The BMW 3 Series is the motoring journalists' default car, the benchmark by which all others in its class are judged. As a result it gets a hugely impressive carwow score, winning our coveted Best Saloon in addition to being named our Best New Car of 2012.
This is heady stuff, so we thought it was time to remind ourselves what its like to drive. BMW kindly lent us a 320d Sport for a week and we subjected it to a variety of journeys to enable us to find out whether it can live up to the hype.
There is no doubt that the 320d is a handsome car, oozing fast-lane aggression with that shark-like nose and wide stance.
A saloon cars three-box silhouette can easily descend into boring and unremarkable, so full credit to BMWs designers for coming up with a model that dodges dull. The long bonnet, short overhangs and roof-mounted aerial fin all conspire to produce a sporting shape that is more sports car than reps express.
The shut lines are close and accurate and the paintwork free of blemishes; no one will be in any doubt that you are driving a premium car when they see a 3 Series on your driveway.
The interior is beautifully fitted, using high-quality materials and robust finishes. However, it looks a bit fussy in places, with none of the minimalist chic of an Audi. The anodised red dashboard trim (a 155 option), for example, isnt to my taste and some of the switches look like an afterthought.
The biggest problem, though, is with the driving position, which didnt suit me at all. The range of seat height adjustment is quite coarse and I found myself either too high or too low - and when I finally managed to get comfortable the seat occasionally dropped of its own accord, forcing me to readjust it again, which isnt very helpful when youre doing seventy on the motorway...
I also found the controls for the sat-nav, stereo, and chassis settings unintuitive, forcing me to take my eyes away from the road for far longer than I would have liked. Familiarity would make the job easier Im sure, but others do the same job much better than BMW in this instance.
The reason so many people buy a BMW is for the driving experience and the 3 Series lives up to its reputation. The handling is very good indeed with poise and agility under pretty much all circumstances, aided and abetted by powerful and progressive brakes and accurate steering. Mind you, my test car was fitted with 750-worth of Adaptive M Sport suspension and bigger 18 alloy wheels costing 540, so it should have been good! At motorway speeds it is quiet, refined, and has a surprisingly supple ride given the performance-oriented suspension.
Its not perfect, though. I kept stalling it when manoeuvring, something that I last experienced when I was seventeen years old. (Im not alone as another reviewer told me she had the same issue with the 320d.) Oh, and the stop/start wasnt consistent either, sometimes working and sometimes not.
While Im whinging I would like to add that the rims of the alloy wheels protrude past the tyre wall, making them very easy to curb. I was forced to pull into the side of the road by another driver and brushed against a stone hidden in the verge, causing a very nasty scratch on the nearside front wheel; wide wheels might look great but when they can be damaged so easily one must question how practical they are. This isnt an issue that is unique to BMW by any stretch of the imagination but it is something to consider when youre speccing your new car
The 2.0-litre diesel engine develops 184bhp and, more importantly, 280lb/ft of torque, so it is, by anyones reckoning, a muscular engine. The trouble is that it just doesnt feel that quick and it also sounds a bit coarse when you are revving it hard, something you need to do to wring the best performance out of it. A 0-62mph time of 7.5 seconds sounds much quicker than it actually is in the cutnthrust of daily driving.
It is reasonably economical, though. BMW claims that itll return up to 61.4mpg and while I only managed 47.1 my mileage included very few long runs so the average owner should be able to crack 50mpg with ease.
Value for Money
The BME 3 Series range starts at 24,880 for the 318d ES, which is very good value indeed. The 320d starts at 28,080 for either the Sport or the EfficientDynamics BluePerformance, which isnt at all unreasonable.
But, add a few extras and the price rockets; my test car was fitted with almost 10,000-worth and didnt feel especially opulent and the resulting price tag of nearly 40k is just too much. At carwow we keep telling you that basic-is-better and no car illustrates this better than the 3 Series.
Residual values will be strong and running costs quite low for a car in this class.
I was looking forward to driving the BMW and fully expected to be wowed by its chassis, fin and finish, and performance - but Im afraid that it just didnt gel for me. As a result I must be the only motoring journalist in the country who doesnt like it.
So what didnt I like? Well, the driving position didnt suit me and if our test cars height adjustment problem is anything to go by and a previous reviewer told me that he exactly the same problem with my test car some of the hidden bits might not be of the same quality as those you can see.
The BMW diesel engine isnt the most refined or powerful in its class either and not everyone will appreciate the need for fairly high revs when shuffling the car round at low speed. It is very economical though.
Finally, unless you are prepared to drive the car hard all the time the sublime handling (and it is brilliant) just isnt worth the compromises the 3 Series forces on you.
There are, simply, better cars for drivers who arent as concerned with image and hard-charging; the Audi A4
remains a more polished and rounded car in my opinion and it has the added advantage that, in quattro guise, it is able to cope with anything the British weather can throw at it. The Ford Mondeo
is also worth consideration, easily matching the BMWs dynamic ability, although I concede that it doesnt have quite the same cachet.
Check out our full guide to the new 3-Series
, to see what other experts made of the car. We've also got user reviews, photos, videos and stats.