The BMW 3 Series is a compact executive saloon car that's great to drive and surprisingly cheap to run. It's a rival for the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, Lexus IS and Infiniti Q50, and it's powered by a range of powerful yet efficient petrol and diesel engines. In our opinion, it's the best all-rounder in its class.
Its sporty nature is obvious from the outset with a stylish design, big bumpers and – on top-of-the-range models – large alloy wheels. Inside, the high-quality cabin oozes upmarket appeal, with an easy-to-use dashboard and enough toys to keep the driver and passenger entertained.
There are plenty of versions to choose from, so there should be a BMW 3 Series for everyone. The conventional saloon can trace its heritage back 40 years and is still the top seller today, while if you need a bit more space, there's also the practical BMW 3 Series Touring estate or BMW 3 Series GT hatchback. However, the coupe and convertible models now bear the BMW 4 Series badge, even though they share most of their components with the 3 Series.
Sharp handling and strong performance lie at the heart of BMW's appeal. The rear-wheel-drive layout, precise steering and well weighted controls make it a joy to drive on twisting back roads, while the four and six-cylinder diesel engines are quick yet surprisingly economical. There's even the option of a petrol-electric hybrid version – although with its turbocharged six-cylinder petrol, the emphasis is on performance rather than economy.
Even so, the 3 Series’ entertaining driving experience doesn’t mean big fuel and tax bills. Thanks to BMW's EfficientDynamics technology, the 3 Series emits surprisingly little CO2, while fuel economy is excellent, particularly from the diesels.
If we had to choose one model, it'd be the BMW 320d, which offers a decent blend of performance and economy. But if out-and-out speed is more important, then the BMW 335i is hard to beat.
There are seven trim levels to choose from: ES, SE, Efficient Dynamics, Sport, M Sport and Luxury. All are reasonably well equipped, with alloy wheels, climate control, a DAB digital radio and a Bluetooth phone connection fitted as standard. However, SE is the pick of the line-up, as it adds desirable extras such as parking sensors, along with automatic lights and wipers. The EfficientDynamics model is also available in Business trim. Aimed at company-car users, it features heated leather seats and sat nav.
If the 3 Series has a weakness, it's poor interior space. The latest version is a vast improvement on its predecessor, with more legroom for rear-seat passengers and a 480-litre boot, but it can't match mainstream rivals such as the Skoda Superb or Ford Mondeo. The Touring estate has more boot space, while the 3 Series GT hatchback rivals the larger 5 Series for interior space, but both cost thousands of pounds more than the saloon.
Find out what we think is the best compact executive car by watching our video below.