The BMW 3-Series is a car that epitomises the phrase "all things to all people". It’s consistently one of the 10 best-selling cars in the UK - and it’s easy to see why.
It’s big enough for four people and luggage, yet small enough to park easily. You could belt down to Cannes in one tomorrow, but it’s just as at home pootling to Sainsbury’s on a Saturday morning. But the 3-Series has always offered an extra dimension that distinguishes it from the competition, that bit about it being "The Ultimate Driving Machine". Spot the difference design
If you’re looking at the pictures and struggling to spot the changes between this new car and the one that went before it, we wouldn’t blame you.
You will spot them on the road though. The front of the car, in particular, has a much lower bonnet, helping to emphasise the sporting nature of this saloon - while BMW’s design signatures are all present and correct: rear wheel drive proportions, the "hofmeister kink" of the rear window, that twin kidney grille and the pair of rounded projectors within each light. The lamp units themselves now flow into the grille – emphasising the low, wide nature of the front. With the "corona rings" of the daytime running lights lit up, it looks great - immediately recognisable as a BMW, striking without being too aggressive.
Underwhelming in appearance, but brilliant to use
Stepping inside is initially disappointing though. BMW’s recent interiors have struggled to achieve the fine details and perceived quality of Audi and the new 3-Series is no different. The architecture is relatively simple, BMW’s ultra-clear 4-gauge instrument cluster is great, but that centre screen looks like it ought to fold away (it doesn’t).
Some of the trim feels cheap; the (optional) leather on the seats is of a far cheaper grade than the leather on the similarly priced Citroen DS5. And there’s evidence of cost cutting - gone are the last generation car’s pop-out dashboard cupholders which are an expensive engineering solution to a beverage-based problem.
But stick with it, because sometimes appearances can be deceptive. It might not titillate you on a test drive, but the reality is that this interior really works. Its ergonomic layout is beyond criticism - all the controls falling perfectly to hand. The clarity of information is superb - BMW doesn’t do gimmicks - it does things like light the instruments up orange at night because, as a colour, it’s less tiring for your eyes to recalibrate between the road and the orange of the dials than if they were – say – blue.
The iDrive controller falls perfectly to hand - allowing you to control it while your elbow wrests on the centre armrest – and the weighting and logic of its turn-and-push control is perfectly judged. It’s a cliché, but we reckon if Apple designed interior controls for cars… well, you can fill in the rest. It’s just a pity the plastics and metals aren’t up to Cupertino’s standards.
iDrive – an object lesson in in-car tech
When it launched the last 5-Series in 2003, BMW revolutionised the HMI (human machine interface) in cars, with iDrive. A rotary controller that you turned, nudged back and forth and pressed to control functions such as nav, radio and climate on a central screen, it was widely derided in reviews. But customers who lived with it got used to it, and grew to love it and in the intervening nine years, BMW has refined this system to include shortcut keys for the major functions you regularly want to use. It’s the latest version of iDrive we find in the new 3-Series.
In our test car, it was controlling BMW’s most advanced (professional) navigation system, optional DAB radio and had extended "connected drive" functions – which included on board internet (just a £95 option), BMW Assist and a host of web-based enhancements.
To cut to the chase, if you’re buying a new 3-Series then we’d recommend forgoing eating for a few months in order to afford the two-grand professional navigation package. Why? It’s the most well-resolved system we’ve used in any car. We’ll just let that sentence sink in.
Moving around the system with that rotary controller makes you never want to use another touchscreen in a car again. Why? Well, first, you’re not reaching your arm up away from its natural resting position to poke (often at the wrong bit of) a screen. Secondly, we reckon it’s safer as you need to take your eyes off the road for less time. Yet it’s faster to programme and select things with this system too. And the controller – how it moves and the feedback it gives your hand – is a joy to use. The speed of response of the system is impressive too - once it’s gone through an initial, fairly slow, boot-up process when you first start the car.
The daddy of centre screens?
It’s not the size of the central screen, so much as the classy graphics that match the rest of the interior fonts and colours that impress. The fact the Nav’s map is super-clear and viewable in three different orientations, and the fact that the on-board Internet allows you to do things like look at your destination in photos via Google Streetview that matter.
There’s brilliantly integrated real-time traffic information and updates too, something that saved us about three hours sat stationary on the M1 when it got closed, by diverting us off before RDS traffic or the matrix boards caught on to what had happened.
Besides warning of issues on the route and offering diverts, the map itself lights up the roads closest to your current location in green, orange or red – so if you’re just mooching around locally you’ll be able to see if you’re heading towards trouble.
Opt for this, the pricier of the two navigation options and you get BMW’s black-panel display too – the lower half of the instrument cluster is a TFT screen that’s seamlessly merged with the analogue dials above it. The TFT display re-organises itself on the fly to show the turn-by-turn navigation functions, vehicle information and economy driving tips.
Allied to this you get Bluetooth connectivity for your phone and music, various on-board diagnostics, and BMW assist which might literally save your life in a crash by sending you the ambulance automatically should it detect the airbags being deployed.
The Ultimate Economy Machine
It might wear the self-appointed tag of the ultimate driving machine, but the 320s ought to be called the ultimate economy machine, based on our results. Our average mpg over 1200 miles of driving was 62.3mpg. Which for a car that can crack 0-60 in less than eight seconds and has such effortless performance on the road, is nothing short of remarkable.
No small credit goes to the brilliantly set up Eco-Pro driving mode. The car defaults to this setting every time you start it up but you’ve the option to put the car into comfort and sport modes too.
Where other systems frustrate with their nannying nature or by completely smothering the throttle response, following Eco-Pro allows you that rare double-act of being able to make swift progress while achieving amazing economy. What you will notice is the right half of that lower cluster display advising you to change gear, drop the car into neutral at the lights to let the auto-stop-start kick in, accelerate less fiercely and to stop driving so fast.
Which sounds like the car being big brother, although it’s worth saying, you can opt to have each of these switched on or off. Yet - and we’d love to know what BMW has done to it - you need the visual dashboard cues, because otherwise you’d never believe that the engine will pull from around 900rpm. Change up at 1500 rpm and in most cars you’ll find the engine bogging down, bad vibration coming into the cabin and you end up changing back down a gear. But not here. You can row the car around, never exceeding 2000rpm and all is well. All of which means you can expect over 700 miles from one tank of diesel.
Flick it into sport mode though and it picks up its skirts and charges past slower traffic with ease. And because it’s rear wheel drive, it handles sharply and, compared to most modern cars, steers with a beautiful precise quality and weighting. Even the ride’s good – better than the last two generations of 3-Series certainly – although our car’s anemic-looking 16-inch wheels helped here. Spec your new 3-Series with the admittedly much prettier 18- or 19-inch wheels and you may want to erase that last sentence.
Look at or sit in a new BMW 3-Series and you might dismiss this car as a great example of how slow progress is in the car industry. But appearances can be deceptive. Because to drive and live with the 3-Series is remarkable. Not only is this 3-Series on a par with its predecessors as a great car to drive but it is also startlingly economical to the point where it might make you think twice about going hybrid or even electric.
Coupled with this is a suite of interior technologies – yes, some of which are optional – which right now, we think are peerless. Well integrated, easy to operate, saving you time and beautiful to look at - one day, all in-car technology will work this well.
Only in its slightly underwhelming interior design and inability to make you feel truly special does the 3-Series get marked down. Yet over the lifetime of car, these things tend to pail into insignificance. What matters is a car’s ability to fit into your life, work well and get you to where you’re going comfortably, reliably and enjoyable.
The 3-Series, will - for the majority of people - do that with bells on. We can give it no greater complement than to say that when faced with a trip from Leeds to London and back in a day, every other test car has been left in the station car park, but when we had the 3-Series, we drove and arrived back feeling fresh, relaxed, with a smile on our face and with half a tank of diesel still left in the tank.
The 3-Series might not be all the car you ever want, but it is all the car you’ll ever need and - by some way - tops the class.