Powertrains and handling. It looks good. Plenty of standard kit. Quiet
What is it?
In the automotive woodland, the 3 Series is one of the great oaks. You can name them: Golf, 911, Range Rover, S-Class. And 3 Series. They’re what define the landscape. The unchanging cars, the ones by which we all orient ourselves.
Through decades of careful evolution, they have all become standards against which everything else vaguely similar is inevitably measured. The 3 Series is also central to what the company is all about. It accounts for one in five of all the BMWs sold worldwide (and that's before you add the 4 Series).
So if you’re BMW, you don’t cock about with the 3 Series.
Sure enough, after 40 years this new generation declines to ambush us with any great surprises. It’s still a sporty, smart, respectable, comforting prospect. That’s despite the fact its component parts are almost entirely different from the last one. Pretty much all that’s been handed on from before are the engines and transmissions. But we defy you to find much wrong with that particular inheritance. And anyway they’ve been improved.
One of the aims for the designers was, 'don't make it look like a 5 Series', which is good because when I saw an old 3 or an old 5, especially as Tourings, I had a job to tell which it was.
The new coachwork has very taut metal along the sides, and subtle but sharp creases, and holds its bonnet low over the wheels. It's one of the few recent BMWs without outlet vents behind the front arches. In this car they would have made no difference, says the designer. Another easy spot: the main side crease no longer runs through the door handles.
The body is stiffer and larger now. The suspension principles, the seats, electronics and so on cascade down from the bigger cars BMW has launched in the past couple of years. The suspension and drivetrain use more aluminium than before, and the bonnet and front wings are aluminium too. Overall the weight saving is beyond 50kg in most models, and it’s more slippery through the air too.
The 320d now has twin-sequential turbocharging with VGT for the bigger of the two puffers. Thanks to that and loss of weight and drag, an automatic 320d will get to 62mph in under seven seconds, but the spec says CO2 emissions of 110g/km.
The other end of the scale, at least until the M3 arrives in a pall of tyre-smoke, is a M340i xDrive. This one is a significant step ahead from the old 340i. Power is 370bhp, and there’s four-wheel drive plus M mods to the chassis, brakes and styling. This is one part of the 3 Series range where it wasn’t the de facto standard. In power and four-wheel-drive-ness, this is BMW playing catch-up with the Audi S4 and Mercedes-AMG C43. And as we'll see, doing a stonking good job of it.
Overall the 3 Series body is almost 8cm longer, so it’s hard to call it compact now. The width is up a bit, the front track by 4cm. Careful not to injure those wheels in a width restrictor. Given that swelling of dimensions, the increased cabin and boot space don’t look all that clever. But given the weight reduction they do.
Our choice from the range
What's the verdict?
No-one was expecting BMW to screw it up and as you'll have gathered that hasn't happened. Not a bit of it.
There's a new life and sharpness to the powertrains, and the handling is tighter than ever. Yet it's also quiet and refined.
The hygiene factors are all there in abundance too. It's good to sit in, roomy enough, well-equipped and not costly to own.
All that's keeping it from a 9/10 is the firm ride and the excellence of the opposition.