As parties go, visiting the Rioja region of Spain to celebrate the 40th birthday of BMW’s 3 Series is a fine way to start. The first model launched back in 1975, the same time incidentally as new tech upstart called Microsoft. This revised sixth-generation car is the result of BMW sending its best Bavarian boffins to tinker and improve the 3 Series after it came in for some serious competition from Jaguar’s new XE. So was the work worth it? We take a look.
Exterior and interior design
This being a facelift does mean that you will struggle to see any difference between this model and last year’s car. At the front, changes are limited to a redesigned bumper and headlights that have been moved further apart to emphasize a wider, more sporty stance on the road. Take a look at our video for an overview of the car.
The rear benefits from new L-shaped LED light clusters and that’s your lot. But they do add up to what is a handsome machine, especially when offered in this optional M-Sport bodykit, known affectionately by BMW as ‘UK-spec’.
Inside it is standard high quality BMW with a sprinkling of extra chrome and gloss highlights.
The driving position is fantastic offering beautifully weighted controls and a driver’s seat that goes low enough to put you centre stage of the driving action.
Under the skin
Thankfully more serious changes have been made under the skin focusing on efficiency and dynamics. Turbo-charging has been introduced throughout the engine range as well as engineering tweaks to give improved performance, lower emissions and reduced fuel consumption.
There is the option of a new 1.5 litre 3-cylinder petrol engine, a new 8-speed automatic transmission which uses the car’s satellite navigation to ensure the correct gear is matched perfectly to the road ahead. Changes have also been introduced to the suspension and steering to improve feel and handling. BMW also offers its xDrive (four wheel drive system) across most of the 3 Series range.
Diesel Driving: 320d EfficientDynamics (ED) Automatic
It is all too easy at these launch events to elect for the quickest model available and wheelspin out into the sunshine, yet this time I was sensible and instead focused on the most economical models.
The first one tested was the 320d ED diesel model with the optional 8-speed automatic transmission, priced at £32,675.
In simple terms if you are a company car driver, this is the car for you: 74.3 mpg, CO2 emissions of 99g/km, a Benefit in Kind (BIK) figure of 17% and £20 annual road tax. Those are stats that would have made a supermini proud just a few years ago. Performance is thankfully a supermini beating 163 horsepower, a 0-60 mph time of 8.2 seconds and a top speed of 143 mph.
Out in the real world, I struggled to get close to 50 mpg during my time but thankfully the 3 Series does live up to the hype in the way it drives. If you spend a bulk of your time on the motorway, I recommend that you venture off-piste from time to time and take the long way home to see just how well this 3 Series steers and handles. It is a fabulous drive and the automatic gearbox makes for a satisfying companion, instantly changing up or down with the merest flick of the steering wheel paddle.
The diesel engine provides all the mid-range pulling power you need although it does not encourage hard driving, sounding coarse when pedal is pushed to metal. Overall refinement levels are strong, save for some wind noise around the wing mirrors and although a Jaguar XE betters the 3 Series for ride comfort, it is still cosseting in ‘Comfort’ suspension mode. Switching into ‘Sport’ suspension mode firms up the steering nicely but it can make the ride harsh on uneven surfaces.
If you want to be more saint than sinner, switching the car into Eco Pro mode maximizes the car’s fuel efficiency by switching off auxiliary equipment and reducing the engine’s responsiveness. To get close to those published economy figures this is the mode you need to be in. As a mile muncher this diesel in good-looking Sport trim can appeal to both heart and the tax man.
Petrol progress: 318i Manual
Switching into the new three-cylinder 1.5 litre petrol engine car, badged 318i, this is clearly the choice for the enthusiast. It offers serious pub bragging rights by being the same unit that is fitted to BMW’s flagship i8 supercar. Available from £24,975 offering: 52 miles per gallon, CO2 emissions of 129g/km, a Benefit in Kind figure of 19% and £110 annual road tax. This little unit offers 134 horsepower, a 0-60 mph time of 8.9 seconds and a top speed of 130 mph.
Beautifully smooth and eager to rev, this variant actively encourages hard driving by emitting an addictive throaty soundtrack. Even after such a spirited adventure the average fuel consumption of 42 mpg was almost as close as I had managed in the previous eco diesel.
If you are after a spiritual successor to the BMW 3 Series you remember of your youth, this is the model to pick. Light on its feet and thanks to the turbocharging it is quick enough in the real world. If I was privately buying, this would be the variant I would choose.
BMW has always lavished technology on its little executive and this latest 3 Series is no exception. Satellite navigation is now standard across the range boasting enhanced resolution and the ability to constantly update the mapping via the car’s inbuilt 4G sim card.
Upgrading to the bigger 8.8 inch screen (Professional Navigation £900) you also get real-time traffic information as well as the ability to bark orders at your car instead of your sales team thanks to the voice recognition software.
A full color high resolution Head-Up Display can also be specified (£825) transmitting key information (speed, navigation instructions) to the windscreen ahead of you.
BMW Apps allow you to access social media on-board as well as to lock/unlock your car from the smart phone in your pocket. The car’s GPS location can also be transmitted to your phone saving you the embarrassment of ever losing your car again.
The Parking Assistant (£895) allows you to park your BMW hands-free as the car automatically manages the steering whilst you simply cover the accelerator and brake pedals.
There is also a myriad of safety features that monitor you more closely than if you were in a hospital. Constant checks are made to confirm that you are driving straight in your lane, that you are not too tired and that you are not too close to the vehicle in front in which case the autonomous braking should wake you up nicely.
Day to day
Practicality remains unchanged which means that you get a very reasonable boot size of 480 litres and you’ll get three full size adults in the back with no drama at least for short journeys. The front seats are very comfortable and highly adjustable especially in the optional sports seats.
Usefully in the front as well as the usual cup holders, there is now storage for a smart phone which is often lacking in most modern cars.
The BMW 3 Series keeps its crown as a champion for drivers and thanks to the available technology it remains the benchmark of the small executive class. If you do the miles take the diesel, if you want the biggest smiles, take the petrol.
Priced from: £24,975 for the 318i petrol model (52.3 mpg, 124 g/km) or the diesel pick, the 320d EfficentDynamics diesel model (74 mpg, 99g/km) from £30,485.