

In short, these are three very good cars, and which you choose should depend largely on your priorities. If those happen to be space, standard equipment and minimum impact on your wallet then go for the Passat. It might not have the posh badge many buyers in the class will consider a prerequisite, but it actually has the classiest interior of the three. In fact, if it had a quieter engine, a more comfortable ride and a smoother gearbox, it may well have embarrassed its blue-collared rivals.

Weโ€™ve previously described the Jaguar XE as the best-handling car in this class, and the arrival of the new 3 Series doesnโ€™t change this. The Jagโ€™s lower CO2 emissions help make up for its higher price, particularly if youโ€™re a company car driver, and the XE is very well equipped, especially on the safety front. However, we think the cheaper versions make even more sense, and the sports suspension fitted to this R Sport model brings a firmer ride without any major handling benefits.

The 3 Series is the best all-rounder. Itโ€™s great to drive, reasonably practical and smarter inside than itโ€™s ever been. Weโ€™d recommend you avoid adding 19in alloys and any of the optional steering systems, but otherwise itโ€™s a very fine executive saloon and the deserving winner here.

1st

BMW 3 Series 320d M Sport auto

ForStrong engine; brilliant infotainment system; intelligent gearbox; improved interior

Against Road noise; optional Servotronic steering; safety kit

Verdict Range of updates make the 3 Series better than ever

2nd

Jaguar XE 2.0d 180 R-Sport auto

For Fine handling; lots of safety kit; low CO2 emissions

Against Firm low-speed ride; not very practical

Verdict Pipped by the 3 Series, but only just

3rd

Volkswagen Passat 2.0 TDI 190 R-Line DSG

For Great value; spacious, classy cabin; well equipped

Against Noisy engine; so-so ride and handling

Verdict Big on space and value. Well worth a look

BMW 3 Series

Engine size

2.0-litre diesel

Price from

ยฃ33,635 (list)

Power

188bhp

Torque

295lb ft

0-62mph

7.4 seconds

Top speed

143mph

Fuel economy

47.5mpg

CO2

116g/km

Jaguar XE

Engine size

2.0-litre diesel

Price from

ยฃ34,775 (list)

Power

177bhp

Torque

317lb ft

0-62mph

8.3 seconds

Top speed

140mph

Fuel economy

44.9mpg

CO2

111g/km

Volkswagen Passat

Engine size

2.0-litre diesel

Price from

ยฃ30,490 (list)

Power

188bhp

Torque

295lb ft

0-62mph

8.4 seconds

Top speed

146mph

Fuel economy

45.4mpg

CO2

119g/km