BMW 3 Series Saloon (2011 - ) Expert review
Read the BMW 3 Series saloon car review by Auto Trader's motoring experts, covering price, specification, running costs, practicality, safety and how it drives.
- It’s as quiet as a church inside
- Smooth driving experience
- Improved interior space
- Adding desirable extras sees the price rocket
- Reflections in strong sunlight if you choose the Head-up Display
- Its image still won’t suit everyone
At a glance
As the latest BMW 3 Series is very much an evolved design, rather than a clean sheet product, it’s probably little surprise we found its exterior to be a subtle improvement over the outgoing model. To our eyes it’s best viewed from the rear three quarters – as this angle shows off its rear-wheel drive stance – further enhanced by wider wheel arches than before and redesigned tail lights. The nose has updated headlights and BMW’s traditional kidney grille, which together form a single band across the width of the car – a tribute to older 3 Series models. In the same vein as the Urban and Sport trim levels of BMW 1 Series, BMW has now created four distinct design themes for the 3 Series. Sport models have a more menacing and athletic look courtesy of gloss black front air intakes, grille and tailpipes. Modern 3 Series have more ornate chrome details and fan-shaped alloy wheels. Luxury versions are more traditional, with multi-spoke wheels, fully chromed grille and the most chrome accents. At the top of tree price-wise, M-Sport versions get deeper and more aggressive bumpers and lightweight alloy wheels. The Efficient Dynamics model also features a subtly tweaked front end to maximise aerodynamics, though you’d be hard pressed to spot the difference from the regular car.
The interior quality has taken another step forward, making it one of the best in the business. A standard 6.5-inch screen sits above the central air vents, adding to the visual appeal and functionality of the cabin. Design themes are carried over from the exterior, so Sport models get gloss black trim with red highlights, chrome rings around the dials and red stitching. The Modern interior is an overt attempt to attract buyers from Lexus, Volvo and Mercedes, with a calming beige interior and a two-tone Oyster finish for the dash and instrument panel. Luxury adds Dakota leather and chrome interior trim, with wood door cappings. M-Sport fans will love the purposeful black interior with numerous ‘M’ logos and a unique three-spoke steering wheel with a hub so small you wonder how there’s room for an airbag.
Although not immediately obvious from the outside, the 3 Series is a longer car than before. This has paid dividends inside the car, where there is now 15mm more knee room and 8mm extra headroom for rear seat passengers. That might not sound like much, but coupled with larger side windows, it feels far more spacious and comfortable than its predecessor. The boot has grown by 20 litres to 480, making it the same size as a front-wheel drive Audi A4’s luggage compartment.
Ride and handling
The latest 3 Series benefits from significant testing in the UK – with many miles driven in Wales in particular – to ensure the suspension is adept at handling our uniquely challenging roads. The result is a much smoother ride, with fewer road imperfections transmitted into the cabin. This is not at the cost of handling precision, far from it in fact. The 3 Series always feels balanced and composed, making it a pleasure to thread down even tricky roads. Adaptive suspension is available, offering Sport Plus, Sport, Comfort and Eco Pro driving modes, which stiffen the suspension and sharpen the steering and throttle response accordingly.
The big news is the replacement of BMW’s six-cylinder petrol found in the previous 325i and 330i with a four-cylinder turbo petrol named the 328i. Despite losing two cylinders it is quicker than either with 245bhp and acceleration from 0-62mph in 5.9 seconds (6 seconds for the eight-speed auto). It is still possible to buy a six-cylinder petrol, in the form of the 335i with 306bhp and a 5.5 second 0-62mph time. The 320d gets a more refined demeanour, but the same 184bhp, while the forthcoming 318d gets 143bhp and the 316d 116bhp. Even eco heroes needn’t feel left out in the performance stakes, with the ultra-frugal 320ED serving up 163bhp, enough to cover the 0-62mph sprint in a respectable 8.0 seconds. The eight-speed automatic re-defines what is available in the class, with uncannily smooth changes in Comfort mode. Hop into Sport and Sport Plus driving modes and the gear change becomes sports car quick, reacting the instant you pull the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
Huge gains have been made in improving both CO2 and fuel consumption figures, making the 3 Series a compelling choice for customers and fleet buyers alike. The petrol 328i emits 149g/km of CO2 with a manual ‘box, and 2g/km less with the new automatic, while averaging just over 44mpg. The 335i is down from around 200g/km before, to 169g/km in the new automatic (186g/km in the manual). All diesel models are now at or below 120g/km of CO2, with the 320ED managing 109g/km. This is a phenomenally low figure for a car of this type, which is matched only by the Volkswagen Passat BlueMotion – a car with 58bhp less and that takes 4.2 seconds longer to hit 62mph. The 320d averages around 62mpg, while the 320ED returns 68.9mpg thanks to a raft of detail revisions to the engine and drivetrain.
This is a car which feels like an engineer’s dream project, benefitting from the undivided attention of thousands of hours of their finest work. There were no rattles and we found no loose trim – each car we drove felt hugely robust in its construction. As a result, we’d be particularly surprised if any serious reliability issues arise.
In Euro NCAP crash tests, the 3 Series earned a maximum five-star score, and all trim levels are fitted with a full complement of airbags and skid-preventing electronics. The optional Head-up Display keeps your eyes on the road more of the time, keeping reaction times sharp.
Where to start? Needless to say, there are a multitude of options when it comes to speccing a new 3 Series. Trim levels include ES (only available with the 316d), SE, Modern, Sport, Luxury and M Sport. ES cars have 17-inch wheels, chrome tailpipe, air-con, Bluetooth, 6.5-inch screen with iDrive controller, keyless start, cruise control, ECO PRO driving mode and a USB interface. SE cars gain two-zone air-con, auto dimming rear-view mirror, parking sensors and auto headlights and wipers. Sport models get a different design of wheel, sports seats, sports steering wheel and high-gloss trim. Modern brings different alloys and interior trim. Luxury adds 18-inch alloy wheels, Dakota leather interior and wooden interior trim. M Sport cars have 18-inch motorsport-inspired wheels, leather interior, M Sport steering wheel, M Sport suspension and an M Sport body kit. These are impressive levels of equipment, but, buyers beware – there are lots of tempting (and expensive) optional extras, which added more than £12k to the value of one test car we drove. The excellent eight-speed auto is £1,660, while the BMW Professional Multimedia system with sat-nav costs £1,995. The £800 Head-up Display is an impressive feature, keeping important information in your line of sight, but it can also create irritating reflections in strong sunlight. DAB digital radio is a £305 option, while in-car internet can be enabled from £95 with the right media system fitted.
The BMW 3 Series was already the drivers’ choice – now it’s better suited to everyone. It still handles better than anything else in its class, but it has also gained a soothing ride, which makes it both more mature and comfortable. The fact its engines are powerful and economical means customers are asked to make few compromises and makes the 3 series an even more worthy class leader.