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Used test: BMW 3 Series vs Volkswagen Golf

For decades, these two iconic cars have both been at the top of their game. But which is the better used buy, the executive BMW 3 Series or family-focused VW Golf?...

Used test: BMW 3 Series vs Volkswagen Golf

The contenders

BMW 3 Series 320i M Sport

List price when new £35,465
Price today £17,500*
Available from 2019-present

It bears a premium badge and a more powerful engine, but is the 3 Series easier to live with?

Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI 130 Style

List price when new £25,495
Price today £16,500**
Available from 2020-present

Comfy and practical, the Golf is a great family car, plus it's the cheaper and newer option here 

*Price today is based on a 2019 (**2020) model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

The Apple iPhone, Nike Air Jordans, Walkers crisps: some products become so popular that, over time, they transform into the poster child for their respective fields. One that's long since represented the family car class is the Volkswagen Golf. The model has been around for 50 years, spanned eight generations and is consistently one of the best-selling cars in the UK. 

Another class that has an icon among its members is the executive car one. As of writing, the BMW 3 Series has been around for 49 years and it's been the posh saloon car of choice for countless buyers over that period. 

BMW 3 Series front cornering

Naturally, being associated with different classes, as well as being considerably different in price, has meant we've never tested these two models against each other as new cars. However, we see good reason to as used cars, because 2019 3 Series and 2020 Golf examples can be seen within just a grand of each other. Yes, that's right, it's the battle of the icons. 

2020 Volkswagen Golf front action


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

The Golf's petrol engine is smaller and less powerful, being a 128bhp 1.5-litre unit versus the 181bhp 2.0-litre petrol unit in the 3 Series. As you can probably guess, the 3 Series is the quicker machine – it saw off the 0-60mph sprint in 7.3sec during our testing – and it's noticeably punchier, whether you tickle the accelerator or give it a boot full. 

The Golf managed the same sprint in 8.8sec: a clear step behind the 3 Series but a respectable effort, nonetheless. In general, we believe the Golf to offer sufficient performance for the kind of everyday driving it's likely to be doing. 

BMW 3 Series rear cornering

The Golf's ride also leans into casual, everyday driving. With its suspension on the softer side, it cushions most bumps impressively well. Our only note is that the ride could be more composed: over a set of potholes, for instance, we sometimes found ourselves jostled around in our seat a little more than we'd expect – in fact, this Golf's predecessor, the 2013-2020 Volkswagen Golf, was slightly more resolved. 

The 3 Series is more composed, so there's less of this side-to-side motion. However, due to its noticeably firmer suspension, the 3 Series doesn't glide over most bumps like the Golf can, meaning, overall, it's less comfortable. 

Still, the BMW's ride is far from uncomfortable and we'd simply recommend seeking out a 3 Series in SE or Sport trim – rather than M Sport trim – if comfort is of top priority because they get softer suspension setups.

The only way to get a softer ride with an M Sport car is to find an example that, like our test car, had the optional adaptive suspension fitted from new: this feature allows you to stiffen or relax the ride at the push of a button. It doesn't transform things – the ride is still pretty firm – but it makes for a welcome improvement. 

2020 Volkswagen Golf rear action

On the plus side, the firmness of the 3 Series helps create its wonderfully sharp and engaging handling. There's very little body lean, even during quick changes of direction. 

The Golf is decently grippy, capable and confidence-inspiring on a twisty road, sure, but it's not as enthusiastic or fun to drive as the BMW. The 3 Series also benefits from better, beefier steering – the Golf's is precise enough but overly light at times, robbing some driver confidence. 

Next: What are they like inside? >>

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