The BMW 3 Series comes with a huge range of engines to choose from and it’s pretty good fun to drive. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as comfortable as some other small saloon cars
You can get the 3 Series with a slightly bewildering range of engines – there are 11 in total, including a high-performance M3 model.
You should consider a 318i or 320i petrol model if you spend lots of time driving around town. The former’s a little sluggish but BMW claims it’ll return 52.3mpg – although you’ll probably see a figure in the low forties in normal driving conditions. The 320i model’s a bit more expensive but it’ll return very similar real-world fuel economy and is significantly faster – it’ll accelerate from 0-62mph in 7.2 seconds compared to the 318i’s 8.9 seconds.
There’s also a hybrid 330e model that’s ideal if you do lots of short city journeys and have somewhere to plug your car in overnight. It’ll manage 25 miles in electric-only mode on a full charge but don’t expect to be able match BMW’s rather optimistic 134.5mpg claimed fuel economy.
A 320d model will be a much better option if you do lots of motorway miles. It’s a touch more expensive to buy than a comparable 320i petrol but it’ll return 55mpg in real-world conditions compared to BMW’s claimed 64.2mpg. It’ll accelerate from 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds too, so it’ll have no trouble keeping up with fast-moving traffic.
The 3 Series happily trades a bit of comfort for sharper, sportier handling but you can get adaptive suspension if you want to have your cake and eat it
If you’re looking for something a little quicker that’s just as at home on long journeys you should check out a 330d. These six-cylinder cars are even smoother than four-cylinder 320d models and can sprint from 0-62mph in just 5.6 seconds. This turn of speed comes at the expense of fuel economy, however – BMW claims they’ll return 56.5mpg but you’ll have to make do with a real-world figure in the low forties.
If outright pace is your number one priority there’s only one 3 Series for you – the 431hp M3. These super-quick saloons can leap from 0-62mph in just 4.3 seconds but they cost from more than £58,000 and struggle to return more than 25mpg.
You can also get four-wheel drive (that BMW calls xDrive) in 320d, 320i, 330d and 335d models. It’ll give you a little extra grip in slippery conditions but you’d be better off putting the money towards a good set of winter tyres instead.
A more worthy upgrade is the eight-speed automatic gearbox. It’s smoother than the manual and almost as responsive as the twin-clutch automatic you can get in the Audi A4 but it’s noticeably smoother at slow speeds and only sets you back around £1,500 more than the manual.
It might be most at home on the motorway, but the BMW 3 Series is still dead easy to drive around town. Sure, its manual gearbox might not be quite as slick as the one in an Audi A4 but the optional eight-speed automatic is silky smooth, especially at slow speeds.
The BMW’s large windows and thin pillars between the windscreens and doors give you a good view out and help make it easy to spot traffic approaching at junctions. It’s reasonably manoeuvrable too, and all models come with rear parking sensors as standard. You can even get a surround-view camera system that’ll show you a bird’s eye view of your car and its surroundings on the central infotainment display for an extra £500.
The standard 3 Series doesn’t soften bumps and potholes around town quite as well as the A4, but you can rectify this by paying extra for the optional M Sport Adaptive suspension. It’ll set you back from £515 to £750 (depending on which model you pick) but helps make the 3 Series as relaxing as possible to drive.
This upgraded suspension also comes with a sports mode that’ll let you make the most of an empty back road. It makes the 3 Series feel much more agile than the softer A4 and C-Class and stops its body from leaning too much in tight corners.
Sadly, it’s not all good news. On the motorway you’ll hear more wind and tyre noise in the BMW than in the Mercedes – especially if you pick a model with larger 19-inch alloy wheels – and its diesel engines aren’t quite as quiet as in the Audi.
Thankfully, every 3 Series comes with cruise control as standard and you can get adaptive cruise control – that’ll maintain a safe distance to other cars then return to a preset speed when the road’s clear – for an extra £620.
The 3 Series earned a full five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP back in 2012 but the tests have been made much stricter since. As a result, cars such as the Audi A4 (that earned a five-star rating in 2015) will provide a little extra protection in a crash.
For a little extra peace of mind you’ll want to consider the optional Driving Assistant pack. It only costs £370 but it comes with automatic emergency braking that’ll help stop the car if it senses an obstacle ahead and lane departure warning to help stop you wandering out of your lane on the motorway.