BMW 3-series review – Does it still reward the keen driver?

The 3-series majors on refinement and cutting-edge technology but still offers a rewarding, if not overly sporting, drive

It’s hard to believe the 3-series is about to celebrate its 45th birthday but the recipe that made it such as success for BMW back in 1975 when the first generation was launched still stands today. Entertaining manners, strong engines, good build quality and a premium image that shows no sign of being significantly diluted even when the 3-series is now such as ubiquitous part of the motoring landscape. 

Now in its seventh incarnation the 3-series is up against tougher opposition than ever. Arch rivals in the form of the Mercedes C-Class and the Audi A4 keep raising the bar and while the previous generation 3-series was a decent premium exec it had begun to slip behind its rivals in certain areas. Its interior was lagging behind while big steps in refinement from the opposition saw BMW having to play catch up.

The biggest question mark though, was whether BMW would be able to manage this without losing its sporting slant that’s characterised the 3-series for the past 45 years. In the most part it’s succeeded. Thanks to a stiffer body (by up to 50 per cent in some areas), new damper technology and enhanced soundproofing measures the additional refinement box has been ticked. A thoroughly revised interior packed full of tech from the 5-series ensures the 3-series no longer looks like second best inside when compared to its German rivals.

BMW 320d M Sport 2019

The engine line up has been slightly slimmed down from the previous generation but there’s still a range of 2-litre diesels and petrols, a 3-litre diesel and a soon to arrive M Performance model, the M340i xDrive, along with the de rigueur plug-in hybrid, the 330e. Even the slowest diesel will crack 0-100kph in less than eight and a half seconds while the quickest diesel, the 330d xDrive manages the same task in 5.1sec.

While the 330d’s engine is exceptional both in terms of output and refinement (it even sounds good) the two other diesels also deliver the goods but without being particularly stimulating. Enhanced soundproofing over the older 3-series means they’re more or less inaudible unless extended. A 0-100kph time for the 320d of around seven seconds (depending on gearbox, and or whether xDrive has been specified) is plenty quick enough, too.

The three petrol models (320i, 330i and M340i xDrive) should, in theory, be more likely to stir the soul. The 320i and 330i share the same 2-litre turbocharged ’four and while they’re quick enough (the 330i dips under the six-second barrier for the 0-100kph sprint) they’re not hugely engaging units, with a somewhat flat and uninspiring soundtrack. The M340i is the only petrol six-cylinder and a brief drive in a pre-production model suggests it’s hugely potent – nigh-on M3 levels of performance – while sounding the part, too.

While perhaps the 3-series’ engine line up isn’t as inspiring as it used to be the good news is that its chassis can still entertain, exhibiting the sort of confidence-inspiring balance that’s missing for many rivals. It’s a little dependent on specification though – SE and Sport models are entertaining if a little ragged at the limit while M Sport versions are considerably stiffer and corner more enthusiastically. The best compromise is to be found by opting for the M Sport Plus package which adds adaptive dampers. 

BMW 320d M Sport 2019

Prices, specs and rivals

Entry-level spec is SE and in this guise you’ll need $40,572 for a 320i, just $12 more for a 318d and $42,017 for a 320d SE, or $46,004 if you want xDrive all-wheel drive. The 330e SE starts at $47,188. The base SE spec is only available on these four models; a Sport model costs $1744 more and an M Sport is $3613 over an SE.

You do get a fair bit more kit for your money though, with Sport models gaining leather upholstery, heated sport seats 18-inch alloys, and oddly, a larger fuel tank. Opting for the M Sport brings the usual BMW set of upgrades, an M aero kit and different alloys, M Sport suspension and BMW’s new Live Cockpit Professional with its fancy new digital instrumentation.

If you’re after more performance from your 3 Series the 330i Sport costs $47,075 with the 330d breaking the $50k barrier at $49,916. An additional $1900 will see you in an M Sport. Until the range-topping M340i xDrive arrives the most expensive 3-series is the 330d xDrive M Sport at $53,654.

BMW 320d M Sport 2019

For most buyers the choice of junior exec will be between the 3-series and its two closest rivals, the Audi A4 and the Mercedes-Benz C-class. In their latest incarnations both are worthy rivals that offer similar pricing and performance but the 3-series has caught up where it was lacking before, mainly in terms of refinement and interior design and technology. While the 3-series’ driving experience may have been slightly diluted it’s still a better steer than these rivals.

But while the 3-series might have retained its crown as the best German compact exec to drive it’s worth considering what the Italians have to offer, specifically the Alfa Romeo Giulia. The Giulia Veloce squares up pretty closely to the 330i and while it doesn’t offer the full Quadrifoglio experience it is a pretty brisk performer and with sharp, direct steering and a sweet chassis it does offer an excellent drive.

Performance and 0-100kph time

The highest performance 3-series, the M340i xDrive, is yet to hit our shores – it’ll go on sale later this year – but when it does it’ll offer the sort of figures that were the preserve of the previous generation M3. With 369bhp on tap it takes 4.4sec to accelerate from 0-100kph, its off the line traction aided by its standard fit xDrive all-wheel drive set up. We’ve only briefly driven a pre-production example so far and those kilometres were limited to an on-track session but it demonstrated a great deal of talent which we hope will be translated to its on-road ability, too.

Until the M340i makes its debut the fleetest 3-series is the 330d. Like the vast majority of 3-series models it comes with an eight-speed auto (only the 318d and 320d can be ordered with a six-speed manual) and posts a 0-100kph time of 5.5sec in rear-wheel drive form, or 5.1sec with xDrive. If its benchmark sprint times are impressive its meaty mid-range shove is what really separates the 330d from its lesser siblings – it’s very rapid on the move and is even pretty tuneful for a diesel, too.

Where the 330d makes good use of its six-cylinder engine – the only six-pot in the BMW 3-series line up until the M340i arrives – the 318d and 320d both feature the familiar four-pot as used in the 5-series. For an entry-level model the 318d is reasonably perky with a 0-62 time of 8.4sec (8.3 for the auto), but it’s the 320d that makes far better use of its extra power, recording a 7.1sec time for the manual and 6.8 for the auto. Add xDrive for a 6.9sec time. On paper that looks pretty quick for a 2-litre diesel, but such is the 3-series’ refinement that it perhaps doesn’t feel as rapid as its figures suggest.

BMW 320d M Sport 2019 rear

But what about further petrol offerings? There are three; 320i (with or without xDrive), a 330i (rear-drive only) and the solitary plug-in hybrid, the 330e. All use the same 2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine in different states of tune, with the 330e’s backed up with batteries and an electric motor. The 320i records a 0-100kph time of 7.1sec (7.6 with xDrive) while the 330i is significantly quicker at 5.8sec. The extra weight of the 330e adds 0.1sec to its time.

While you might expect a bit of sparkle from the 2-litre petrol unit it’s not the most characterful ’four BMW’s made and while it delivers the goods and is keen to rev for a turbo motor it’s not going to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Perhaps a manual ’box would help, but that’s not an option with this latest 3-series.

The Touring models will be added to the range later this year and broadly speaking they use the same range of engines with 0-100kph times a smidgen slower than the saloons thanks to their additional weight.

Engine and gearbox

Despite there being six 3-series models on sale prior to the M340i’s appearance there are effectively just three engines, one 2-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, one 2-litre four-cylinder diesel and one 3-litre inline six-cylinder for the 330d.

Until the M340i xDrive arrives the most powerful model is the 330d which develops 261bhp and a hefty 428lb ft of torque. Combined with the familiar eight-speed ZF automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddles it’s a pretty effective combination and if it’s combined with xDrive traction is quite exceptional, allowing the 330d to transfer all of that torque to the road very effectively. Its mid-range is mighty and the bassy, gravelly soundtrack is pretty good for a diesel.

The 318d (148bhp, 236lb ft) and 320d (187bhp, 295lb ft) both use the B47 modular diesel engine and while the 318d’s stats might not look particularly meaty it still goes pretty well. The 320d is by far the better of the two though, making good use of its additional power and torque. If you must have a manual 3-series then you’ll need to choose one of these two models as they’re the only ones available with three pedals, and even then, BMW expects uptake to be pretty low. The manual gearbox, it would seem, is on its last legs. 

 BMW 320d M Sport

The petrol models (bar the M340i) all use the same 2-litre unit but in different states of tune. The 320i offers 181bhp and 221lb ft of torque while its 330i sibling doles out 254bhp and 295lb ft of torque. The 330e adds an electric motor for a combined maximum output of 288bhp and an all-electric range of up to 66 kilometres. Given recent company car tax breaks there’s no doubt this will be a big seller.

While there’s nothing desperately wrong with the four-cylinder turbo unit it’s not particularly inspiring either. Power and torque delivery is fine and there’s very little lag to speak of, but aurally it’s pretty disappointing and when this is added to the 3-series’ overall improvement in terms of refinement the overall picture is slightly less sporting in feel than it was before. The 330d is over $3k more expensive than the 330i, but it gets out vote over the 330i if you’re looking for a performance-orientated package.

The M340i xDrive is the only petrol-engined 3-series with a six-cylinder inline engine and it should be pretty special if our brief encounter with a pre-production example is anything to go by. Yes, it’s only offered with all-wheel drive, and yes, it’s auto only, but with 369bhp and 369lb ft of torque it’s rapid, and perhaps most importantly (when compared to the rest of the range) it’s tuneful, too.

Ride and handling

For decades the 3-series has been the default choice for those searching for an involving drive from their compact exec and with this latest incarnation BMW has managed to retain this position. It’s perhaps not quite as clear cut as it used to be, but despite making strides in comfort and refinement the 3-series is still an engaging car to drive, especially when compared with the majority of the competition. 

However, there are many different permutations to consider and which model you choose and how you spec it will have a direct bearing on the way it drives. SE and Sport models have the basic chassis set up which features BMW’s new lift-related damper technology which is aimed at controlling body movement under acceleration and braking. M Sport models feature the same damper technology but with stiffer settings while the Adaptive dampers (that are only available as part of the $2740 M Sport Plus Package) are switchable, offering a supple ride in Comfort mode and a significantly firmer one in Sport. The M Sport Plus package also adds 19-inch wheels and on a 330i or 330d a limited-slip differential, too.

On the standard SE suspension it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the ride quality offered is the best of the bunch, especially on 17-inch rims with normal tyres. Even on the Sport model (which uses the same suspension but adds 18-inch wheels with run-flats) it’s a comfortable cruiser. Driven hard and its limitations do eventually come to the fore, there’s a fair amount of bodyroll and ultimately the chassis does lose its composure, coming a little unstuck on dips and crests.

BMW 320d M Sport 2019

The M Sport feels much tauter than the Sport and exhibits superior body control, cornering with an impressively flat demeanour. Grip is exceptional, both on turn-in and corner exit, but the steering frustrates with its inability to transmit any feel through the thick M Sport steering wheel. It’s precise and well weighted but feels very remote. Ride quality on smooth surfaces is passable but on broken up Tarmac it becomes rather unsettled and a little jiggly, especially at lower speeds.

The best compromise comes at a cost, and that’s with the M Sport Plus package. The adaptive dampers are slightly softer than the SE/Sport set up in Comfort mode and a modicum firmer than the M Sport in Sport mode. The ride is good, if not quite as exceptional as in a SE model thanks to the addition of 19-inch wheels but a car with the M Sport Plus package does offer the best compromise between a supple ride and handling prowess. This is particularly true in the rear-wheel drive 330i and 330d as the addition of a limited-slip differential aids traction and driver involvement. 

Ultimately though the 3-series is slightly less playful than before with less feedback through the chassis, seats and steering. The xDrive models are incredibly surefooted but even less inclined to indulge in even a whiff of oversteer unless you’re decidedly committed. 

L/100km and running costs

Assuming you have access to a charger and don’t spend your days doing lengthy journeys the 330e potentially offers the lowest running costs. Official economy figures of 1.61-1.41L/100km can be taken with a pinch of salt, but with an all-electric range of up to 66 kilometres most commutes could be tackled on battery power alone. Combine this with a low BiK rate (thanks to a 37g/km CO2 rating) for company car drivers and the 330e looks like a very attractive proposition.

The 320i and 330i post very similar economy figures with the 320i offering a best of 6.41L/100km and a worst of 39.2 while the 330i’s stats vary between 6.81 and 7.30L/100km. As these are WLTP figures they should be achievable when on a gentle cruise, but if you use the performance to its full then you’ll drop into the 20s.

Despite the demonisation of diesel there’s no getting away from the fact that the 3-series models wearing a ‘d’ badge are by far and away the most economical. The 318d with the manual box returns between 53.3 and 4.80L/100km with the auto versions a couple of L/100km less efficient. CO2 emissions of 112g/km look good, but for company car drivers it’s worth noting that from April 2020 this will rise to 137g/km under WLTP regulations which will make it a less appealing option in terms of BiK.

BMW 320d M Sport 2019 wheel

The 320d offers very similar figures to the 318d although when combined with xDrive average economy does drop into the high 40s rather than the low 50s. It’s the 330d that offers the best blend of performance and economy though as despite its pace it’ll return up to 5.90L/100km, with a worse-case scenario of 42.2 for the xDrive M Sport. Even when driven hard 9.42L/100km should be achievable.

With extended service intervals running a 3-series shouldn’t break the bank and BMW offers a pay monthly servicing option at $30 per month for 36 months. Given this only covers two services and the car’s first MoT it’s perhaps best avoided unless you really want to fix your motoring costs. Insurance groups range from 29 to 38, although the M340i xDrive may be higher than this once it’s added to the line-up.

Interior and tech

If there was one area where the previous F30 generation of 3-series was beginning to lag behind its rivals it was in its interior design and the technology that was offered. There was nothing wrong with it when it made its debut in 2012 but despite tweaks over its life it was beginning to look rather old hat when compared to the latest offerings from Audi and Mercedes.

All that’s changed with the latest G20 model, mainly thanks to being based on the CLAR architecture that underpins both the 5- and 7-series. As a result the 3-series now has a tech heavy interior with enough gadgets and options to keep the most tech-savvy buyers happy.

It’s roomier inside too, with BMW claiming an additional 11mm of rear leg room along with improved headroom for all passengers. All models bar the SE receive leather upholstery and Sport and M Sport models both feature sports seats with a greater level of adjustment. The quality of materials is first rate and fit and finish is excellent, too.

BMW 320d M Sport 2019 dash

BMW is making much of its new ‘Intelligent Personal Assistant’ which is standard in all models and allows you to interact with the car in a similar way to Alexa or Siri by uttering the phrase ‘Hey BMW’. It is designed to learn your voice and habits with the idea that the more you use it the more intuitive the system will become. For those that like voice control it’ll no doubt be a boon, but for Luddites it’ll probably go unused for long periods of time. Apple Car Play is standard across the range but you’re out of luck if you’re an Android Auto user as it’s not available. 

SE and Sport models have an 8.8-inch central display screen and traditional instrumentation while M Sport models (which BMW reckons will account for 70 per cent of sales) receive a larger 10.25 central monitor and BMW’s new Live Cockpit Professional with fully digital instrumentation. This leads to a somewhat contrived set of instruments with a rev counter that runs counter clockwise and is rather hard to read. The plus side is that there’s a whole host of additional information within the dash pod, including sat nav maps and directions. 

The central monitor is fully customisable with the information each individual driver requires and has full touchscreen capability – fortunately it can still be operated via the iDrive controller which is still excellent. However, the shortcut buttons around the controller, along with the Sport/Comfort/Eco Pro buttons are less intuitive to use than before as they now have a flatter surface and you might not necessarily find the right one by touch alone. Similarly, the headlight switch which used to be a rotary controller has been replaced by buttons which means you have to look at them in order to hit the right one. Previously the rotary controller could be located and operated without taking one’s eyes off the road.

Overall though the 3-series’ cabin is a very pleasant place to be and bar some minor irritations it’s ergonomically excellent. There’s a host of standard equipment too with plenty of ‘Connected’ services if that’s your bag. As ever there’s also an extensive options list, although these have been streamlined into several different packages rather than being individual items. If you wanted the head-up display (it’s excellent, large and clear to read) you also have to have Harman Kardon speakers, gesture control, enhanced Bluetooth and WiFi preparation as it’s all part of the Technology Package – a $2400 upgrade on an M Sport model.

Design

While several recent BMW models have been lambasted for the size of their kidney grilles there’s a definite case of BMW playing it safe with the 3-series – being too experimental with its best-selling model clearly being seen as a bad thing. It’s instantly recognisable as a BMW and while its proportions generally ape those of the 5-series there is some slightly fussy detailing, particularly around the front grilles where there seems to be too much going on.

Despite this it’s a relatively cohesive design and BMW is very pleased with its aerodynamic efficiency, being significantly slipperier than the model it replaces, partly down to a very flat floor.

The trademark BMW round headlights are still in evidence although they’re now somewhat more squared off than they used to be, but they do light the road well as adaptive LEDs are standard across the range.

This article originally appeared at evo.co.uk

Copyright © evo UK, Dennis Publishing

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