Used test: BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE vs Volkswagen Passat

The 3 Series has been a regular favourite with used buyers, but can it fight off the challenge from the better-to-drive Jaguar XE or more spacious VW Passat?...

BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE vs VW Passat

The Contenders

BMW 3 Series 320d M Sport auto

List price when new £33,635
Price today £13,511*
Available from 2012-2019

Even though its looks aren’t particularly radical, the previous generation 3 Series is still one of the best executive cars around.

Jaguar XE 2.0d 180 R Sport auto

List price when new £34,775
Price today £12,593*
Available from 2015-present

It's 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 

List price when new £30,490
Price today £12,593*
Available from 2015-present

It'a better equipped than its blue-collared rivals, but can the Passat cause an upset?

*Price today is based on a 2015 model with average mileage and full service history according to the What Car? Valuation service, correct at time of writing

The BMW 3 Series is used to being top dog. Over the years, we’ve voted it our Executive Car of the Year so many times because it provides the classy image everyone desires, the high-end equipment befitting a premium offering, and a driving experience that keeps everyone amused – be your journey a motorway schlep or a B road blast.

2015 BMW 3 Series 320d review

This previous-generation 3 Series is also a bit of a winner as a used buy because you can find all sorts of versions out there to suit any taste, from a punchy petrol to an up-to-the-minute plug-in hybrid to make your commute greener, provided you have easy access to a charge point. But it's the very frugal diesel-powered 320d M Sport automatic that we’re testing here, a car whose appreciably low annual car tax bills have long stood in its favour.

Headline competition comes from the Jaguar XE, the car that notably displaced the 3 Series as the best driver’s car in this class, and which comes in equally sporty R-Sport trim. The VW Passat could also upset the established pecking order, because this current model is surprisingly plush inside and, in R-Line trim, better equipped than its rivals.

What are they like to drive? 

The XE is built using lots of lightweight aluminium, so it’s surprising that it’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 Jag’s eight-speed automatic gearbox in its standard ‘Drive’ 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.

Jaguar XE

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 Passat’s seven-speed auto ’box is jerky at low speeds. The Jaguar’s is smoother, but there’s often a lengthy delay when you ask for a sudden burst of acceleration – 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 can’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 optional adaptive M Sport suspension of our test car) but its optional Servotronic steering (a minor £85 option when new) is inconsistently weighted and uncommunicative at higher speeds. We much prefer the 3 Series without this system.

2015 Volkswagen Passat R Line rear 3/4

Our test Passat came with the optional R Line Sport Pack that, among other things, brings lower suspension and a faster ‘progressive’ steering rack. However, we’d not bother looking for this package because it makes the ride less 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; the Jaguar XE is slightly more comfortable around town and the BMW 3 Series more settled on the motorway. However, both handle very well in different ways, whereas the VW Passat isn’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.