The BMW 3 Series is one of the top selling cars in the UK – an impressive feat for an upmarket machine – courtesy of its powerful but economical engines, desirable image and impressive roadholding. Most popular of all is the 320d 2.0-litre diesel, as it provides performance that wouldn’t have been out of place in a sports car 15 years ago, while offering the prospect of more than 60mpg fuel economy.
Rivals for this popular car vary from upmarket German machinery such as the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 to the Lexus IS and Volkswagen Passat as well as more affordable options such as the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Insignia.
What is it?
The 3 Series is BMW’s smallest saloon, slotting below the luxurious 5 Series and 7 Series. Despite its billing as one of the smaller BMWs, the 3 Series is still a spacious machine with room for five passengers and feels like a premium product, offering high comfort levels, powerful engines and good roadholding.
The range starts with economical four-cylinder 1.6-litre petrol and 2.0-litre diesel engines and goes all the way up to rapid turbocharged six-cylinder 3.0-litre petrol and diesel models. Most of the engines are available with BMW’s slick eight-speed automatic gearbox while several models are available with four-wheel drive.
Buyers can choose from a similar variety of trim levels from entry-level ES and SE specification to performance-focused Sport and M Sport models and also plush Luxury trim.
What is it like to drive?
BMW is famed for producing cars that put the onus on driver enjoyment above all else. While the 320d Luxury model that we drove is anything but uncomfortable, it does still provide the driver a more satisfying experience than its similarly-sized rivals.
With sharp steering, well-weighted pedals and a responsive automatic gearbox, the 320d is enjoyable to drive, offering brisk but comfortable progress over twisty roads. Despite this, the 320d is no sports car, rolling a little around tighter corners. However, for this type of car, it still puts in a very impressive performance.
The diesel engine in our test car is not the quietest motor in the class, though it offers strong acceleration and is more than refined enough for most drivers. With low levels of wind or road noise the 3 Series makes a capable motorway cruiser and has brakes that offer plenty of bite.
What is it like inside?
The 3 Series’ cabin isn’t the most attractive on the market – with the similarly-priced Mercedes C-Class offering a more stylish ambience – though it features a very easy to use media system and high quality materials. Most controls are accessed through the media system, with a user-friendly rotary wheel in front of the gearstick helping navigate menus quickly.
The driving position is lower than in some rival models, making access a little trickier for less mobile passengers, though once inside we found the seats supportive and comfortable.
Is it practical?
The 3 Series saloon doesn’t major on practicality though it is more than practical enough for most buyers. Even the tallest passengers should have enough room in the front seats, while the rear seats offer plenty of leg and head room for those up to around 6 foot tall – provided the front seats aren’t slid all the way back or in their lowest position.
The rear seats also provide good back support making this car equally comfortable for all passengers. The middle rear seat is usable for adults too, though fitting three adults in the rear seats may prove a squeeze. The boot is also usefully large, though hatchback models such as the Skoda Octavia offer a larger volume and easier access.
Should I buy one?
The BMW 320d is a very appealing machine for those after a sharp handling, comfortable and economical saloon. In 320d form the 3 Series offers a very strong combination of fuel economy, performance, space and equipment, making it a wise option for those after a premium medium car or a relatively cheap to run upmarket saloon.
The Mercedes C-Class may offer a slightly more chic interior and the Lexus IS bolder exterior styling, but the 3 Series is still one of the best all-rounders available, making it the benchmark for this class.
Don't want to buy new? You can browse for a used BMW 3 Series in our classifieds here.
BMW 320d Luxury automatic
List price: £33,665
Engine: 2.0-litre, four cylinder turbocharged diesel
Top speed: 143mph
0-62mph: 7.4 seconds
Fuel economy: 53.3mpg (urban), 72.4mpg (extra-urban) 64.2mpg (combined)
Emissions: 117g/km CO2
Euro NCAP rating: Five-star