"The latest BMW 3 Series is one of the best compact executive cars money can buy."
We don’t give away CarBuyer awards to just any car, so, as winner of the 2013 CarBuyer Best Executive Car award, you can imagine that we think that the BMW 3 Series is pretty special. The latest model may not look very different from the car it replaced, but it has bigger dimensions, more efficient engines and is easily the best 3 Series BMW have made yet. Which is a lofty statement given that the 3 Series has been the compact executive car of choice for nearly 10 years, after the series has dominated the sector since its original launch way back in 1975. So this sixth-generation model had some big boots to fill, which it does in spades. The old car wasn’t perfect, however, and the improvements ushered in with the new car were arguably long overdue, especially as some updates to the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 threatened to leave it lagging behind. The BMW design team has worked long and hard on virtually every aspect of the car to make sure it has improved across the board and it's safe to say that there's now a specification to suit all tastes and budget (well, for those with enough money to consider buying a BMW in the first place). The entry-level model is the ES, followed by ED, SE, Luxury, Modern and Sport, with the 4x4 xDrive finally on sale in the UK, too, after years of only being available in mainland Europe. The 3 Series also comes as either a stylish saloon or a more practical Touring estate. 2013 also saw the introduction of a more spacious 3 Series GT saloon that combines the sportier aspects of the saloon with the greater practicality of the estate.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
The BMW 3 Series is simply one of the most efficient cars in the executive class. With the introduction of BMW's EfficientDynamics technology and a reduction in body weight, all diesel engines now emit no more than 120g/km of CO2, with the 320d ED proving to be the most efficient, emitting only 109g/km and returning 68.9mpg in fuel economy. Even the much more powerful 242bhp twin-turbo 328i petrol model still manages to keep CO2 emissions down to 149g/km, while returning almost 45mpg. And, because this is BMW, there are also lots of great-value pre-paid servicing packages available to help keep maintenance costs to a manageable minimum.
Interior & comfort
The previous 3 Series had a pretty cramped interior, which was ironic given that it had a ‘Comfort’ setting, but the new 3 Series is thankfully much bigger in almost all respects and now has interior space that rivals the likes of the Audi A4, including much better leg and headroom for passengers in the back. BMW has also been careful not to sacrifice what was good about the 3 Series with these changes, making sure its plus points have been maintained - the low-set, near-perfect driving position is still in place, for example, with a good amount of steering wheel and seat adjustment making it perfect for any driver. Now, though, it can match the A4 in more areas, including reduced wind and road noise. The ride's still a little firm when driving at slower speeds, but larger bumps are absorbed well and if you opt for the adaptive dampers as well, then this is also improved – albeit at a substantial price tag. The interior is clearly laid out and constructed from high-quality materials, with the dashboard being angled slightly to face the driver for even greater ease of use. The latest version of the iDrive controller, positioned next to the gearstick, is now also easier to use, as is the slim multifunction steering wheel. Overall, the interior does indeed match the A4 for class while also feeling much more up-to-date.
Practicality & boot space
A big criticism of the previous 3 Series was space – specifically that the boot was an awkward shape and that the inside was too cramped. The latest 3 Series therefore offers 480 litres of boot space (with the rear seats in place; it costs north of £400 to get 40:20:40 split-fold seats installed) and a lot more useful storage cubbies, a large glove compartment and deep door bins have been added – again, bringing it in line with its main family-friendly rival, the Audi A4. Passengers in the back also get a lot more leg and headroom, too. However, it's not all good news, as the boot load lip is a just that little bit too high, making loading difficult. If you do decide to shell out for the extra flexibility of the split-fold seats, you do also get back seat and boot luggage nets included for that price, though.
Reliability & safety
BMW dropped a spot in the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey manufacturers rankings, coming 15th, which makes it the lowest ranking premium car maker, with both Audi (10th) and Mercedes (fifth) well ahead. Practicality, running costs and poor ride quality were the main criticisms, however, so you expect the 3 Series to still be a relatively trouble-free choice. Reflecting this, the 3 Series itself managed a storming ninth place in the top 100 cars in the Driver Power poll, making it the highest-ranking compact executive car, a further reflection of the quality that made also made it the CarBuyer Executive Car of the Year 2013. Despite its relative mechanical complexity, many of the engines used in the 3 Series have been tried and tested across the wider BMW range, which should give prospective buyers some real confidence. It has also secured the maximum five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests, with all models coming fitted with six airbags, electronic stability control and tyre pressure monitoring as standard equipment. It also comes with BMW Assist, which automatically contacts the emergency services if the car is involved in a serious accident. Lane keep assist and blind spot monitoring can also be added as (pricey) optional extras.
Engines, drive & performance
The 3 Series is a BMW so you’d expect nothing less than an excellent drive and that is what you get. While it's always difficult to follow a model that truly sets the standard, this car matches its predecessor for sheer fun behind the wheel. Loads of grip and direct steering keep both driver and car in control. The Standard Drive Performance Control offers the driver three operational modes to choose from – Comfort, Sport and Sport+ - while you can also add Sport steering and Adaptive Drive dampening as optional extras to further sharpen up the car's responses. The usual range of four and six-cylinder engines are on offer, and we’d recommend the 320d 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel, which returns 61.4mpg while maintaining excellent performance at the same time. If acceleration and speed are higher priorities, then the 335i's 3.0-litre turbo petrol is the car for you, going from 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds but still returning a not-too-shabby 35.8mpg. All models come fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, while a decent eight-speed automatic is also available as an option. The 3 Series xDrive was introduced in 2013 – BMW's equivalent of Audi's quattro four-wheel-drive – and gives much improved grip in wet and slippery conditions without losing any of the balance or feel that BMWs are famous for.
Price, value for money & options
As with all BMWs, you’ll have to be strong in the face of the long and tempting options list for the 3 Series. It hardly starts out as cheap, and once you start popping lots of options onto the list, the list price will can easily go through the roof. In fact, we think that if the 3 Series is at the top end of your budget, you should probably avoid the extras altogether. After all, entry-level models do come with air-conditioning, alloy wheels and cruise control fitted as standard, and if you go for the top-spec Luxury model you can also add metallic paint and dual-zone climate control into the mix for example. Whichever version you do end up buying, though, you can expect it to have strong resale values in the used car market, with most BMWs keeping at least 40 per cent of their list price value after three years of ownership.