BMW 3 Series Review
Fun to drive, and with an upmarket feel, there are few more impressive posh saloons than the BMW 3 Series
Strengths & weaknesses
There was a time when the BMW 3 Series was effectively a default choice for people who wanted a premium-badged car that looked smart and was fun to drive – as well as being able to cover long business journeys with ease.
Now, though, SUVs, electric cars (including the Tesla Model 3) and very talented rivals in the form of the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, Alfa Romeo Giulia, Jaguar XE and Volvo S60 are all clamouring for money you once may have spent on a 3 Series without a second thought.
In response, BMW has upped its game. The latest 3 Series, launched in 2019, still majors on the traditional BMW traits of being enormous fun to drive for this type of car and offering a range of top-notch engines - from zippy entry-level petrols to efficient diesels and impressively powerful high-end six-cylinder options. Yet it’s also fitted cutting-edge technology in the form of efficient plug-in hybrids, plus mild hybrid technology on some models.
There are also four-wheel-drive versions, and the levels of standard equipment are impressively generous - not something that’s always been the case with BMW models.
Engine options include four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines (the 156hp 318i, 184hp 320i and 258hp 330i), the 292hp 330e plug-in hybrid, and four diesel engines that run from the 150hp 318d all the way up to the 340hp M340d xDrive.
At the top of the range is the 374hp 3.0-litre turbocharged M340i, which provides an astonishing amount of power and performance. Astonishing, that is, until you consider the 510hp dedicated M3 performance model - though that is considerably more expensive.
The majority of models are fitted with a smooth and responsive eight-speed automatic gearbox with a manual override option - even the performance-focused M340i, M340d and M3. The only versions available with a six-speed manual gearbox as an option are 318i petrol models and the 318d.
The upper ends of the 3 Series range (the M340d xDrive and the M340i xDrive) get an adaptive suspension system as standard. This lets you switch the suspension between soft, comfort-focused settings and more firmly sprung sporty modes. It’s an option on other models, albeit an expensive one, but it’s an impressive party trick nevertheless.
On the non-adaptive M Sport suspension the 3 Series is a fun and agile-feeling car to drive, with very little body lean and suspension that keeps the body movements of the car well in check even over bumpy roads. SE models, with a more basic suspension setup are a little more comfortable, with less precise body control around corners, but are still definitely on the sporty side.
The interior of the 3 Series is equally as impressive as the way it drives. Everything feels solidly and expensively built - important, given that these are not low-budget cars - and the seats are both comfortable and supportive.
The layout of the central touchscreen media system (standard on all cars), other controls and instrument display is clear, thorough and intuitive, and the physical ‘iDrive’ rotary controller is a real boon when you’re on the move as using touchscreens can be very distracting. With the iDrive system, you can access functions such as the sat-nav or digital radio without taking your eyes off the road for longer than necessary.
There’s also an optional 'gesture control' function on some cars that allows you to switch music tracks or adjust the volume control by waving your hand, but it’s a bit gimmicky. More effective is the optional head-up display, and the customisable, information-rich digital dials, which replace the conventional speedometer and rev counter on M Sport models.
Body styles include the regular four-door saloon and the Touring estate model. There’s also a closely-related 4 Series model that comes as a coupe, convertible and Gran Coupe streamlined five-door hatchback that’s essentially the same mechanically and in terms of interior design as the 3 Series, but we’re focussing solely on the models that are actually badged as 3 Series cars in this article.
Should I get a BMW 3 Series Saloon?
✔ Really good fun to drive
✔ Upmarket image and quality
✔ User-friendly driver-focused interior
✘ No electric model available
✘ Relatively expensive when new
✘ Some rivals offer a more comfortable ride
Some cars make great status symbols and some make deeply satisfying and enjoyable cars to own and drive. The BMW 3 Series manages to do both. Not only will it allow you to easily keep up with the Joneses - with the more expensive models being particularly desirable - but it will also provide convenient and above all enjoyable motoring for you and your family.
So if driving fun matters to you, but you don’t want to sacrifice build quality, brand image or running costs, then the BMW 3 Series should be on your shortlist. Whether it’s a more value-focused, economical 318d or 320d diesel you're considering, the low-emission 330e plug-in hybrid, or the high-performance M340i, any 3 Series makes a great all-rounder. If you're after one car that can be practical, affordable to run, desirable and fun to drive, this could be it.
- Models explained
- Trim levels
- Hybrid/Plug-in hybrid
- Best 3 Series for...
- Boot space
- Should I buy used?
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BMW 3 Series Saloon
The saloon version of the BMW 3 Series is the mainstay of the 3 Series range, accounting for the vast majority of sales. And despite its smart business-suit styling, it’s still perfectly suited to family life, with good-sized rear seats, a decently big boot, and even folding rear seats if you need to accommodate the occasional longer load.
It’s available with rear-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive, a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic gearbox, a variety of fuel-efficient and high-performing petrol and diesel engines and even a plug-in hybrid setup. In short, whatever your vehicle needs, you’ll most likely find a 3 Series saloon to suit.
Unless, that is, luggage capacity is vital to you. In which case you might need the Touring estate model, which has a hatchback boot opening and offers greater load space and overall practicality. More on which below...
BMW 3 Series Touring
If you like the idea of the 3 Series, but need just a wee bit more flexibility, practicality and overall luggage space, then the 3 Series Touring could be the ideal choice.
It shares the same range of engines and trim levels as the regular saloon model (with the exception of the high-performance M3), but it adds a useful amount of extra boot space and a rear hatchback with split-opening tailgate, where you can either lift up the rear windscreen only to load smaller items or raise the whole boot panel.
What’s more, unlike in previous incarnations of the 3 Series, this version of the Touring even has the option of a plug-in hybrid petrol-electric setup, although this does lose a little boot space compared with non-plug-in-hybrid versions, since the car’s batteries are stored under the boot floor.
BMW 330e plug-in hybrid
Available as either a saloon model or a Touring estate, the plug-in hybrid version of the 3 Series is ideal for company car drivers as it attracts a lower company car tax than other 3 Series models. It also gives you the ability to cover up to 34 miles on electric power alone from a full charge, before the regular petrol engine (a 2.0-litre turbocharged unit) is needed.
The 330e can be charged up in around three and a half hours from a domestic wallbox charger, and the combined power output of the petrol engine and electric motor is 292hp. As with all plug-in hybrid models, this makes most sense for those who do lots of short trips and are happy to regularly charge the car to maximise the proportion of journeys covered using electric power alone.
Dramatically sporty styling, plus some quite ‘out there’ colour options, make the high-performance offshoot of the BMW 3 Series range stand out. This includes a huge and very controversial version of the traditional BMW twin kidney-shaped grille.
Looks aren’t the only thing that sets the M3 apart from ‘lesser’ 3 Series models, however. It has a whopping 510hp power output and four-wheel-drive versions can hit 62mph from rest in an almost terrifyingly rapid 3.5 seconds.
|SE||From £14,699: Even entry-level SE cars are well equipped. There’s built-in sat-nav, a reversing camera, adaptive LED headlights and even three-zone climate control included.|
|Sport||From £9,995: Sport models are only a little more expensive than SE specification cars. They bring larger, more attractive 18-inch alloy wheels, plus a larger fuel tank, which makes the 3 Series a great long-distance tourer, especially the highly economical diesel models.|
|M Sport||From £11,695: M Sport models come with a sporty body styling kit, different 18-inch alloy wheel designs, a sports steering wheel, a dark cabin headlining and sporty leather seats.|
It’s hard to find fault with any of the engines that are available in the 3 Series, as they all balance good performance and excellent fuel economy. However, the star of the show is undoubtedly the 374hp 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder petrol engine in the M340i xDrive.
It’s refined, flexible and easygoing in everyday driving - providing plenty of punch from low engine speeds - and is even capable of 40mpg-plus on a motorway cruise. Yet if you want to indulge in its performance capabilities, it can accelerate from 0-62mph in a seriously rapid 4.4 seconds, helped by four-wheel-drive traction. It sounds great while you’re doing it, too.
There's a similarly quick M340d xDrive diesel model, too. It uses a 340hp 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine but should prove more efficient, particularly on motorway trips.
In the absence of an electric car in the 3 Series range, the 330e is the next best thing. It has a 12kWh battery that can be charged up in around 3.5 hours and gives around 34 miles of range on electric power. It’s available in estate (Touring) form or as a saloon, and you can specify one with either rear-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive.
BMW claims that the four-wheel-drive (xDrive, as BMW calls it) version can manage 156mpg and emits 46g/km of CO2, while the rear-wheel-drive model can theoretically achieve up to 176mpg for 39g/km.
To get near to those figures, you’d have to undertake most of your journeys using electric power only, which means doing mainly short journeys and charging the car regularly; but even for longer drives where you need to rely more on the petrol engine, the 330e is still impressively efficient.
From fuel-sipping diesels to low-emission plug-in hybrids - via high-performance petrol models with a great exhaust note - there’s a BMW 3 Series out there to suit almost any driver from high-mileage motorists after a sensible and upmarket machine to those who want a high-performance but comfortable vehicle.
|BMW 320d SE: Forget the pricier M Sport trim, and skip the lower-spec 150hp 318d - the 320d is much more satisfying to drive, with 190hp, and the SE trim level is more than generous when it comes to standard equipment.|
|BMW 320d Sport Touring: The estate car body style of the 3 Series Touring makes it the one to have for growing families, as it’ll happily swallow all the inevitable clutter of family life. The 2.0-litre diesel engine, meanwhile, won’t break the bank when it comes to running costs.|
|BMW M340i xDrive: The high-performance M3 might be stunning, but it’s unattainable for most. The M340i, though, is a little more affordable and yet it’s still stunningly fast and, quite frankly, a hoot to drive. It’ll manage 40mpg if you drive it carefully, too, meaning that fuel bills shouldn't be too steep.|
|BMW 318d: If the 320d didn’t exist, the 318d would be great. But the truth is that the 320d offers much superior performance, while effectively matching the 318d’s fuel economy, making it hard to recommend the cheaper car, unless paying the lowest price is an absolute priority.|
There are plenty of options from rival manufacturers if the BMW 3 Series is on your shortlist. The main contenders are likely to be the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4, both of which are equally German, equally luxurious and available with an equally broad variety of engines. Neither are quite as sporty to drive as the 3 Series, but both make very compelling alternatives.
If a sporty driving experience is your thing, then the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Jaguar XE are worth considering, while the super-stylish Volvo S60 offers a spot of restrained Scandinavian style and great comfort, though it’s not as good to drive as the BMW.
Straying further afield from posh saloons, upmarket SUVs such as BMW’s own X3 and the Mercedes GLC could well be tempting if you like the looks and the higher driving position, although no tall SUV will be as fun to drive as the BMW 3 Series.
BMW 3 Series Saloon practicality: dimensions and boot space
Although often described as a ‘compact executive’ car, the BMW 3 Series is actually quite large. It’s 4.7m long and 1.8m wide (or just a little bit more than two metres if you count the door mirrors), and that’s the same whether you’re talking the saloon or Touring body style. It’s also 1.4m tall.
These dimensions put the 3 Series within a few centimetres in terms of size compared with its key rivals and, although that makes it a relatively large car, standard parking sensors all round make it easy to manoeuvre in awkward car parks.
Inside, there’s more front space than in most of the 3 Series’ rivals, and the same is true in the rear seats, especially if you’re trying to squeeze three people in side by side.
|Length 4,709mm - 4,794mm||Width 1,827mm - 1,903mm|
|Height 1,433mm - 1,444mm||Weight 1,565kg - 1,965kg|
The 3 Series saloon offers 480 litres of boot space, meaning it’s a decent size, but not enormous. Compared with rivals from Mercedes and Audi, the load space is a little larger than the boot in a Mercedes C-Class, but offers an identical capacity to that in the Audi A4.
Opt for the Touring model and you'll find that the estate car body style pushes that up to 500 litres, or 1,500 litres of space with the rear seats folded flat. Both saloon and Touring 3 Series models lose 80 litres of boot space in 330e plug-in hybrid form, however, as the batteries are located beneath the boot floor.
If you need significantly more boot space, then you may need to look away from upmarket rivals to slightly more affordable models such as the Volkswagen Passat (585 litres) and the Skoda Superb (625 litres).
|Seats up 400-480 litres||Seats down 1,500 litres|
Cars from premium manufacturers often spring a surprise in reliability or owner satisfaction surveys - for all the wrong reasons. So, although the BMW 3 Series came out as the top BMW in the 2021 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey, it was still only placed 31st overall, out of 75 different models surveyed.
It also lost out overall to the Tesla Model 3 in the ‘compact executive’ class, but easily outperformed the Tesla in the ‘reliability and build quality’ section of the survey. However, it's worth bearing in mind that drivers often expect more from upmarket models like the 3 Series, so it should still be easy to live with, if not perfect.
Overall, then, a BMW 3 Series should provide reasonably reliable and dependable motoring.
BMW’s warranty has no mileage cap - which means it betters the 60,000-mile limit imposed by rival brands such as Audi. As a result, high-mileage drivers will get more cover with a sub-three-year-old BMW than many other rival models.
However, BMW's level of cover is still restricted to three years as standard, which means it trails behind brands like Hyundai - which offers a five-year warranty - and even further behind the seven-year cover offered by Kia and MG.
|3 years||Unlimited miles|
AVERAGE REPAIR COST PAID BY WARRANTYWISE: £721
Despite sales of saloon and estate models like the 3 Series dropping in recent years, it’s still a big seller for BMW, so you should find plenty of choice on the used market. Diesel models are likely to have done higher mileages, but that shouldn’t necessarily put you off, especially if the car is less than three years old. This is because it will still be in its period of unlimited mileage manufacturer warranty cover.
As with rivals from other upmarket brands - most notably Mercedes and Audi - the initial new price for a BMW 3 Series is often quite high, but as it's a desirable model, it tends to hold onto its value quite well. This means that PCP finance monthly payments can be relatively affordable compared with less desirable models that will lose more of their value over the course of a finance contract, since PCP monthly payments reflect how much value cars lose during the contract term.
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Diesel models aren’t quite as popular as they were a few years ago, but the four-cylinder diesel models, the 318d and 320d - particularly if you’re a high-mileage driver - are so fuel-efficient while still providing plenty of performance that they remain popular.
If you do fewer miles, then the four-cylinder 320i and 330i petrol models provide peppy performance without sacrificing too much in the way of fuel economy compared with the diesel models.
At the top of the range, meanwhile, the powerful M340i xDrive, with its 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine, is probably the best choice if power and performance are your number one priority. The diesel-powered M340d isn’t quite as powerful, but it is nearly as fast. For our money, though, we think the petrol powered M340i is the more satisfying car to drive.
In terms of trim levels, the sporty-looking M Sport option is by far the most popular, but the lower-spec SE and Sport trims are still good-looking and well-equipped choices.
*Representative PCP finance - 2018 Ford Fiesta 1.0 ST-Line Hatchback:
|PCP representative example||APR rates available|
|Cash price £12,000||APR 7.90%||Value of loan||From|
|Fixed monthly payment £218.12||Annual mileage of 8,000pa||£25,000+||6.9%|
|Total cost of credit £2,755.55||Term 48 months||£12,000-£24,999||7.9%|
|Optional final payment £4,285.79||Loan value £12,000||£8,000-£11,999||8.9%|
|Total amount payable £14,755.55||Deposit £0||<8,000||9.9%|
BuyaCar is a credit broker, not a lender. Our rates start from 6.9% APR. The rate you are offered will depend on your individual circumstances.
With upmarket build quality, a premium badge and a big dose of driving fun, the practical 3 Series Touring is an impressive family estate