Review

BMW 3 Series saloon (2018 - ) review

The BMW 3 Series is a high-quality saloon with a distinctly sporty character, appealing to those that love to drive, but also to those that appreciate the BMW badge. It competes head-to-head with the Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class and Jaguar XE.

Words by: First published: 12th December 2018
The Auto Trader expert verdict: ★★★★★ ★★★★★ 3.9
The BMW 3 Series is easy to recommend for several reasons. For a start, it’s the sharpest-driving car in the sector, rewarding its driver in a way very few cars of this size do. But, even if you spend more time on the motorway than interesting B-roads, it makes for a fine way to get about. The diesel versions are exceptionally economical, all of them are smooth and civilised, and the interior – while not the most spacious – is of high quality. It’s worth test-driving as close a model as possible to the one you’re considering, though, as wheel sizes and suspension set-ups have a large effect on how comfortable the 3 Series is. Some will find it too firm over bad surfaces for their liking.

Pros

  • Impressive quality
  • Really sharp to drive
  • Lots of technology

Cons

  • Ride comfort, especially on bigger wheels
  • Could be more spacious
  • Some expensive options
Pick of the range
BMW 320d Sport automatic
Incredibly frugal yet still brilliant to drive.
Most economical
BMW 320d SE automatic
Small wheels eke out more mpg in the mighty 320d.
Blow the budget
BMW M340i xDrive
Superb engine and chassis, it’s huge fun.

Interested in buying a BMW 3 Series?

How good does it look? 3/5

You couldn’t mistake the 3 Series for anything but a BMW and, while its front end – with a large radiator grille and characteristic BMW lights – is very similar to those of the company’s larger saloons, the 3 Series gets a unique look at the back. LED lights are standard at both ends of the car, and all versions of the 3 Series also get exhaust outlets at both sides of the rear bumper to emphasise the car’s sportiness.

The top-ranking M Sport version gets further visual aggression, helping make it the most popular trim level. In comparison, the entry-level SE car is restrained looking, while the mid-range Sport trim makes for a good compromise.

What's the interior like? 4/5

Even in its most basic form, the interior of the BMW 3 Series is very high quality, with tactile materials and slick switches used throughout. There are several interior trim options to allow you customise the appearance of the cabin, but for the most part, the theme is dark, with modern silver accents brightening it all up. A large centrally-mounted touchscreen is very quick to react, and is complemented (depending on options and trim level) by a swish digitally-rendered dashboard that changes appearance depending on the driving mode you have selected. The driving position is quite low down, but comes with a lot of adjustment for the seat and steering wheel. The seats are wonderfully supportive, too, and leather upholstery is standard on most versions.

How practical is it? 3/5

The BMW 3 Series is a rear-wheel drive car by default, which means it needs a raised transmission tunnel down the centre of the car. This robs whoever has to sit in the middle of the three rear seats of some foot space, although the seats either side get plenty of foot room. In terms of headroom and legroom, the 3 Series is not significantly better or worse than its direct competitors from Audi and Mercedes – which mean ample space for tall adults – though many cars from mass-market brands provide a lot more rear space; the Skoda Superb for example.

Likewise, the boot of the 3 Series is on the same level as its premium rivals, but not the wider market. Thankfully, split-folding rear seats are standard should you need to carry larger items.

Up front, there’s lots of storage room, including a large bin under the middle armrest, two cupholders, a space in front of the gear lever and a decent glovebox.

What's it like to drive? 4/5

The way the 3 Series behaves on the road depends largely on the specification of the car. Even with the most forgiving of the various suspension setups fitted, the car has a very sporty character: it’s grippy, controlled and keen to change direction, and the crisp steering also helps makes it really enjoyable to drive on a twisty road, more so than most of its rivals. Be aware, though, that even with the most forgiving setup, it’s still not all that forgiving: bumps and potholes aren’t ridden with as much slickness as some buyers might like.

Bear in mind, too, that the behaviour of the 3 Series is quite sensitive to the size of the alloy wheel fitted, and the bigger your rims, the less comfortable your car will be. Those in search of comfort would also be wise to resist the M Sport version, as it comes as standard with lower, firmer M Sport suspension that unsettles things further.

That said, M Sport buyers can opt to upgrade to an adaptive suspension, which allows you choose – via the various driving modes – how comfortable or sporty the car is to drive, but we haven’t had a chance to try it yet. The range-topping M340i has four-wheel drive as standard, while buyers of the 320d can also add four-wheel drive as an option to aid traction in poor weather conditions.

How powerful is it? 5/5

No version of the 3 Series is slow, and there’s a wide range of engine options, from the 320i petrol and 320d diesel, to the 330e plug-in hybrid and M340i high-performance variant.

The 330i shares its turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with the 320i, and it delivers more satisfying go, capably playing the understudy to the overtly quick M340i. The latter is powered by a turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine that sounds fantastic and produces 369 horsepower for some serious pace.

If parsimony is more important to you (as it is to most 3 Series buyers), the 320d is difficult to ignore. Its twin-turbocharged diesel engine is silky smooth once warmed up and disguises its considerable performance with its quietness and civility. You’ll need to keep an eye on your speedo though, because it’s deceptively fast. An acoustic windscreen is fitted as standard, which helps keep the diesel engine noise at bay.

How much will it cost me? 4/5

While the outright purchase costs of the 3 Series are high when compared with similarly sized cars from mainstream brands, they’re on a par with direct rivals from the likes of Audi, Mercedes and Jaguar. So are the car’s all-important resale values, which means your investment will be just as well protected come resale time.

Or, if you buy on finance, these robust residuals will help keep monthly payments a bit lower. Meanwhile, BMW’s engines are some of the most efficient in the class, meaning good real-world economy and lower tax bills for company car drivers. BMW’s servicing packages also help owners keep tabs on running costs through the life of the car.

How reliable is it? 3/5

Being so new, there isn’t sufficient reliability data available from the latest 3 Series to be able to make an informed judgement. Look at the record of the previous car, though, and you might be a little worried. Warranty Direct’s Reliability Index gives this model a distinctly below-par score, and BMW sits disappointingly low down in the manufacturer rankings, too (although in fairness, so do Audi, Mercedes and Jaguar).

More concerning, BMW has finished stone-dead last of all ranking manufacturers in both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the JD Power UK Vehicle Dependability Study. On the brighter side, our owner reviews paint a far rosier picture of BMW ownership, with very few problems reported, and like all BMWs, the 3 Series comes with a three-year, unlimited mileage warranty that includes BMW Emergency Service.

How safe is it? 4/5

BMWs generally fare very well in the benchmark Euro NCAP safety tests. While there isn't yet a score for this version of the 3 Series, its predecessor slightly outshone its direct rivals from Audi and Mercedes.

The new car has all the airbags and active safety equipment you would expect at this price level as standard, including a system that detects other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians and applies the brakes automatically if necessary. It can also warn the driver if they are straying out of their lane, and help them steer back into it if needs be. The car can also warn the driver about changes in speed limits and automatically reset the standard speed limiter to suit. BMW’s stability control system is one of the best in the business, preventing skids and loss of traction in a quick and fuss-free manner.

How much equipment do I get? 4/5

BMW uses the familiar SE, Sport and M Sport line-up for the 3 Series, though each is offered with tempting packages that group together various extras for a reasonable price. The 3 Series SE includes alloy wheels, LED exterior lighting, three-zone climate control, cool ambient lighting inside, a snazzy ‘light carpet’ outside to light the way to the car in the dark, heated front seats, parking sensors front and rear, a reversing camera and touchscreen infotainment with satnav, Bluetooth and lots more.

The Sport model adds exterior and interior embellishments, a larger fuel tank and leather sports seats, while the M Sport variant gets a lot of extra equipment, such as a head-up display, gesture control and the digital instruments, along with a much sportier appearance inside and out.

Why buy? 5/5

The BMW 3 Series certainly delivers on its promise of sportiness, but it also majors on luxury, quality and technology. It should also appeal to image-conscious customers, though the interior is not as spacious as some cars in the sector and it could be more comfortable.

Interested in buying a BMW 3 Series?