BMW 3 Series review
In replacing its best-selling executive saloon, BMW has managed to retain the previous model’s driver appeal while making improvements in interior space, cabin quality and cutting-edge technology. The updated styling is a conservative evolution of what’s gone before it, but with a stronger, lighter body refinement has risen too. Initially the range is limited, but that will change through the course of 2019, while both launch models offer a class-leading blend of performance and economy. And while prices have risen a little, standard equipment is significantly higher. The latest 3 Series goes straight to the top of the compact executive class.
7 Feb, 2019
The 3 Series is now based on BMW’s CLAR (short for Cluster Architecture) platform, which was first introduced on the flagship 7 Series in 2015 and is also used for the 5 Series executive saloon. This certainly bodes very well for the 3 Series, as it brings with it a host of technology that was previously not available to BMW’s engineers in the compact executive sector.
And that’s just as well, as with the last generation 3 Series had fallen behind the best expected in the class, with both the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class offering a better interior ambience. And while newcomers such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia aren’t up there with the best in terms of build quality, its interior certainly looks more stylish than the last 3 Series.
The latest car features an interior that feels like that of the 5 Series and 7 Series, and that’s no bad thing as both those cars have an excellent, high-quality feel to them. The 3 Series has a more driver-centric feel to it than the Audi A4 and is less fussy and more straightforward than that found in the Mercedes C-Class, too.
The dashboard design works seamlessly with the new technology on board, and all cars come with sat nav (an 8.8-inch touchscreen in SE and Sport models, 10.25-inch in the M Sport) and BMW’s new Intelligent Personal Assistant, a voice controlled set up that allows you to communicate with the car as you would with Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Thus you can adjust the temperature, change the audio settings or talk to the sat nav amongst other things. If you prefer you can still use the iDrive controller which is intuitive and easy to use.
M Sport models come as standard with BMW’s new Live Cockpit Professional, which includes a 12.3-inch digital dashboard display that allows you to fully customise the information displayed and offers a higher level of functionality than in SE or Sport models. What is a little disappointing is that this Live Cockpit Professional cannot be added as an option to the SE or Sport models. These receive more traditional analogue instruments with a smaller central digital display.
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Externally the G20 3 Series is instantly recognisable as belonging to the BMW family, but it does seem to be a somewhat evolutionary design. And while the car’s looks are obviously subjective, we do feel it’s a little bland from some angles. From the front it’s instantly recognisable as a BMW with its trademark headlights (LED throughout the 3 Series range) and the kidney grilles remain, but from the rear it’s perhaps less recognisable as a BMW.
Non-metallic paint is standard on all models bar the 330i and if you want to add metallic to an SE or Sport model it’ll cost around £670. The 330i M Sport model can be specified in a unique hue of Portimao Blue which does set off its aggressive styling to good effect.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
Long gone are the days when a 3 Series didn’t even come with a stereo or speakers, and all models are now packed with an array of hi-tech equipment. There’s sav nav (with a 8.8-inch central screen on SE and Sport models, 10.25-inch on the M Sport) and there’s Bluetooth – both for calls and music streaming – along with USB charging points.
A DAB radio comes as standard, as does BMW’s Connected+ which gives you access to BMW Apps as well as its online services. Emergency Call will automatically call the emergency services in the event of an accident. Apple CarPlay is standard across the range but disappointingly Android Auto is not available, even as an option.
The stereo along with many other functions can be accessed via the central control display acting as a touchscreen, or you can also use voice commands and the iDrive controller. While it can seem a little bewildering at a glance, those coming from a previous generation 3 Series will have no trouble operating the system and it soon all becomes second nature once it’s been used for a couple of days.
The BMW 3 Series has long been the default choice for those looking for an entertaining driving experience from their compact executive saloon. And for the most part, this latest incarnation of the 3 Series retains its crown as being the drivers’ car in the class. However, BMW has also attempted to increase refinement and ride quality to match the Mercedes C-Class. It’s a tough job to retain the 3 Series’ sporting appeal while also raising the bar in the comfort stakes.
Remarkably, BMW seems to have pulled it off, as the 3 Series is still a very entertaining car to drive, with impressive road holding yet with an improved ride quality over its predecessor. Part of this improvement is thanks to BMW’s new stroke-dependent suspension damper technology, which is a standard feature on all models. When the car is carrying a light load, the damping rate is softer, resulting in a compliant ride.
However, when the car is fully laden with passengers and luggage, the damping is stiffer to take into account the heavier load, which results in appreciably better body control without unduly affecting the ride quality. For the most part it works very well, but part of the improvement in the 3 Series’ ability is also the result of using BMW’s latest CLAR platform. This has reduced weight – by up to 55kg – and increased body rigidity by up to 50 per cent. It’s an impressive feat given the 3 Series is larger than its predecessor.
The 3 Series lives up to the driver appeal expected of the model with excellent poise and agility, comfortably beating both the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class in this respect. But like its rivals it does suffer a little from having slightly lifeless steering that doesn’t offer keen drivers a huge amount of feedback. Despite this, the 3 Series is still a drivers’ car with excellent grip and composure. And while the steering rack lacks feel it is quick, allowing accurate and rapid corrections to your cornering line.
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This can be improved by opting for one of the models with BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive system – currently only available on the 320d – which makes the 3 Series even more surefooted no matter the conditions.
Two transmissions are offered – a six-speed manual or an eight-speed ZF automatic – but the manual is only available on the 320d. The manual is an improvement on the previous generation’s slightly notchy change, while the automatic is an excellent transmission with smooth changes throughout, whether the gearbox is left to its own devices or whether changing gear manually with the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
On the motorway the 3 Series is an accomplished cruiser, offering lower noise levels than it exhibited previously, which is in part thanks to the standard fit acoustic glazing. The ride is good too, and while in the past we might have recommended the optional adaptive dampers, this is no longer necessary thanks to the stroke-dependent dampers. On the largest wheels there is an occasional thump from the worst pot holes, but it’s certainly no worse than its rivals in this respect.
Engines, 0-60 acceleration and top speed
The BMW 3 Series engine line-up currently comprises two units – one diesel and one petrol – the 320d and the 330i, but more models will join the range in due course, including a 330e plug-in hybrid.
The 320d will be the default choice for many drivers, despite the diesel backlash, and it’s easy to see why as it offers an excellent blend of performance and economy. The engine is reasonably familiar as it’s used in many BMW models but has been upgraded for the new 3 Series with a number of revisions. It produces 187bhp and 400Nm of torque, which means a 0-62mph time of 7.1 seconds for the manual models and 6.8 seconds for the eight-speed automatic. That’s considerably quicker than the Audi A4 40 TDI, which takes 7.7 seconds to cover the same increment and is marginally faster that the Mercedes C220 d. If you prefer your 3 Series with xDrive four-wheel drive, the 320d xDrive takes 6.9 seconds to do 0-62mph and has a top speed of 145mph, four mph less than the rear-wheel drive 320d.
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The previous generation 320d was a little noisy for our liking, but there have been improvements for this new model and it is quieter than before, only sounding a little grumbly when extended. On the move the engine is generally very refined and with additional soundproofing and the acoustic glazing, it’s a hushed companion at motorway speeds.
The manual gearbox is nothing to write home about – it does its job and has a pleasant action – but we’d advise opting for the eight-speed automatic. It changes gear very effectively both in manual and automatic modes and it makes the best use of the available torque from the engine.
The petrol-engined 330i is quite a performer with its turbocharged four-cylinder engine developing 254bhp and the same 400Nm of torque as the 320d. It will accelerate from 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds and has a top speed electronically limited to 155mph. It’s only offered with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and is a very willing performer. And despite BMW’s move from six- to four-cylinder engines for its 330i models, the engine still feels willing and eager, if not quite as tuneful as the old six-cylinder unit.
BMW will bring a wider range of petrol and diesel models to market at a later date, but one model we have already sampled in prototype form is the M340i, which has a turbocharged six-cylinder engine developing 369bhp. This can accelerate from 0-62mph in just 4.4 seconds which is almost as fast as the M4 Coupe.
BMW has a reputation for making solidly reliable cars, but its rankings in our 2018 Driver Power Survey show that there’s definitely room for improvement. The 3 Series is too new to be individually ranked, but BMW as a manufacturer finished in 21st position out of 26 manufacturers.
The previous generation 3 Series finished 38th out of 75 cars, while the latest 5 Series (which shares much of its technology with the newest 3 Series) was ranked in 21st place, so this should bode well for the new car’s reliability. Many of the 3 Series’ infotainment systems, as well as the car’s basic structure, engine and gearboxes, have fared well in the 5 Series, so we would hope the 3 Series can improve its overall ranking.
BMW has a reputation for making safe cars, and while the 3 Series has not yet been tested by Euro NCAP, the previous generation 3 Series, as well as the 5 Series, both garnered five-star ratings. The 3 Series comes with a range of standard-fit safety systems such as stability control and dynamic brake lights, as well as adaptive LED headlights.
Additional safety systems come under what BMW terms Active Guard Plus. This includes speed limit information, lane departure warning, a collision and pedestrian warning system with a city brake function, plus cruise control with braking function. For a more comprehensive suite of safety systems, buyers can add the Driving Assistant Professional package for around £1,250. This includes Active Cruise Control, steering and lane control assistant, lane keeping assistant with active side collision protection, priority warning and wrong-way warning systems and cross-traffic alert.
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Included as standard is BMW’s Connected+ service, which can alert the emergency services in the event of an accident.
BMW offers a three-year unlimited mileage warranty on the 3 Series, and this also includes a three-year subscription to the BMW Emergency breakdown service. This is broadly similar to the warranty offered by Mercedes, but better than the 60,000 mile limit favoured by Audi. The BMW warranty can be extended after the initial three-year period with either monthly or annual payments and differing levels of cover.
BMW’s paintwork warranty lasts for three years, while its anti-corrosion warranty is of 12 years in duration.
The 3 Series will require servicing approximately every 20,000 miles, dependent on the car’s use and mileage covered.
To ease the burden of unexpected costs, BMW runs a scheme called Service Inclusive which offers fixed price servicing for three years or 36,000 miles. This will cover all standard scheduled servicing including oil changes, replacement air and fuel filters (depending on model) and spark plugs if required. Prices for Service Inclusive start from around £400 and it can be taken out at any time until the car’s first service is due.
The 3 Series is bigger than it was before, and the main focus for BMW has been on improving accommodation for those in the back. As a result it now offers similar levels of space as the Audi A4 and the Mercedes C-Class. BMW says the 3 Series is now wide enough to accommodate three child seats side by side in the rear, but only the two outside positions come with Isofix points.
Both front seat occupants should be able to find a comfortable position with a good range of seat adjustment and a steering wheel that’s adjustable for height and rake. The standard upholstery is cloth, but both Sport and M Sport models come with Vernasca leather and all models receive heated seats. The standard seats have manual adjustment but electric assistance and a driver’s seat memory function can be added for around £270.
As with most new cars, the 3 Series has grown in comparison with its predecessor. It is now 4,709mm long (up by 85mm), 16mm wider (at 1,827mm) and a scant 1mm taller. The C-Class is a touch shorter by 23mm while the Audi A4 is longer at 4,738mm. The Audi is 13mm wider and the Mercedes is 17mm narrower – as near as makes no difference.
What has changed significantly for the BMW 3 Series is that its wheelbase has been extended by 41mm, which gives more leg room for rear passengers. Indeed, it now has the longest wheelbase of the three cars. In addition to this the car’s front and rear tracks have also been widened in the quest for improved ride and handling.
Leg room, head room and passenger space
If the 3 Series had previously been a little tight in the rear for three passengers, it now offers a decent amount of legroom. That’s thanks to the increase in wheelbase, but if three adults are carried in the rear, the middle seat passenger might feel a little hard done by as the middle seat is a little hard and has less legroom thanks to the transmission tunnel.
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There should be no complaints on the amount of headroom though, as the 3 Series offers a few millimetres more than either the Audi A4 or Mercedes C-Class. There’s plenty of room for storing oddments too, with decently sized door pockets.
The driver and front seat passenger fare very well with comfortable and supportive seats. So far we’ve only sampled the sports seats that come in the Sport and M Sport models, but we would expect the standard seats to be comfortable as well. One slight disappointment is that lumbar support is an option rather than a standard feature.
While the 3 Series has grown in size, the same cannot be said of its boot, which stays at 480 litres – the same as the previous generation model. It should be more than adequate for most buyers without being class-leading. The Audi A4 has an identically sized boot but the C-Class falls a little short of its rivals with a 455-litre capacity.
As standard the 3 Series comes with 40:20:40 split folding rear seats that improve its practicality. If you opt for the Comfort package (around £1,000) you get extended storage with some handy nets in the boot compartment along with an electrically operated boot lid that can be opened by swiping your foot under the rear bumper.
Ever since BMW first introduced its EfficientDynamics fuel saving technologies over a decade ago, its cars are able to offer excellent economy to accompany impressive performance, and the 3 Series carries on that tradition. Although there are only two engine choices at the moment, both offer class-leading fuel economy along with low emissions.
More engines will join the line-up in due course, and this will include hybrid models, but for the moment we have one petrol, the 330i, and one diesel, the 320d, to choose from. The diesel 320d will return between 49.6 and 56.5mpg depending on model, wheel size and transmission. If these figures don’t look as impressive as we’re used to seeing, it’s because they have been obtained under the new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), which gives figures that you’re more likely to see in real-world driving conditions.
The BMW’s economy compares favourably to the Mercedes C220 d, which has figures between 45.6 and 53.3mpg. Add four-wheel drive into the mix with BMW’s xDrive and Mercedes’ 4Matic, and the BMW’s advantage grows returning a worse-case economy of 47.1mpg to the C220 d’s 40.9mpg. The rear-wheel drive 320d has CO2 emissions of between 115 and 117g/km with the manual gearbox and 110 to 112g/km with the automatic leading to reasonable Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) ratings for company car drivers. Add xDrive and those tax brackets rise, but not by a dramatic amount.
While these are impressive figures for the 320d, it might be worth looking at the 330i if you cover less than 10,000 miles a year, as it’s also impressively frugal, especially when you factor in its performance levels. The 330i will return between 38.2 and 41.5mpg (again, under the WLTP testing regime), with CO2 outputs of between 134 and 139g/km.
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All the current models in the 320d and 330i ranges have list prices of below £40,000 so VED will cost £140 per year, but you’d only need to add a couple of options to send several models over the £40,000 mark. This would bring VED up to a rather less palatable £450 a year for the first five years you pay it, so be careful when adding those options.
Insurance groups for the G20 generation BMW 3 Series range from 28 to 32, with the 320d SE coming in lowest and the rapid and sporty looking 330i M Sport at the top of the table.
Insurance costs are broadly similar for the 3 Series as they are for Mercedes’ C-Class and the Audi A4. For the last generation 3 Series, the least powerful model fell into group 18, while the high performance 340i M Sport was in group 39 (out of a possible 50 groups).
Thanks to the lure of the premium badge the BMW 3 Series has never suffered from terrible rates of depreciation but as with the C-Class and the Audi A4 the sheer number of these premium models being sold each year has ultimately had a slight softening effect on their residual values.
The launch range of 320d and 330i models retain around 42-44 per cent of their value after three years. The more desirable M Sport models do slightly better than an entry-level SE model with no additional options.
Traditionally the high-powered diesel models have fared best in the 3 Series depreciation tables so once these models come to market they may be worth considering if you’re purchasing privately.