The BMW 3 Series has set the benchmark for compact executive saloons ever since the first was launched in 1975. Which makes the arrival of this all-new, seventh-generation ‘G20’ model a truly significant occasion.
The first and most important thing to know about the newcomer is that it still leads the pack, a feat it has achieved not through any revolutionary changes, but by making incremental gains in every important area. As a clear example of this, the core 320d automatic can now accelerate from 0-62mph as quickly as the legendary E30 M3. Indeed, by covering the benchmark sprint in just 6.9 seconds, it should be considered a genuinely quick car.
FAST AND FUN
That automatic gearbox – an eight-speed torque converter – is a treat, too. As you’d expect, it is happy enough to work away in the background, delivering unobtrusive shifts when left to its own devices. Just as impressive though is the way it’ll snap through ratios with the speed of a dual-clutch unit when you want to take control yourself, with its most aggressive Sport Plus setting even delivering a small jolt as you go up through the gears on full throttle. Having those eight ratios also means you’ll almost certainly be in the right gear at the right time, and are thus able to make the most of this 2.0-litre engine’s healthy 188bhp and 295lb ft of torque.
Then there’s the way the 3 Series handles. For full disclosure, our test was conducted on Spanish roads so smooth that even with the (optional) adaptive dampers in their firmest setting there was barely a bump or ripple to be felt. But even so the way BMW has set up this car to steer so sweetly and corner with such balance is deeply impressive, and ultimately what makes the 3 Series so much fun.
OK, you could argue the steering lacks any meaningful feedback, but even if you were to mark it down for that there is still an oily slickness to its operation and a faithfulness to the way the car responds that marks the 3 Series out as something truly special within its class. And so, regardless of whether you are tackling a mountain pass, or passing a mountain while cruising on the motorway, engine barely audible in the background, it is a wholly satisfying car to drive.
HEY BMW! TALKING TECH
It is also overflowing with technology. From the digital dials to the natural speech recognition for the latest iDrive infotainment system, BMW has aimed to tick every box when it comes to cutting-edge design and connectivity.
Say, for example, that you’re chilly. Simply say ‘Hey BMW’ to engage the iDrive in conversation, and then ask it to turn up the temperature. Same goes for setting the satnav or choosing a song to download and play on the car’s audio system. Not only is the software clever, says BMW, but it’s intelligent, too, and so can learn your voice and accent as time goes on, gradually improving so that it (hopefully) becomes an integral part of how you interact with the car. That’s the theory anyway; in practice it’s so much easier to physically turn a temperature knob or scroll through your music with the iDrive controller that it’s hard to imagine why you’d want to talk to the car instead.
ROOMIER THAN EVER
It’s not just the tech that you can see (or talk to) that makes this new 3 Series better than ever, either. There’s also progress under the skin, not least in the extensive use of aluminium to reduce the car’s kerb weight by up to 55kg. And that’s despite the body being longer, wider and taller than before. This includes a wheelbase that has grown by 41mm, the benefits of which are immediately obvious when you climb in the back seats. For while a third passenger will still need to straddle a sizeable transmission tunnel, anybody in the outer seats gets loads of legroom, and headroom is far more generous than in the previous, F30-generation of 3 Series.
While on the subject of practicality, boot space is an Audi A4-matching 480 litres, and 40:20:40 folding rear seats come as standard.
The interior design is as stylish, functional and well-built as you’d expect of a modern BMW – the caveat being that we’ve so far only tested a 3 Series in the most expensive M Sport spec that was then laden with optional extras (to the tune of a list price in excess of £45,000!).
However, you really don’t need to spend that much. Indeed, there really isn’t such a thing as a poorly equipped 3 Series these days. Even the entry-level SE comes with adaptive LED headlights, 17-inch alloy wheels, a reversing camera, three-zone climate control, and an 8.8-inch infotainment system complete with satnav and Apple CarPlay (controlled via either the touchscreen or BMW’s iDrive rotary dial).
Moving up to Sport spec adds gloss black exterior and interior detailing, 18-inch alloys and heated leather seats, while M Sport models come with more agreesive styling, sports seats, and larger screens for the infotainment and dial display. That the latter lags some way behind Audi’s Virtual Cockpit for user experience is about the only area for serious criticism you could level at the latest 3 Series as far as interior functionality goes.
As for engines, in addition to the 320d model tested, BMW offers an entry level 318d with 148bhp, a 330d (261bhp), and a pair of petrols in the 320i (181bhp) and 330i (254bhp), both of which use a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. A plug-in hybrid 330e and a high performance M340i will follow from July 2019 onwards. All bar the 318d and 320d feature that eight-speed automatic as standard.
So important is the 3 Series to BMW that it would have taken a spectacular miscalculation for this latest model to be anything other than brilliant. Sure enough, that’s exactly what it is. Compared with its predecessor this G20 generation of 3 Series is all at once roomier, more refined, and more hi-tech, while still setting the standard for involving driving dynamics. It is, in short, a deeply impressive car.
Price: BMW 3 Series from £33,610.
0-62mph: 6.9 seconds
Top speed: 145mph
Fuel economy: 49.6mpg (WLTP Combined)
FOUR CARS THE NEW BMW 3 SERIES HAS TO BEAT
Where BMW aims for a sporty drive, Mercedes pursues comfort and calm. As a result, the latest C-Class makes a great long-distance companion, and is available in a wide range of models.
Search for a used Mercedes-Benz C-Class on CarGurus
Audi is well known for building some of the best interiors around, and the A4’s is no exception. Beautifully finished, roomy and with lots of equipment (albeit not all of it included as standard), this is a car with a true feel-good factor.
Search for a used Audi A4 on CarGurus
The Jaguar XE is the only compact executive saloon to get close to the 3 Series in terms of offering a sporty drive. It’s responsive, balanced and has particularly impressive steering. Build quality doesn’t feel up to Audi standards, and the interior isn’t as roomy for passengers, but if you want a sharp drive the XE is a great option.
Search for a used Jaguar XE on CarGurus
Lexus IS 300h
With hybrid cars becoming increasingly popular the Lexus IS should not be overlooked. By combining a 2.5-litre petrol engine with an electric motor, the IS 300h offers high levels of refinement with low running costs and traditional Lexus reliability.
Search for a used Lexus IS on CarGurus
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