The BMW 3 Series is one of those cars that transcends the need for an introduction. Arguably the most recognisable nameplate within the Munich automaker’s portfolio and one of the most popular compact premium cars out there, it’s usually rivals that are left with the burden to prove that they offer an overall package as enticing as the Bimmer.
That doesn’t mean that the car can get away with a sub-par showing, though, and as the competition heats up as it has been doing lately, its flaws are pulled into closer focus against the backdrop of its perennial strengths.
The F30, or the 6th-generation to emerge from a lineage that has its roots in the BMW 2002, was first introduced in 2011 before undergoing a mid-life update in 2015. It still remains one of the segment’s leaders but, depending on your priorities, is perhaps no longer the easy decision it once was.
For example, the Audi A4 (B9) has it trounced in terms of sheer build quality and technology if you can stand its slightly straight-laced styling, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class (W205) offers more luxury, and the inaugural Jaguar XE came dangerously close to usurping its handling crown. Then there’s the new Alfa Romeo Giulia as well as the unmoving opposition party: Lexus IS and Infiniti Q50.
However, if its the BMW that catches your fancy, there’s no shortage of flavours as it comes with a wide combination of engines and trim lines to choose from in addition to having it as a conventional sedan, a Touring (wagon), or the 5-door lift back Gran Turismo.
“…stick nice wheels on a 318i and you have something that looks much more expensive. And if you want the image rather than the Sheer Driving Pleasure, it’ll appeal.” - CarAdvice
The 3 Series can definitely be recognised easily as a BMW - the sharp angles, and abundance of character lines distinguish it as such - but deftly refrains from straying into ‘cluttered’ territory. As a baseline shape, the proportions lend themselves well to either the Sport or Luxury trim lines, and particularly well to the M Sport.
Over its predecessor, this 3 Series is both longer and wider, and unlike the top down approach many automakers take toward their visual identity, the 3 Series is often where the brand’s newest design cues manifest first, and the F30’s design has definitely stood up well, undergoing only minor visual alternations during the LCI (Life Cycle Impulse) that were more like adjustments instead of definitive stylistic changes.
While the Touring retains the effortlessly athletic stance of the sedan, the GT by comparison is something of an acquired taste, a body style that seems to divide opinion on looks but is unquestionably more practical than the sedan.
Engines and Drivetrain
“While the hybrid system doesn't run in electric mode as often as some, there’s no arguing with the 330e's performance. With 249bhp it's capable of 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds, although it runs out of puff at high speeds.” - Auto Express
Petrol engines reign supreme within the 3 Series range, at least locally, where only a sole diesel option is offered against four petrol variants. The 320d draws power from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel that generates 140kW and a meaty 400Nm which endows it with hot hatch-like performance.
The oil burner here is quite efficient with fuel at a claimed 4.4-litres/100km at its most frugal, however it’s not as quiet as the equivalents found in the Audi A4. But speaking of hot hatches, even the 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol in the base 318i offers ‘adequate’ levels of performance, with a respectable 100kW and 220Nm - more than enough for a brisk run across town but definitely not suited to a blast on the Autobahn.
Step up to the most potent 340i, though, and power climbs to a near-M-like 240kW and 450Nm from its turbocharged straight-six. The sweet spot, though, is the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo in the 320i and 330i, which outputs 135kW/270Nm in the former or 185kW/350Nm in the latter, all while returning up to 5.8-litres/100km if you feather the throttle just right.
There’s an even more interesting proposition to be had in the 330e which falls under BMW’s iPerformance range, combining the 135kW 2.0-litre petrol turbo engine with a 65kW electric motor that together produce 185kW and 420Nm, enough grunt for a 0-100km/h time of 5.9 seconds. As a plug-in hybrid, it can be operated in fully electric mode, able to drive up to 22.5km without using a drop of petrol.
All 3 Series models are mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission sourced from ZF, proven to help deliver impressive fuel efficiency and quick gear shifts.
“There is nothing wrong with the 3 Series and everything works well, but it does not feel as special and the A4 also trumps it for cabin classiness.” - CarsGuide
Functional with a tinge of sportiness is how most would describe BMW interiors, and nowhere is this more exemplified than in the 3 Series. Build quality is good too, and more than a match to its direct competition on materials as well as a ergonomics.
For a rear-wheel drive car, it does have a surprising amount headroom and, thankfully, legroom as BMW have over the years mastered the art of packaging to maximise space, and coupled with the expanded dimensions over its predecessor, the F30 3 Series sedan has a noticeably more airy cabin. Three can sit abreast but the middle person, especially if they’re tall, may have issues with the headliner as well as sharing foot space beneath the front seats.
In the back, the boot opens to a commodious 480-litres on a fairly square floor, matched by the Audi and Mercedes. This, of course, expands with the seats down. The Touring is obviously the practicality champion here, but the GT’s hatch body style does earn it load-lugging points over the sedan as well in addition to the greater amounts of headroom.
Behind The Wheel
“The steering is nicely weighted and the front end is so accurate and responsive that you know exactly where you are with it at all times. It’s smooth, enjoyable and exhibits deftness in all it does.” - Top Gear
You can bet that each time the best and the brightest sit down to consider the brand’s next 3 Series, the subject of how it should drive comes up an awful lot. We might imagine it being their first order of business.
The result of this is that with each iteration it becomes less about how good it drives, and more about how much better it can drive. When the car underwent an update in 2015, BMW injected the standard springs with some - depending on who you ask - much needed pliancy.
Yet, it’s still very sharp at the nose and planted at the rear. Steering, as it’s electric, isn’t as communicative as in generations past, but if you learn to ignore the tactile chatter, there’s a lot of accuracy as well as superbly calibrated weight and resistance as you take it from lock to lock.
The Adaptive M Suspension, available as standard in the 320i and up (but not in the 330e iPerformance Sport Line), delivers an exceptional all-round ability to how the 3 Series covers ground, softening the ride for a more soothing journey or firming up to better hold the road - from the touch of a button.
Equally important to how the car actually handles if thrown into a challenging series of bends is how the car makes the driver feel in less exhilarating situations. Thanks to a nice and low seating position, well placed pedals, good visibility, and an overall great steering wheel (if the M-Sport pack is selected), the 3 Series induces confidence on the road even at low speeds.
Safety and Technology
“BMW was the first car maker to amalgamate all the infotainment functions into a series of on-screen menus operated via a rotary controller on the centre console, and its iDrive system remains the best. Only Audi’s MMI system comes close,” - What Car?
Every 3 Series comes with a 5-star ANCAP safety rating according to results taken from EuroNCAP’s own crash test conducted in 2012 upon the F30 3 Series’ initial release. Today, as standard, each comes with front, side, and head airbags (6 in total), traction control, rear view camera and surround view, lane departure warning, and low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB).
Of course, there’s the iDrive infotainment system that uses a dash-mounted high-resolution colour LCD display (6.5-inch and larger) with in-built navigation. It’s one of the most intuitive and genuinely useful in-car interfaces out there, and easily operated through a rotary dial just behind the gear lever.
There’s even a genuinely useful head-up display that’s available across the range, making vehicle speed, speed limit, and route info viewable without requiring the driver to divert attention away from the road ahead.
There’s a reason why the 3 Series has been regarded as the class benchmark for at least a good couple of decades now. Sure, time will tell if that winning streak continues, and for how long - the market is getting increasingly crowded with the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Jaguar XE, both cars appear to be mimicking the Bimmer’s appeal of pairing a premium car with a sporty, rear-drive chassis.
Interestingly, the 3 Series has grown to be a car more considerate to the needs of those not inclined to drive spiritedly. For the first time, it’s one of the best cars in terms of sheer ride and refinement while losing precious little of its on-road flair. Nearly 6 years after its initial debut, the F30 is still very much the master all-rounder. Just bear in mind that the competition are closer than ever to toppling it, and already have in certain areas.
Top Gear - 9/10 - “BMW 3 Series review: The old one was the best car in the class... And so's the new one. As you were. […] The most complete compact exec and perhaps the best saloon of all.
Auto Express - “5/5 - “The BMW 3 Series is a great handling compact executive saloon, that's also efficient, spacious and well built.”
CarAdvice - 8.5/10 - “…it’s clear this mid-life refresh has produced the best-driving and best-value version of the world’s best-selling luxury car to date.”
What Car? - 4/5 - “If you choose the right version and add the right options, the BMW 3 Series is still one of the best executive cars around.”
CarsGuide - 3.5/5 - “…updated 3 Series is better where it counts and I would like to see how it goes in a back-to-back contest with the C Class, using both the basic models and something more upscale like the 330 Touring. For now, though, I can only judge what I've got and the latest 3 Series is more than good enough - again - to deserve The Tick.”
Autocar - 4/5 - “There may be many reasons you might eventually prefer an Audi A4 or a Mercedes C-Class, not to mention a Lexus IS or a Jaguar XE, but they’re likely to be largely subjective and matters of personal taste.”