The 3 Series is a legend that's hard to beat. Just ask these rivals.
It’s not easy to dethrone a king, but history happen it happen time and again. It’s a similar story for the BMW 3 Series, the longtime benchmark for mid-size premium sport sedans (and coupes). It didn’t take long after its 1975 introduction for competitors to arise, but it was not until very recently that some were able to beat the latest 3 Series in comparison tests. However, today’s 3 Series was launched in 2011 and BMW will strike back soon with a redesigned model. In that spirit, we came up with a list of competitors that for years could not beat the standard bearer.
The Audi A4 launched in 1994 and shared a platform with the fourth generation VW Passat. At the time BMW was selling the E36 3 Series, so there was really no competition. But Audi meticulously did its homework. What the A4 offered was the Quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system where the 3 Series was to retain rear-wheel drive for several more years. Audi later launched the more performance oriented S4 and, later on, the RS 4. Despite having outstanding build quality, especially the interior, the A4/S4/RS 4 came close but didn’t quite match the ideal blend of luxury, handling and performance the 3 Series and M3 offered. Today, the A4 has never been better and the 3 Series never more in need of a complete redesign.
The Cadillac ATS came too late to the party. Launched in 2013, it replaced the embarrassingly bad Catera, but it had bad timing because the sedan segment was beginning its sales decline due to the nation's nascent love affair with crossovers. That’s a shame because the ATS, notably the ATS-V, is one of the best-handling sport sedans on sale today. Some claim it drives better than the 3 Series. Cadillac engineers benchmarked the E46 3 Series (1999 to 2006), regarding it as the most dynamic and driver-focused 3 Series to date. GM engineers tried to think like their German counterparts and it paid off. Compared to the old Catera, the ATS is worlds’ better and the dedication GM put into it was sorely needed years earlier.
Truth be told, it was the Infiniti G35, launched in 2002, that actually beat the E46 3 Series in some comparison tests, but not all. Built on the same platform that also underpinned the 350Z, the G35 was a truly genuine sports sedan. With V6 and RWD, the G35 was also quite stylish inside and out, and some even say it was the better car over its G37 successor. Infiniti also launched its now dead IPL performance division during the G37’s reign, but it never took off because BMW M was world’s better. Today, the Infiniti Q50 and Q60 sedan and coupe, respectively, are sold. Are they better than the current 3 Series? Their owners certainly believe so.
Once upon a time, Ford owned Jaguar and made an attempt to fight the 3 Series with the X-Type. The X-Type shared the same FWD platform as the Europe-only Ford Mondeo. How can a proper sport sedan not be RWD? Ford/Jaguar didn’t have a good answer and the X-Type AWD was also not a solution. Launched in 2001, the X-Type lasted only until 2009, not long after Ford sold Jaguar to Tata Motors. It must have taken BMW no more than a few minutes to realize it had nothing to worry about regarding the X-Type, though it did have a nice exterior design, courtesy of current Jaguar design boss Ian Callum. It was not until 2015 when the Jaguar XE launched that BMW had to admit Jaguar was now a real rival.
Only more recently has Lexus finally found its groove. The IS first went on sale in the US in 1999 and it surprised many. It was already world’s better than the Cadillac Catera but was still no 3 Series threat. Like Infiniti, Lexus kept at it by doing its darndest to build the ideal Japanese sport sedan. Launching the V8-powered IS F in 2007 was a huge step in the right direction. But Lexus realized that it had to go bold with not only the IS, but its entire lineup as well. That boldness resulted in the styling language you see today. Love it or hate it, the current third-generation IS is an excellent sedan, but it’s still not quite the 3 Series killer Lexus would like it to be.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class has been the 3 Series’ most serious rival over the years. On several occasions it’s come close to taking down its Munich competitor, but BMW perhaps keeps a closer eye on what its Stuttgart rival is up to more than all other rivals. Literally every time a new C-Class launched, BMW responds in kind with either a 3 Series refresh or redesign. There's also the C63 AMG, a formidable foe to the M3. Some believe it's the better sports sedan. When the C-Class debuted in 1993, it was a fairly conservative sedan, but over the years it’s gained a more youthful attitude. A refreshed C-Class is coming soon and going head-to-head it’ll likely surpass the 3 Series. That is until the redesigned 3 Series arrives.
Why did the Volvo S60 make this list? Because it was the only Volvo that’s ever made a real attempt to fight the 3 Series. Remember, it was barely two years ago when an S60 Polestar secretly set a new Nurburgring lap record. For years Volvo was known for its safety tech. Many of us grew up with Volvo sedans and station wagons, which strongly resembled tanks. The S60, which debuted in 2010, helped to ring a new design era for Volvo and we just learned a successor will arrive next year. Given Volvo is under Chinese ownership with tons of money to spend, we wouldn’t at all be surprised to see the next S60 be just that, a surprise. While the current model can’t match the 3 Series overall, BMW really needs to keep an eye on Volvo. It’d be remiss not to.