"The BMW 3 Series lags behind Audi's A4 for comfort and ultimate practicality, although few cars are as fun to drive."
The BMW 3 Series is the king of the hill in the compact executive car class and is a great car to drive. That's why it's named Best Executive Car in our 2011 Car of the Year awards. That said, it's not perfect – the cabin, for example, is not as versatile or spacious as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and the boot is not as large the one in Audi's A4. Even so, it's a good all-rounder, and what's more it has some of the cleanest, greenest engines in its class. The diesel versions offer staggering fuel economy, as well as being refined and powerful, while the range-topping V8-engined M3 offers supercar-rivalling performance. That said, standard 3 Series models lag behind the class best for comfort, especially in M Sport trim.
The steering can feel quite heavy, but it's accurate. On M Sport versions the rim of the steering wheel is spongy and thick, which gives it a sporty feel. Whatever engine you choose – petrol or diesel – you’re guaranteed quiet, smooth progress when you step on the accelerator. Most popular is the 320d diesel, which blends 60mpg economy with lively performance. Unlike some other cars in the class, the 3 Series is rear-wheel drive, so power goes to the back wheels, allowing the front tyres to handle the steering alone. For this reason, the 3 Series feels agile.
Comfort, or a slight lack of it, is arguably the 3 Series’ only major flaw. The driving position offers plenty of adjustment and the rear seats are spacious, but there's no ignoring the firmness of the ride. In an effort to make the car ‘sporty’, the suspension is quite stiff, so lumps and potholes on the road can be felt in the cabin. It's not jarring, but the 3 Series doesn’t feel very cushioned over the worst surfaces. It's more apparent in M Sport versions, which get even stiffer suspension.
The 3 Series placed a very average 53rd of 100 in the 2010 Driver Power customer survey for reliability, although owners were more impressed by its build quality – awarding the car 18th place. The Lexus IS, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 all beat it in the reliability rankings. Like many cars, the 3 Series has been subject to a few recalls, the last in 2009 for a faulty seatbelt tensioner, but it's not plagued by issues.
Traditional four-door saloons are less practical than today's popular family car choices such as 4x4s, people carriers and hatchback ‘crossovers’. The 3 Series has quite a small boot even when compared to other saloons, and the opening is quite narrow. However, it will still swallow a pair of golf bags, and there's room in the cabin for four adults - so long as the rear passengers aren’t much over six-feet tall.
Value for money
The BMW 3 Series is comparatively expensive. More can be bought for less elsewhere – take Ford's Mondeo as an example. But in terms of prestige, running costs and resale values, it's a value for money car, and is priced at a similar level to its Mercedes-Benz and Audi rivals. Special Business Editions get leather upholstery, satellite-navigation and Bluetooth phone connectivity for an extra £1,000, which is a good-value package.
BMW has an engineering philosophy called EfficientDynamics that basically means it's always striving to make its cars as fuel efficient and environmentally sound as possible. As such, even the more powerful petrol versions are relatively frugal. The diesels are hugely impressive - the 320d EfficientDynamics model, for instance, returns 68.9mpg. That's very close to the figure returned by the hybrid Toyota Prius.