BMW wants to retain the car’s position as the ultimate sporting choice in the class
From relatively humble beginnings in 1975, the Bavarian firm’s most popular model has become the benchmark car in the executive saloon market over its past six generations. From dynamics to build-quality, desirability to flexibility, the 3-Series’ depth of talent has proven so extensive for so long in showrooms, that it has achieved a level of public awareness akin to the likes of the 911 or Golf, where the name of the manufacturer is almost superfluous. BMW wants to retain the car’s position as the ultimate sporting choice in the class, while also promising improved packaging and more refinement.
It certainly looks familiar – despite being slightly larger and wider than its predecessor, this seventh generation car is easily recognisable as a 3-Series, with its wide front grille and smart LED lights.
Given the pressure on this sector from crossovers, electric vehicles and small saloons from the class below, that quick recognition is a valuable asset.
When it is introduced in spring there will be a choice of just two engines, a 258bhp 3.0-litre petrol in the 330i or a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel in the 320d which will boast 190bhp and be available with two or four-wheel drive.
This latter engine is capable of 67.3mpg average fuel economy and 110g/km emissions, while the 3.0-litre petrol managed the 0 to 60mph sprint in 5.8 seconds and a 155mph top speed.
NSIDE CLOUT: The smart interior features a thick-rimmed steering wheel
The engine range will be expanded soon after the car’s arrival, with both less and more powerful petrol engines in the form of the 320i and M340i, the last of which has 374bhp.
The same goes for the diesel range, with 150bhp 318d and 330d models in the pipeline.
Perhaps of most interest to company car drivers will be the July arrival of the plug-in hybrid 330e with an all-new lithium-ion battery pack and just 39g/km emissions with a 42-mile electriconly range.
It’s a sign of the times that this model alone is expected to account for a third of all 3-Series leaving UK showrooms.
Those forthcoming buyers are in for a treat too, because all of the sporting aims of BMW’s engineers have been met with this latest 3-Series – and then some.
On the road, it feels noticeably sturdier and more solid and closer to the kind of refinement levels that you might expect from the larger 5-Series.
Engine and road noise have been kept to a minimum, while there’s little body roll through corners and the steering is sharp and direct while offering a good degree of feedback.
You certainly feel its slightly wider dimensions at times, but the car soon shrinks around you when pressing on, encouraging the driver at all times.
The Bavarian firm’s most popular model has become the benchmark car in the executive saloon market
Has it lost some of its driver focus?
Perhaps a little in the quest for that improved refinement but it’s minimal and this is a very comfortable and capable car, plus it will quickly put a smile on your face thanks to its on-road precision and the ability for you to place it perfectly through bends.
Not that things are perfect.
We’ve yet to drive a car with the standard suspension, and the optional M Sport suspension is good but can sometimes feel that it never really settles on more broken surfaces.
This model is expected to account for a third of all 3-Series leaving UK showrooms
Bumps and expansion strips that you’d expect not to feed through into the cabin are only too noticeable.
It’s not especially bad, but we’d certainly like to compare it with the standard model.
Generally speaking too, this new 3-Series initially feels noticeably wider on the road from the driver’s seat, although it’s not so much of a problem with familiarity.
Plus, we found that the 3.0-litre petrol sometimes felt a little lethargic in its responses, particularly compared to the more powerful 374bhp 340i.
The diesel however was very well-matched to the eight-speed gearbox providing some silky-smooth gear-changes and having a decent level of grunt from low engine revs.
Diesel cars might have been losing their popularity for some drivers of late, but in this 320d, refinement levels are exceptional.
Inside, there’s the usual immaculate build quality with a wide touch-screen and BMW’s i-Drive infotainment system that’s easy to use on the move and relatively simple to comprehend.
The only drawback is BMW’s continued insistence with its gesture control system which is too easy to activate if moving your hands around in the cabin – ironic given that the voice-control is one of the best we’ve come across.
We love the thick-rimmed steering wheel and configurable digital dials.
A further sign of the future is there is only one standard USB-A port and yet there are three of the smaller USB-C ones.
The seats are very comfortable while there’s a decent amount of storage space in the door pockets and ahead of the gear-lever, along with two cupholders.
Space in the rear is pretty good too for head and legroom – noticeably better than previous 3-Series models.
Boot space isn’t bad either at 480 litres and split/folding rear seats.
If you need more practicality than that, then the Touring estate will be in showrooms by next autumn.
CLASSIC: The new 3-Series is slightly wider but still instantly recognisable
It would have been easy for BMW to have pulled its punches with this 3-Series, rested on its laurels and produced a car that relied on its reputation and brand loyalty to pull in customers.
Instead, it has built at a car that is noticeably improved in every way, and in some areas such as its refinement and driving ability, considerably so.
It might have lost a small degree of enjoyment from behind the wheel, but it would be hard to find many real-world buyers to argue that the benefits weren’t worth that small sacrifice.
Crucially, the 320d which represents the heartland of 3-Series sales to many company drivers is very good indeed. And we have little doubt that the 330e plug-in hybrid will exceed all sales expectations.
Make no mistake, six generations on, this is the best 3-Series yet.
Model: BMW 3-Series
On sale: March 9
Price range: £33,610-£37,660
Engine range: Petrol – 3.0-litre, Turbo-diesel – 2.0-litre
Power: 0 to 60mph in 5.8 seconds, 155mph top speed (3.0) ? Average fuel economy: 67.3mpg (2.0TD)
CO2 emissions range: 110-130g /km ? Rivals: Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class, Volvo S60
Check out our video of the BMW 3-Series on the road at express.co.uk/motoring