The BMW 3 Series is a compact executive saloon car that's both fantastic to drive and surprisingly cheap to run. It has a wide range of rivals, with the most obvious ones being the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4. However, the 3 Series also competes with the Lexus IS, Infiniti Q50 and impressive Jaguar XE – and it's a close-run thing deciding whether the Jaguar or the BMW is better.
The 3 Series has a sporty nature that's obvious from the outset; its sleek design, large bumpers and stylish alloy wheel designs are teamed with an upmarket interior. The dashboard controls are easy to use and there's enough equipment on board to please anyone, including standard satellite navigation across the range.
There are loads of versions to choose from – perhaps too many – but that at least means there should be a 3 Series to suit every taste. The conventional saloon model can trace its roots back more than 40 years and it's consistently been a top seller. But if you need more space, there's the BMW 3 Series Touring estate or the BMW 3 Series GT hatchback. 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 the BMW's appeal. A 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 powerful yet surprisingly economical. From 2016, there’ll also be the option of a plug-in hybrid model, the 330e. This will be able to return up to 130mpg and its low CO2 emissions of just 49g/km mean it’ll escape both road tax and the London Congestion Charge.
Yet even the regular 3 Series promises low fuel and tax bills. Thanks to the BMW EfficientDynamics technology, it emits surprisingly little CO2, while fuel economy is excellent, particularly from the diesel engines.
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 340i is definitely a contender.
There are four trim levels to choose from: SE, Sport, Luxury and M Sport, with the option to add EfficientDynamics technology to each. All are reasonably well equipped, with alloy wheels, climate control, DAB digital radio, satellite navigation and a Bluetooth phone connection fitted as standard.
If the 3 Series has a weakness, it's poor interior space. Even though this latest version is an improvement on its predecessors, with more legroom for rear-seat passengers and a 480-litre boot, it can't match mainstream rivals such as the Skoda Superb or Ford Mondeo. The 3 Series Touring estate has a slightly bigger boot, 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.