BMW 3 Series Review
"Sporty to drive, sophisticated inside, superb value"
BMW 3 Series review - dead-on front view, driving round corner, blue, 320d M-Sport, 2020

BMW 3 Series review: sporty, sophisticated - and superb value

  • Published 22 April 2020
  • 5 minute read
  • By Richard Aucock

Introduction

This is the car the BMW has always built its reputation around – smashing to drive, solidly built, stylishly premium to look at. And although the 3 Series is expensive, it’s not unobtainable. Think Waitrose (it used to be Fortnum & Mason). You’ll find that monthly leasing payments are perhaps surprisingly affordable, in fact, as its sheer desirability means it holds its value better than more ordinary cars.

Sure, the 3 Series is now as commonplace as workaday brands like Ford. But it still feels good to see the BMW roundel rather than a Ford oval on your steering wheel. You won’t mind showing off this keyfob; you’d probably keep the Ford one tucked in your pocket.

Great to drive, great to live withBMW 3 Series review - side view, driving, 320d M-Sport, blue, 2020Available to lease from £368 per month Lease Now

This latest, all-new 3 Series hit the road in 2019. The saloon came first, with the Touring estate following later in the year. Now, BMW is slowly broadening the engine range, with all-important plug-in hybrid versions of both body styles now available.

Standard equipment is generous, and even the entry-level SE doesn’t look too ‘basic’. If I were you, though, I’d start at least with the Sport, which has bigger wheels and racier trim. The most enviable 3 Series is the M Sport, which you can craftily combine with a fuel-sipping, low-power (and affordable) diesel engine.

As deleting the engine badge from the bootlid is an official (and free) option, nobody need ever know…


Looks, tech and design

This generation of 3 Series is more of a head-turner than its predecessor. There are more creases and curves in the body, and the 3D-style smoked rear lights are very distinctive. You won’t miss it in your rear-view mirror either, thanks to the enlarged ‘kidney’ grille and LED-infused headlights.

The M Sport is more distinctive still, because many of the chrome bits, including the grille, become cool gloss-black. It’s exceedingly on-trend: that’s why you’ll be happy to give up on a faster engine to get one of these at an attractive monthly cost.

High-tech, premium interiorBMW 3 Series review - interior, 2020 Available to lease from £368 per month Lease Now

Within the high-quality cabin, every 3 Series comes with triple-zone climate control (yes, the kids in the back get their own buttons to play with – sigh), noise-reducing acoustic glass, all-round parking sensors, a reversing camera and an 8.8-inch touchscreen media system. Standard adaptive cruise control will apply the brakes if the car in front slows down, while auto wipers will activate if the rain is heavy. Oh, and all new 3 Series models get an electronic parking brake, rather than an old-fashioned lever.

Move up to Sport and you get heated leather sports seats, those bigger alloy wheels and, bizarrely, a larger fuel tank. M Sport brings better brakes, firmer suspension and other turn-up-the-dial trim tweaks. It also introduces a more sophisticated infotainment system that replaces analogue dials with a fully digital instrument cluster called BMW Live Cockpit Professional. This was futuristic concept car stuff just a few years ago – now it’s available in the showroom.

BMW used to make badge-snob buyers suffer by not offering much interior space inside at all. Oh sure, the driver was OK: their seat could be set nice and low, with support in all the right places, just like today. But that was at the expense of those in the back. Now, although it’s hardly palatial, the rear seats of a 3 Series are far more hospitable than they once were.

3 Series Touring: plenty of clever, practical touchesBMW 3 Series review - Touring estate, opening rear window, white, 2020 Available to lease from £368 per month Lease Now

Saloon models have a 480-litre boot, which is pretty competitive. The Touring doesn’t sound much better, with 500 litres, but this extends to 1,510 litres when you fold the rear seats down. And there are touches of brilliance here, including a load cover that’s split in two, so it’s lighter and easier to remove. There’s a space for it below the boot floor, too, and the rear window opens to allow you drop those few essential shopping bags inside without troubling the whole, heavy tailgate.

The rear window also is wider, for a more panoramic view in the rear-view mirror. And the really clever touch is the non-slip rails on the boot floor. They comprise a steel strip with a rubber insert. With the boot lid open, the rubber section sits flush. Close the boot and it raises slightly, holding whatever’s on top of it snugly in place. Ingenious.

CarZing's guide to sporty and affordable estate cars - including the BMW 3 Series Touring


Driving

You can never knock how any BMW 3 Series drives. This is the company’s bread and butter; its reputation would be shredded if its trademark car was a duffer. That even a mid-ranking 320d Sport can put a massive smile on your face exactly explains the appeal of this car – and by extension the entire BMW brand.

And it’s also good news, given how many of 320ds BMW sells. The steering felt nice, it handled corners in a confident, engaging way, and generally moved along the road in a very sophisticated manner. I was surprised at how well it rode bumps too, with good absorbency and comfort. It’s a sporting car that doesn’t make your passengers suffer. (BMW dealers will happily bore you about the clever suspension dampers that help it achieve this.)

No other car in this class drives like a 3 SeriesBMW 3 Series review - rear view, 320d, driving, blue, 2020 Available to lease from £368 per month Lease Now

As a mainstream diesel engine, the 320d’s is fine, if forgettable. You’re better off taking an eight-speed auto rather than a manual gearbox, mind. Petrol is becoming a popular alternative to diesel and BMW’s 2.0-litre turbo is a good one that, even in base 320i guise, produces 184hp.; the 330i version of the same produces 258hp.

The thriller of the range is the 374hp M340i xDrive, but it has the price tag to match. The really sensible choices are the diesels fitted with xDrive, BMW’s four-wheel drive system, which give all-weather grip without too much of a price or fuel economy penalty. Take one in Touring guise for the thinking person’s alternative to an SUV.

Or read: Affordable sports cars your mates will admire


Cost and economy

BMW used to have a reputation for charging you for everything: there was a time when even a radio cost extra. Gladly, that’s anything but the case these days, with the base SE coming with everything you could sensibly want as standard. Until recently, there was one glaring exception here: Apple CarPlay, which BMW wanted to charge a crazy annual fee for. Rightly, customer outrage forced it to reverse this daft decision: it’s now free for life.

Well equipped, and surprisingly fuel efficientBMW 3 Series review - front view, 320d, driving, blue, 2020 Available to lease from £368 per month Lease Now

Surprisingly, value for money remains as you move up through the range. Sport is £1,400 more than SE and M Sport is £2,900 more than SE. Frankly, on a monthly finance deal, that’s not much at all. If it’s your company car, you’ll be able to get plenty for your money.

BMW engines are good on fuel, low on CO2 and thus very tax-efficient. Fleet drivers will be particularly keen on the 330e plug-in hybrid which, remarkably, costs little more than the regular 330i, and virtually halves the Benefit-in-Kind tax burden – even compared with a 318d diesel.

Touring has a great bootyBMW 3 Series review - Touring estate, boot space, blue, 2020 Available to lease from £368 per month Lease Now

The most affordable 3 Series to lease is the 320i SE, starting from around £350 a month. A Sport is around £20 a month more, and it’s also a £20 jump to a 318d SE. Even at less than £400, you have an appealing selection of new 3 Series models to choose from – you can even get into a Touring.

PCP vs Lease - CarZing's jargon-busting guide to pay monthly finance


Verdict

BMW has long been onto a winner with the 3 Series. As its popularity grew, some predicted its appeal would lessen, as its apparent exclusivity was diluted. Not a bit of it. It’s as alluring now as it’s always been, with regular entries into the UK top 10 bestsellers chart proof of that.

You certainly could still choose a Ford, and you’d get more gadgets for your money. But there’s not much in it these days. You could also pick a premium SUV, but you’ll certainly get less, and pay more company car tax for the privilege.

Therefore, I think the latest 3 Series is a bit of a sweet-spot car. It’s relatively attainable, very fuel-efficient and tax-friendly, yet still a joy to drive. And you’ll be chuffed to bits having one sat outside on your driveway. Tens of thousands of British buyers each year really aren’t wrong.

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