More than 13,000 people bought a BMW 3 Series in 2021, while around 3,500 new BMW 5 Series found their way to driveways across the country. Both these cars are well built, great to drive and come well equipped, so choosing between them can be tricky.
Both models come standard as saloons, but are also offered with more practical estate boots, with these models known as the 3 and 5 Series Touring. Engines and trim options remain broadly the same with both body styles, though we’ll concentrate on the saloon to avoid getting too bogged down in detail.
This guide will walk you through the key differences between these two premium German saloons and by the end, you should have a better idea of which is right for you.
BMW 3 Series vs 5 Series: overview
The 3 Series is only available from new in entry-level Sport trim or in M Sport guise, while the 5 Series comes either in SE or M Sport; we’ll cover what’s included with these below the interior and tech section.
3 Series key information
BMW offers a number of different version of the 3 Series. Some (like the 320d) prioritise low running costs, while others (like the 340i) are more about performance. The high-performance BMW M3 is generally considered to be a separate car in its own right.
All BMW models with an ‘i’ at the end of their names have a petrol engine, while those with a ‘d’ are diesels and the 320e is a plug-in hybrid. All 3 Series engines are turbocharged.
The 320i has 184hp and the the 330i has 245hp. Both models feature a 2.0-litre engine and return around 42mpg (official consumption varies depending on trim level and alloy wheel size), though the 320i does 0-62mph in 7.4 seconds, and the 330i does the same in just 5.9 seconds. There’s about a £4,000 difference between to two cars.
The diesel 320d has a 2.0-litre engine, takes 6.9 seconds to go from 0-62mph and returns around 57mpg. This is the only diesel engine offered with the 3 Series, though the firm has previously offered more potent 330d and 335d models, as well as 335i and 340i petrol models (plus many more past variants.)
The plug-in hybrid (PHEV) 330e has 292hp can officially cover 37 miles in electric mode. It takes just 5.8 seconds to go from 0-62mph and can officially return between 176 and 201mpg, though this assumes you will be charging its battery frequently and mainly running on battery power. Regardless of how you drive it, though, the 330e’s low carbon dioxide emissions (or 33-40g/km) make it very favourable from the point of view of company car tax.
BMW used to offer a six-speed manual gearbox with the 3 Series, but all models now have an eight-speed automatic.
Four-wheel drive is available across the range as an option called xDrive, and adds roughly £1,500 to the price of the 3 Series, while also bringing about slightly worse fuel economy and CO2 emissions.
The 3 Series was facelifted in 2022, when a widescreen incorporating both the dashboard and infotainment screens was introduced. New headlights and redesigned bumpers were also a part of the facelift.
5 Series key information
BMW offers a similar mix of engines with the 5 Series.
The 520d has the same 190hp 2.0-litre engine as the 320d, and returns around 56mpg, while taking 7.2 seconds to go from 0-62mph. There’s also a 3.0-litre 530d option, which has 286hp and returns around 5mpg less than the 520d, but is two seconds quicker to 62mpg.
Petrol-wise, only the 520i is currently offered, which takes 7.9 seconds to go from 0-62mph and returns around 42mpg.
The plug-in hybrid 530e has comparable specifications to the 330e, but there’s also a 545e PHEV, which has 292hp, can go from 0-62mph in just 4.6 seconds, while also being very tax friendly.
The BMW 5 Series was facelifted in 2020, with new lights and bumpers, and improved infotainment being among the highlights.
Drive and performance
Both the 3 Series and 5 Series are great cars to drive, as you’d expect from a BMW. The 3 Series is slightly firmer than its larger counterpart, and feels sportier, if not quite as comfortable as a result.
The difference between the BMW 3 Series and 5 Series will depend on what you use the car for. If you do a fair amount of driving in town, the 3 Series may be the better bet as it’s smaller and therefore more manoeuvrable.
If it’s outright comfort and luxury you’re after, you’ll be better off with the 5 Series. It’s just a little bit more refined, which is reflected in its higher price tag. That said, neither are quite as smooth as a Mercedes E-Class or C-Class.
If it’s a manual gearbox you’re after then the decision is easy, as neither the 3 nor the the 5 Series offers one. You used to be able to have a manual on the basic 3 Series 318d, which is no longer offered.
Style and size
Choosing between these two based on styling alone can be tricky, as the 3 Series looks a bit like a 5 Series which has shrunk in the wash. Both are handsome cars, but the 5 Series has a little more road presence due to its bigger size.
The 3 Series is 4.71m long, 1.83m wide, 1.44m tall and has a 500-litre boot. The 5 Series is 4.96m long, 1.89m wide, 1.48m tall and has a 530-litre boot. The 5 Series is larger mainly in terms of length than the 3 Series, but don’t underestimate the effect the extra 6cm have in terms of its width where interior space is concerned – the larger car feels notiecably more spacious inside.
If it’s a sporty look you’re after then you’ll want the M Sport specification on both cars. This gets you deeper front and rear bumpers, side skirts and better-looking alloy wheels.
Both cars are offered with a selection of fairly subdued colours, but this is to be expected from cars in this class. The 3 Series is available in a bold orange paint job though, which stands out against the different variations of blue, grey and white.
Arguably, one of the best colours for the 3 Series has to be Portimao Blue, however. It highlights the muscular lines of the car well, any may add to its value when it comes to resale time.
Being slightly posher, the 5 Series has an even bigger selection of grey, white and black paint schemes. Going for one of these will be good for resale value, but you might want to check out Phytonic Blue for a bit of added visual punch.
Interior and tech
No matter which car you go for, you won’t feel short-changed when you step inside. The 3 Series and 5 Series feel well made and the materials are high quality.
They both share a similar overall design with a digital driver’s display and a tall centre console that makes you feel like you’re in a low-slung sports car. There’s also plenty of metal trim around to liven things up.
The 5 Series does feel like the more upmarket of the two cars, which is to be expected given the higher price tag. It feels like it’s been inspired by the bigger BMW 7 Series inside and as a result, the materials feel plusher.
Both cars come standard with BMW’s excellent iDrive infotainment system with a 10.25-inch screen. In fact, there isn’t much to choose between the standard equipment in these two cars. The 5 Series gets a slightly more advanced sat nav system as standard, as well as a head-up display.
Trim levels: SE
You can’t get a new 3 Series in SE trim, but opt for this entry-level trim for the 5 Series and the car will include:
LED headlights, heated leather seats, dual-zone climate conditioning, cruise control, front and rear parking sensors, heated seats, a DAB radio, plus a 10.25 infotainment system.
Trim levels: Sport
The 3 Series range begins with Sport, which sees it fitted with:
LED headlights, tri-zone climate control, cruise control, plus front and rear parking sensors.
Trim levels: M Sport
Both the 3 and 5 Series are available with the popular M Sport package. In both cars this brings a subtle M Sport bodykit, as well as a thicker M Sport steering wheel, larger alloy wheels, M Sport (IE stiffer) suspension, and front sport seats.
M Sport is a popular trim, and the cumulative effect of the changes it brings is significant, so it’s worth comparing an M Sport car with an SE or Sport model side by side to compare them.
Myriad optional extras are available for both cars, with many options being bundled together as packs, rather than sold individually. Do consider paying extra for upgraded wood trim – this can transform either car’s interior.
The Technology Pack on the 5 Series brings a head-up display and improved Bluetooth connectivity. The Comfort Pack brings enhanced front seats, a power bootlid, keyless entry and a heated steering wheel.
The Technology Pack on the 3 Series brings a Harman Kardon stereo plus wireless phone charging, while a Visibility Pack sees improved headlights fitted.
More options – both as packs and individual items – are available for both cars, but to list them all would get rather tiring for reader and writer alike, so we can only suggest you head to carwow’s configurator for more information.
Boot space and practicality
The BMW 5 Series is bigger than the 3 Series so, expectedly, legroom and boot space will be better. That’s not to say the 3 Series is tight for room, however, and your usage will determine how much you need the extra space.
Boot space in the 5 Series comes in at 530-litres, which isn’t too much more than the 3 Series’ 500-litre capacity. If you need even more room, there are estate versions of both these cars.
The BMW 5 Series offers front-seat passengers 1,034mm of headroom, and 977mm in the rear. By comparison, the 3 Series has 983mm of headroom in the front and 955mm in the rear.
Rear seat passengers will thank you for buying a 5 Series, as it has 928mm of legroom in the back, compared to the 3 Series’ 894mm.
Safety and reliability
Both the BMW 3 Series and 5 series scored the maximum 5 stars in their latest Euro NCAP safety tests. These see cars assessed for the level of protection the offer adult and child occupants, plus pedestrians, while electronic safety aids are also tested.
The latest 3 Series is still quite new so there isn’t much data around reliability, and there are no real horror stories to report on the 5 series either.
Every BMW model is covered by a three-year warranty with unlimited mileage, which should add further peace of mind. The bodywork is also covered by a 12-year corrosion warranty.
Price and running costs
Because it sits above the 3 Series in BMW’s lineup, it’ll come as no surprise that the 5 Series is the more expensive of the two.
The 5 Series starts from £41,480, however (at the time of writing) you can save an average of £4,056 on one through carwow.
The 3 Series on the other hand starts at £37,805 with an average saving of £3,094 through carwow (at the time of writing).
Insurance groups will vary based on each car’s specification, though as high-end cars cover for both will be relatively expensive.
A flat road-tax rate of £165 applies to both cars, though on cars costing over £40,000 (options are included in this) you need to pay a supplement of £355 a year from years two to six of a car’s life. As all models of new 5 Series are more than £40,000 it will therefore cost you £520 a year to tax, while specifying a 3 Series over £40,000 is relatively easy.
BMW 3 Series vs 5 Series verdict
The BMW 3 Series and 5 Series sit in different segments, so choosing between them will come down to your budget and what you want from a car.
If you want something more sporty and youthful and are on a stricter budget, the 3 Series is the car for you.
If you have a bit more to spend and value outright luxury and space over anything else, the BMW 5 Series is better suited.
Given the different sizes of the 3 and 5 Series, coming up with an overriding winner would be like saying whether a size 12 dress is better than a size 16 one – you should choose which model better suits your needs.
Both are excellent cars, with the 5 Series being larger and slightly more luxurious, while also being a better motorway cruiser thanks to its larger footprint. It will be slightly more expensive to run, and a fair bit pricier to buy, though.
It is worth pointing out that the 3 Series has been more recently updated, though, so if you want the latest in in-car technology, this is the car to go for.