BMW 3 Series still manages to be come out on top in this hotly contested sector.
A very long time, the BMW 3 Series has been sitting firmly at the top of the mid-sized executive car pecking order. In years gone by, the likes of Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Buick, Lexus, Acura and countless others all tried to topple the brilliant Beemer, but to no avail. Now, though, things appear to be changing. Many of BMW’s closest competitors have really closed the gap, with the Cadillac ATS and Jaguar XE being perhaps the fiercest rivals that the 3 Series has had in quite some time. Add the latest Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan models into the equation, and suddenly the BMW 3 Series doesn’t look like the default buy it used to be in this class. Despite being comfortably the oldest car in this class, though, the BMW 3 Series still manages to be come out on top in this hotly contested sector. That being said, this triumph has only been achieved by the slimmest of margins.
In light of the onslaught of rivals that have arrived in recent years, the BMW 3 Series has had an ever-so-slight makeover to keep things fresh. Before existing 3 Series owners start fretting about their pre-facelift cars looking dated, we’d like to point out that nothing radical has changed: bar tweaked LED arrangements in the front and rear lights and new gloss black trim on the center console, this is still the same 3 Series that debuted to critical acclaim in 2012. For the most part, that’s pretty good news. With regards to exterior styling, for instance, the 3 Series remains a handsome machine – even if it does look a bit sterile when compared to the Art Deco-esque detailing on the Cadillac ATS, or the subtly muscular proportions of the Jaguar XE. Still, there’s nothing especially offensive about it and the fact BMW has managed to sell so many examples over the years means a slightly boring look hasn’t put many people off owning a 3 Series.
Practicality-wise, the BMW 3 Series fares fairly well.
A similar story to the exterior can be said for the interior, too. Despite BMW’s best efforts to liven things up a bit with that gloss black trim we mentioned earlier, it’s not exactly an exciting place to spend time in, and the cabin design is starting to show its age a bit now – especially when compared with the rather classy center console layout on the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. That said, the control layout on the center console is still perfectly functional, and the BMW iDrive multimedia interface still ranks up there as one of the best and most intuitive systems you’ll find in any car on sale today. Practicality-wise, the BMW 3 Series fares fairly well. A range of adjustment options for the front seats and steering column means it should be simple to find your perfect driving position, and the 3 Series would lay claim to having the most spacious rear seats of any car in this class if the latest Audi A4 didn’t just pip the BMW in this Top Trumps-style battle. Whilst we would normally complain about the wide transmission tunnel compromising leg room for the poor soul stuck in the middle rear seat, though, it’s a problem that affects all cars in this class, so we won’t crucify BMW too much in this regard. In other areas, however, the BMW 3 Series does genuinely (albeit marginally) lag behinds its rivals. The decent storage space in the glovebox and center armrest cubby, for example, are countered by rather slender door pockets, and the 13 cubic feet capacity of the trunk is, whilst fairly commodious (you can just about fit a set of golf clubs in lengthways), lagging behind what an Audi A4 can muster.
Unlike some executive sedans like the Lexus IS, the BMW 3 Series is as comfortable with tackling twistier ribbons of tarmac as it is lolloping along the highway.
Ever since the original car was launched over four decades ago, the BMW 3 Series has been marketed as the default buy for executive sedan drivers who still crave a sporty driving experience. And, whilst the car has progressively got softer and more comfort-oriented over the years, it still strikes a well-judged balance between being a user-friendly sedan that can also cater to the demands of the more spirited driving enthusiast. The steering, for instance, is light and responsive, making the current BMW 3 Series as handy a companion in tight city centers as it is on the open road. Overall visibility is pretty good as well, with the big windshield again helping out the BMW in both sporty and sedate driving situations, though it’s worth pointing out that the thick rear posts do compromise visibility out of the back a bit. BMW also makes a big deal about chassis balance for the 3 Series (almost every page in its sales brochure is dedicated to detailing just how poised and engaging the car is to drive), so you’d expect it to be a rather entertaining car to drive. And it is, for the most part – unlike some executive sedans like the Lexus IS, the BMW 3 Series is as comfortable with tackling twistier ribbons of tarmac as it is lolloping along the highway. Though, if we’re being picky, the current 3 Series doesn’t quite have the precision and immediacy of its predecessors.
A lot of that can be explained by the suspension, which is noticeably softer than the standard setups on previous 3 Series generations. Therefore, body roll is a bit more pronounced, and that aforementioned sharp edge has been mildly filed down – though, as we said earlier, it’s still enjoyable to drive. Weirdly, however, the softer suspension hasn’t resulted in a major increase in ride quality – meaning rivals like the Jaguar XE and the new Audi A4 have a more finely judged ride/handling balance than the BMW. It’s admittedly by a small margin, and the 3 Series is by no means an uncomfortable car, but little details like this do stand out in a class as competitive as this one. To claw back some brownie points, the BMW 3 Series fares impressively well as a long distance cruiser. Refinement levels are very good, all of the engines (more on them in a moment) settle down nicely at lower revs and the ride does smooth out at highway speeds. It’s worth pointing out, though, that sudden jolts over pot holes and expansion joints can unsettle 3 Series models that come with the larger wheel options.
The 328i is a brilliant all-rounder, and much easier to recommend than the rather expensive, junior M3 wannabe that is the 340i.
BMW has long had a reputation for making some cracking engines over the years, so it’s of no real surprise that the BMW 3 Series doesn’t have a single dud motor option to choose from. What makes that feat even more impressive is that there’s an engine on offer to suit the needs of practically every type of BMW 3 Series buyer. If we were to recommend one over the others, we’d almost certainly opt for the 180hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder petrol engine in the 320i model. Yes, you do lose out on mid-range punch in comparison with the 328i (which has a more powerful version of the same engine), and the claimed economy figures for both engines are remarkably similar, but you do save a whopping $5,000 by opting for a 320i instead of a 328i. Given you will need to spend extra on options if you want to have a well-equipped car, that sum of money you saved through getting a 320i could be spent kitting the 3 Series out with a desirable extra or two. That said, the 328i is a brilliant all-rounder, and much easier to recommend than the rather expensive, junior M3 wannabe that is the 340i. Yes, the 328i is the noticeably slower car, but it has more than enough grunt for real world applications, and especially on cars fitted with the excellent, slick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. Plus, it’s especially smooth (even if, like the 320i, it could do with a more refined stop/start system) and, as we said earlier, it’s almost as cheap to run as the 320i.
Executive sedans of this ilk are known for their mighty options lists, and the BMW 3 Series is no exception to that rule. Tick a few too many boxes, and you could end up adding another $25,000 to the car’s MSRP. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would be that excessive, but it is worth bearing in mind that even adding a few optional extras can noticeably increase the 3 Series’ sticker price. It’s good to hear, then, that some buyers can get away without spending a dime more on an add-on feature. No matter which 3 Series model you go for, you’ll have goodies such as dual-zone climate control, cruise control, rain-sensing windshield wipers, a tire pressure monitoring system, rear parking sensors and an excellent eight-speed automatic gearbox at your disposal. Standard-fit safety equipment such as the complement of eight airbags, dynamic stability control and an emergency brake assist feature also helped the 3 Series achieve a five-star safety rating from the NHTSA. Should you decide to delve through the extras list, then there are a few ways you can spruce up the BMW 3 Series without bursting the bank. The brilliant adaptive suspension system is easily worth the $700 asking price, and the $500 heated front seats are a useful feature to have during the winter months that should also help the 3 Series retain a bit more of its value come resale time. Leather upholstery is also a must-have for better residuals as well, though it’s a shame that specifying it will set you back a fairly substantial $1,450.
Other extras are also worth considering, though we’ll let you decide if they’re worthy the outlay or now. Active cruise control, the side all-wheel drive and the latest iDrive navigation system (complete with the extremely easy to use, smartphone-esque touchpad interface on top of the rotary controller) are all nice goodies to have, but they do set you back $1,200, $2,000 and $1,950 respectively. It’s also worth pointing out that, whilst the 320i does seem to be screwed over when it comes to optional extras, the huge savings you’ll make going for this model over the 328i do help offset the money you’ll spend on matching the more powerful car spec-for-spec. So, whilst it is cheeky of BMW to charge $475 for split-folding rear seats and siphon off the adaptive suspension system to the $2,300 Track Handling Package, the fact is you can add those extras on and match the 328i spec-for-spec whilst still undercutting it on price.
All in all, despite the drawbacks we’ve listed, the BMW 3 Series is still a very impressive overall car. Yes, it’s no longer the king in every major area (the Audi A4 is more practical, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class is the better highway companion, the Cadillac ATS is the more engaging car to drive and the Jaguar XE comes with way more kit as standard), but the BMW 3 Series is competitive enough that, as an all-round package, it’s still the top of the class. We’d obviously love to have seen the BMW 3 Series be that little bit better in the areas it’s currently lacking in, and we certainly wouldn’t blame you for opting for one of its many chief rivals, given how closely-ranked they all are with each other now. But, by the skin of its teeth, the BMW 3 Series just about remains the default buy if you’re after a mid-sized executive sedan.