"The latest BMW 3 Series is one of the best compact executive cars money can buy."
The BMW 3 series has been the compact executive car of choice for almost 10 years, after dominating the sector since 1975, so the latest sixth-generation model had some big boots to fill. That's not to say the old car was perfect, and the current 3 Series was long overdue after a series of improvements to the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class threatened to steal its thunder. The BMW design team worked hard on every aspect of the car to ensure improvement across the board and there's now a specification to suit all tastes and budget (well, for anyone with enough cash to consider buying a BMW). Entry-level is the ES, followed by ED, SE, Luxury, Modern and Sport, with the 4x4 xDrive finally brought to the UK, too, after years of being available in mainland Europe. You can get it as a stylish saloon or a more practical Touring estate. 2013 also sees the introduction of a more spacious 3 Series GT saloon that promises to combine the sportier aspects of the saloon with the practicality of the estate. The new car may not look that different from its predecessor but it's bigger with better, more efficient engines and is the best 3 Series yet – which is why we awarded it the 2013 CarBuyer Best Executive Car title.
It's always hard to follow a standard setter, but luckily the new 3 Series is as fun to drive as its predecessor, with direct steering and plenty of grip. The Standard Drive Performance Control gives you three driving modes to choose from – Comfort, Sport and Sport+ - while optional Sport steering and Adaptive Drive dampening sharpens up the car's responses even more. Of the familiar four and six-cylinder engines on offer, we’d go for the 320d 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel, which returns 61.4mpg but maintains excellent performance. If speed is more important, the 335i's 2.0-litre twin-turbo petrol is the engine for you, doing 0-60 in 7.5 seconds and returning 35.8mpg. All models come with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, while a smooth eight-speed automatic is available as an option. The 3 Series xDrive was introduced in 2013 – BMW's version of Audi's quattro – and provides much better grip in wet and cold conditions without losing any of the balance or feel that BMWs are famous for.
You'd hope that any car with a ‘Comfort’ setting would probably be pretty comfy, but as the previous 3 Series had a cramped interior you can’t take anything for granted. Thankfully, the new 3 Series is bigger in almost every way and the interior space now rivals the Audi A4, with much-improved head and legroom in the back. And BMW haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water, working hard to keep the positives – so the low, near-perfect driving position remains, with plenty of steering wheel and seat adjustment for good measure. Wind and road noise is also much reduced, again matching the A4. Driving at slow speeds can be a bit uncomfortable, but the big bumps are all soaked up well, and adding the optional adaptive dampers can remove this problem but at a hefty cost. The interior is clearly laid out and made from high-quality materials, with a dashboard that's turned slightly to face the driver. The latest version of the iDrive controller next to the gearstick is now more user friendly, as is the slim multifunction steering wheel. In fact, the interior matches the A4 for class and feels more up-to-date.
The 3 Series will be a trouble-free choice, despite its mechanical complexity, thanks to many of the engines being tried and tested in other BMWs. BMW itself finished 14th in the 2012 Driver Power customer survey and the previous 3 Series ranked 46th in the Top 100 Cars. It's been awarded the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests and all models comes with six airbags, electronic stability control and tyre pressure monitoring as standard. You also get BMW Assist, which automatically phones the emergency services if the car is involved in a serious accident. You can also add lane keep assist and blind spot monitoring as (pricey) optional extras.
The current 3 Series addresses most of the real bugbears with the old car, namely the cramped interior and awkwardly shaped boot. So, you get a 480-litre load bay and lots of useful storage cubbies, a big glovebox and deep door bins – again, bringing it in line with chief family-friendly rival, the Audi A4. Head and legroom is also much better for rear passengers. It's not all good news, however – the boot load lip is a bit high, making loading difficult, and if you want 40:20:40 split/fold rear seats to really make the boot space work hard for you, you have to pay £650 more to get them. You do also get back seat and boot luggage nets for that price, though.
Value for money
Firstly, be advised the 3 Series has a very tempting options list that is as expensive as it is appealing. You’d struggle to call the BMW cheap already and it does come well equipped, so it may best to avoid the extras all together. Entry-level models now have air-conditiong, alloy wheels and cruise control as standard, and if you go for the top-spec Luxury model you can add in metallic paint and dual-zone climate control, for instance. Whatever version you do buy, though, you can expect it 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 use.
A reduction in body weight and the introduction of BMW's EfficientDynamics technology helps make the 3 Series one of the most efficient cars in the executive class. All diesel engines emit no more than 120g/km of CO2, the 320d ED leading the way with only 109g/km of emissions and returning 68.9mpg in fuel economy. But even the 242bhp twin-turbo 328i petrol still manages to keep CO2 emissions down to 149g/km while returning nearly 45mpg. And, this being BMW, there are lots of great-value pre-paid servicing packages to help keep maintenance costs to a bearable minimum.