Published on Sunday 25 January 2015 14:15
Ten Second Review
The 3 Series is the heart of the BMW brand, responsible for one-fifth of the company's global sales and the benchmark against which every compact executive car measures itself. The bad news for the rest is that this sixth generation model lays down a challenge to which they're quite ill-equipped to respond, still the ultimate drivers' car in its sector but also the most logical business proposition, thanks to smarter powertrains and extra EfficientDynamics fuel-saving, emissions-reducing technologies. With the launch of the original saloon model, the range has filled our nicely, with Touring estate, Active Hybrid 3 and xDrive 4WD derivatives, as well as extra tempting engine and trim options. BMW looks to be holding a winning hand here.
If you're a typical buyer in the badge-conscious sector for compact executive cars, you may think you've a pretty good understanding of BMW's 3 Series - that you understand what it represents. After all, we've had getting on for four decades of production and over 12 million examples have been sold worldwide of this, the most successful car of its kind. And yet, every time BMW launches another generation of this model, it's easy to be taken aback at just how far the Munich company has moved the game on. This sixth generation version, dubbed the 'F30' in BMW-speak, was launched in the Spring of 2012 and carried on its broad shoulders an almost unimaginable weight of expectation.
This is a car the company just cannot afford to get wrong and one that must justify premium pricing with premium quality, extra equipment and ever-more efficient running costs. As well as continuing to set itself apart from its Audi and Mercedes rivals with outstanding driving dynamics thanks to its unique rear-driven layout. At a time when even executives are having to look at downsizing into smaller, more affordable high class models. A big ask? Well let's just say that it pays not to underestimate the 3 Series.
Like all of the best driver's cars, this one will flatter the inexpert driver, yet has the depth of talent to reward the enthusiast. The basic formula here hasn't changed much. Front engine, rear wheel drive, and near perfect 50:50 weight distribution have defined the 3 Series to date and this one doesn't deviate too far from that script although BMW will, for the first time in the UK, also sell you a hybrid and even a line-up of xDrive all-wheel driven versions. But it's the standard rear driven layout that really marks this car out from its direct front-driven rivals. Super-effective traction and stability systems keep those back wheels in check so that if you're not a driving enthusiast, you'll notice no difference. But if you are, then the feeling of being pushed by the back wheels as you exit a bend never fails to offer up a great feeling of pleasure.
Part of the reason is the car's Drive Performance Control system. It's available across the range and allows you to switch the car into different modes according to your mood. In standard form, it changes throttle response, engine mapping and, if you've an auto gearbox, the change parameters for that depending on your selection between efficiency-orientated 'ECO PRO', laid-back 'Comfort' and more assertive 'Sport' modes. Go for one of the 'Sport' models and you can have your car with a set of adaptive dampers so you can alter the ride to suit the road you're on and the mood you're in
As for engines, well there are plenty of tempting options. All the volume four cylinder diesel models share a 2.0-litre diesel in different states of tune that delivers 116bhp in the 316d, 143bhp in the 318d and either 163 or 184bhp in the 320d. Petrol people meanwhile, get a choice of two engines. First, there's the 1.6-litre TwinPower unit from the 1 Series that offers 136bhp in the 316i or 170bhp in the 320i EfficientDynamics model. Then you've the impressive 2.0-litre petrol unit that offers up either 184bhp in a 320i variant that comes with either two or four-wheel drive - or as much as 245bhp if you go for the 328i.
If you're wondering about six cylinder engines, well yes, you can talk to your dealer about those in either diesel or petrol form. The top 335i petrol unit develops a throaty 306bhp, while the 330d diesel puts out 258bhp and a massive 560Nm of torque. Finally, there's the option to go really hi-tech with the Active Hybrid 3 model. This uses BMW's TwinPower Turbo 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine in tandem with a 40kW (55hp) electric motor, to develop a combined 340hp and 450Nm of torque. The result is exceptional performance, reaching 62mph from zero in just 5.3 seconds
Design and Build
Here's a car that looks better in the metal than it does in pictures - really good in fact. Sit this sixth generation model next to its predecessor and it looks lower and more aggressive - longer too, by 93mm.
The cabin seems quite minimalist at first, with many of the minor functions being marshalled by the iDrive controller but there are still plenty of buttons scattered around the dash. Nevertheless, it all looks agreeably elegant and the sweep of the dashboard roll top is a good deal sleeker than the rather ungainly double-bubble shape of this car's predecessor.
The back seat always used to be the 3 Series weak spot, especially so when it was trying to take business away from huge mainstream medium range models like Ford's Mondeo. Just as well then, that this car offers noticeably more space in the rear. Take a seat here and you'll now find an extra 100mm more legroom.
Pop the boot and you'll find 480-litres of fresh air but you will need to pay extra for the optional split/fold rear seats and the ski-hatch for longer items. Of course, if you are regularly going to be carrying bulky items, you'll be wanting to talk to your dealer about the Touring estate model. Its standard boot offers 495-litres, but push forward the split-folding rear bench and that can increase to as much as 1500-litres.
Market and Model
3 Series pricing sits mainly in the usual £25,000 to £35,000 bracket common to German compact executive saloons like this car, the Audi A4 and Mercedes' C-Class. If you want to talk to your dealer about the Touring estate, you'll need to allow the usual premium of around £1,200 on top of the price of your chosen variant. There's a £1,200 'price walk' between diesels - 316d to 318d to this 320d, a car that costs the same in 184bhp normal form as it does in 163bhp eco-conscious EfficientDynamics guise. Petrol-wise, there's a premium of just over £3,000 to pay for people wanting to graduate up from the 320i to a pokier 328i version of the same thing.
Equipment-wise, even the least expensive variant sets its stall out with 17-inch alloy wheels, front foglamps, air-conditioning, Bluetooth compatibility for your mobile 'phone, a six-speaker BMW Professional radio with a 6.5-inch colour screen, USB compatibility and iDrive functionality, keyless starting, a trip computer, a leather three-spoke multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, an alarm and hill start assist to stop you drifting backwards on uphill junctions.
And of course, whichever model you choose, it's hard to resist a potentially ruinous exercise in box-ticking as there's just so much tempting extra equipment on offer. You don't need to be overly extravagant to tack another ten percent to the price of your car.
Cost of Ownership
For this MK6 model, the Munich brand has increased efficiency across the board by making the majority of the engines smaller and relying on turbocharging. A strategy to which has been added the use of more efficient electromechanical power steering, Brake Energy Regeneration, on-demand control of engine ancillary components, tyres with less rolling resistance and an Auto Stop-Start system that cuts the engine when it's not needed when you're stuck in urban traffic or waiting at the lights. On top of that, weight has been pared back, and aerodynamics have been improved to a figure as low as 0.26 thanks to features like the Aero Curtain which wraps the front wheels in their own cocoon of air to reduce turbulence.
And the results of all this are very impressive. Take the 320d we tried as an example. Switch the Drive Performance Control rocker switch to 'ECO PRO' to change the engine mapping and focus all the ancillaries into power-saving mode and it'll return a combined fuel economy figure of 61.4mpg with CO2 emissions of 120g/km. Which is very close indeed to the returns you'll get from the lower-powered 316d and 318d 3 Series diesels that share basically the same engine. So whichever you decide upon, you can expect free road tax for the first year and just £30 a year thereafter. Choose the special 320d EfficentDynamics eco model and although power drops by 20PS over the ordinary 320d (to a still brisk 163PS), emissions also drop to 109g/km while fuel consumption nudges up to 68.9mpg. BMW also offers a 170bhp petrol 320i EfficientDynamics model which manages 53.3mpg and 124g/km. If you want a more powerful petrol 3 Series with still affordable fuel and CO2 returns, there's the hi-tech Active Hybrid 3 variant, which delivers a combined 340bhp, yet returns 47.9mpg on the combined cycle and 139g/km.
This sixth generation 3 Series is a car of contradictions. Larger and more spacious than ever before, but also lighter. Quicker, but more fuel-efficient. And more nimble and agile, while being even safer. Add to that the big steps taken forward in style, quality, comfort and specification and it's not possible to come away from a first acquaintance with this car without being very impressed indeed. It's a BMW that takes your previous perceptions of how a model like this should drive and how much it should cost to run.. and just tears them to shreds.
Which is important I think. Driving, after all for many of us, has become a mechanical, joyless activity. Something we pay through the nose for the privilege of enduring. This car, in contrast, makes the whole thing fun again and does so with such frugality that you never feel guilty about enjoying it - in taking the long way home or blatting up and down the gears just for the heck of it. So yes, the 3 Series might have grown up and become responsible in middle age. But no, you don't have to look too hard to find its twinkle. The clearest class leader on sale right now? That's about the size of it.