BMW's latest 3 Series plays to its manufacturer's considerable strengths.
The latest version of BMW's 3 Series continues to play to the manufacturer's core strengths of performance, efficiency and driving dynamics.
BMW's 3 Series gives rivals an extremely tough time through the sheer potency and efficiency of what's in its engine bay. Other compact executive models may have the edge in terms of style and feel good factor but right across the range, the engineering of the 3 Series stands out. Annoyingly for those who would pinch its crown, the car is as good on the tarmac as it is on paper.
For BMW, the 3 Series is the cash cow and the goose that lays the golden eggs all merged into one. The image that conjures up may be as powerful an advertisement against genetic engineering as you'll find but the reality of the BMW 3 is one of a seriously slick compact executive product, ruthlessly targeted at its core market. The latest model is the facelifted version of the 3 Series launched in 2005, the result of a bout of nip and tuck to which BMW has subjected its super model.
The 3 Series has been elevated onto a lofty pedestal over the course of the last few years. Its remarkable engines with their class-leading levels of performance and efficiency have made the car a difficult one for number-crunching company car users and fleet managers to overlook. This has, of course, made the BMW the primary target for its key rivals and the likes of Audi and Mercedes-Benz have pulled out all the stops to knock the 3 down a peg or two. Hence this midlife facelift and its measures designed to keep the chasing pack at bay.
The 3 Series is available with 11 mainstream engine options if we ignore the 4.0-litre V8 in the M3, and there's not a duffer amongst them. The five core petrol models open with the 143bhp 318i and 170bhp 320i four-cylinder models, then the range progresses into six-cylinder territory with the 218bhp 325i before getting into the highly rapid 272bhp 330i and the 306bhp 335i with its award-winning twin turbocharged engine. The diesel range opens with the economical 316d with 116bhp, then come the 143bhp 318d and 177bhp 320d making up the four-cylinder offerings. There's the 325d with its 197bhp output, the 245bhp 330d and the 286bhp 335d. The 330d is particularly desirable with its all-aluminium engine construction and third generation common-rail injection technology. It can get to 60mph in 6.1s and has a whole bundle of torque to waft it up the road.
These days, even the fleet favourite 318d has a decent turn of pace with a 0-60mph sprint time of 9.3s and a 130mph top speed. This engine is also available with an automatic gearbox in the latest facelifted 3-Series, which should be of interest to the company car fraternity, as should the slower but greener 316d. The 3 Series is also equipped with a track that's widened by 24mm, enhancing its already highly polished driving experience. The Coupe and Convertible models are now available with a seven-speed double clutch transmission for enhanced performance and economy.
Unusually for a 3 Series, it could be that what's on the bonnet gains as much attention as what's under it where this revised model is concerned. The styling of today's car has been updated in a number of small ways but the raised lines that fall down the middle of the bonnet are most noticeable. Elsewhere, the BMW trademark ringed side lights are standard and the grille has been tweaked while the entire rear light clusters are now entirely ruby red in colour and the side skirts have a more pronounced crease line. The interior looks largely similar to the previous model but BMW has again updated its iDrive control interface with scrolling menu displays designed to enhance usability. There's 8 gigabytes of music storage capacity in the system too, enough for 100 albums, while the quality of the trim materials around the cabin has also been enhanced.
The 3 Series does a good job of accommodating adult passengers in its rear seats. There will be plenty of leg room even for six-footers but the headroom may be an issue. The boot is also of a decent size with 460-litres available in the Saloon and the same amount albeit with extra practicality in the Touring model. Build quality in general is very solid in the 3 but the cabin lacks much of the fine detailing and upmarket materials you get in some rival products.
It's the facelifted 3 Series Saloon and Touring estate models we're primarily concerned with here but buyers can also get the slick Coupe bodystyle and the 3 Series Convertible with its folding hardtop roof. BMW offer the 3 in ES, SE and M-Sport guises with the latter piling on the sporty styling accessories that you'd expect to find on an M3. Even the entry level cars feature ESP stability control, manual air-conditioning, a CD stereo with MP3 input and alloy wheels. The SE models add features such as cruise control and climate controlled air conditioning while the M Sport variants get bigger alloy wheels, firmer suspension, the now trademark anthracite headlining and sports steering wheel and seats.
The 3 Series has six airbags as standard, along with ISOFIX child seat mounts in the front and rear. It also includes a highly advanced stability control system and active head restraints. These head restraints work to protect occupants in the event of a rear-end collision by moving forward 60mm when the crash is detected to lessen the likelihood of whiplash injuries.
BMW continues to lead the way with regard to emissions and fuel economy in the compact executive class and in the current climate, that's a highly lucrative position to be in. The marque has also communicated the strides it has made in terms of improving the green performance of its products very effectively through its EfficientDynamics brand. This is a catchall term for the various technologies contained within BMW products to boost their green performance and the 3 Series features the majority of them. The results can save buyers a pretty penny in fuel and emissions based taxation. The 320d EfficientDynamics model is the star from an environmental point of view with its 69mpg combined cycle fuel economy and 109g/km CO2 showing but if you can't stretch to its asking price, the entry-level 318d manages 62.8mpg combined economy and 118g/km emissions. Even the 330d can manage 49.6mpg and 152g/km while the 330i chips in with 39.2mpg and 173g/km.
As with most compact executive cars, once you've paid the initial purchase price for a 3 Series, pence per mile costs aren't huge. That has to be weighed against the fact that you'll be getting less engine than if you opted for a less prestigious badge. For example, a ritzy 220bhp Ford Mondeo 2.5T Titanium saloon is about the same price as 143bhp BMW 318i SE but will cost a heck of a lot more to run over a typical three year ownership period. In terms of pence per mile figures, you'd have to look a lot further down the Mondeo range before you came to a model close to matching the 318i's showing.
The latest version of BMW's 3 Series continues to play to the manufacturer's core strengths of performance, efficiency and driving dynamics. And what strengths they are. The upgrades to the interior will also be welcomed, particularly a further refinement of the iDrive control interface, but styling alterations are unlikely to convince those with lingering doubts over the way the car looks.
BMW has cemented the position of its compact executive stalwart at the head of its market sector. Perhaps some of the 3 Series' design leaves room for improvement but it's seriously tough to fault the engineering contained within this car. In a market where cost, performance, economy and emissions figures are routinely analysed to the nth degree by fleet buyers trying to make the most rewarding and financially prudent choice, the 3 Series numbers continue to stand up better than those of anything else. That's the bottom line.