What stands out?
The BMW 3-Series is an athletic and balanced luxury car that has special appeal for keen drivers. It is a good size, too: easy enough to park but able to carry five in comfort. And there is plenty of diversity, with wagons, very swift sedans and even a hybrid. This review covers the range prior to the mid-life update of October 2015.
What might bug me?
BMW uses run-flat tyres which do what the name suggests: they allow you to keep driving after a puncture. The catch is, once a tyre goes flat you are not supposed to drive faster than 80km/h, and you are not supposed to drive further than 80km. So if that flat tyre happens in the boondocks, more than 80km from a tyre shop, you’re in strife.
What body styles are there?
A four-door sedan, and a four-door wagon.
What used to be called a 3-Series coupe or convertible is now dubbed a 4-Series. And that’s another story.
The BMW 3-Series is rear-wheel-drive, and it is classed as a medium car, higher priced.
What features do all 3-Series BMWs have?
Even the 316i has 17-inch wheels in an aluminium alloy, Xenon headlights (which are brighter than the more common halogen lights), and dual-zone air-conditioning (which allows different temperatures on either side of the cabin).
There is a head-up display that projects information on to the windscreen, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road.
There is also a raft of driver aids, including lane-departure warning (to tell you that the car is drifting to either side), and automated city braking, which allows the car to brake itself at low speeds to maintain a safety gap to the next car, even you haven’t noticed the danger. At freeway speeds, active cruise control can maintain a safe distance to the car in front. All 3-Series models have this feature.
You get a comprehensive audio system with a CD slot, MP3 and USB compatibility, and even Bluetooth and voice control. All 3-Series cars also get controls for those functions on the steering wheel, a colour screen with satellite-navigation, and a rear view camera that displays a bird’s-eye-view of the car from above, showing obstacles to the rear and each side.
Keyless start permits you to start the car with your key kept safe in a pocket or bag.
There are six airbags: two directly ahead of the front-seat occupants, two to protect front occupants against side-impacts, and a curtain air-bag down each side to guard front and rear occupants against head injuries.
Every 3-Series also has electronic stability control, which can help you keep control on a slippery surface. All new cars must have this feature.
The 3-Series range uses run-flat tyres, which means they have no spare tyre or repair kit whatsoever.
The 3-Series is covered by BMW’s three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty.
Which engine uses least fuel, and why wouldn't I choose it?
BMW has a huge range of engine options for the 3-Series. The smaller turbo-diesel, the 318d, is the fuel-saving champion, using just 4.5 litres/100km in the official test (city and country combined). But that engine option is only available in the station-wagon body.
The next step up is another turbo-diesel called the 320d, which is just about as frugal and can be had in a sedan. These engines might be the fuel-sippers, but both produce plenty of oomph and feel as though they propel the car effortlessly.
For utter refinement, however, you need to look at one of the petrol engines in the 3-Series line-up. And there is plenty of petrol choice.
It starts with the 316i, which uses a turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder that is smooth and quiet, although straight-line performance is adequate rather than exciting.
From there, you move up to the 320i, with a turbo 2.0-litre which is just as smooth but has more urge.
Then there’s the 328i, which is a hotter version of the turbo 2.0 that, frankly, has more performance than you will ever need. Some people like that.
The 335i is a turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder. It is smoother and even faster than the 328i, and is for people for whom too much is barely enough.
And then there’s the almighty M3, a bona fide supercar with an even more powerful 3.0-litre turbocharged inline six. Unnecessary, but awesome if that’s your thing.
For something different again, there is a hybrid-powered 3-Series called the ActiveHybrid 3, which teams the 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine with an electric motor to boost performance. This is also ridiculously fast. In fact, this hybrid is more about performance than fuel efficiency, so don’t automatically link it with fuel sipping as in, say, a Toyota Prius. The 3-Series diesels use less fuel than the ActiveHybrid 3.
The 3-Series cars are available with a six-speed manual gearbox or the more popular eight-speed conventional automatic. The M3 is the exception here, with a choice of either the same six-speed manual or a seven-speed computer-controlled manual which shifts gears by itself, like an automatic.
What key features do I get if I spend more?
The 316i and 318d Touring (Touring means wagon) are the first steps on the 3-Series ladder. If you have more money to spend, the next step up is the 320i, which has the 2.0-litre petrol engine and adds adaptive suspension that lets the driver tailor its firmness to their wants at the time. The wheel diameter is bigger at 18 inches, and tyres are lower in profile and wider, which adds a little grip but is mainly about looks.
The 320d is next, and apart from the turbo-diesel engine it is equipped identically to the 320i.
The popular 328i gets you 19-inch wheels and even wider tyres (for the same reasons), digital radio, and a larger colour screen with 20GB media storage.
The 335i gets the optional M Sport package as a no-cost add-on, and that means sportier front seats to hold you in place better, firmer suspension settings for better handling, and a range of interior and exterior window-dressing.
The ActiveHybrid 3 carries the same equipment level as the 335i, and the extra money is all absorbed by the hybrid driveline.
The M3 is all about performance and road-presence so it gets its own, lightweight (designed to improve cornering) 19-inch wheels, even wider tyres, and a body kit with touches like four exhaust tips to make sure it doesn’t get ignored. As well as that thunderous driveline, of course.
BMW offers the 316i, 318d, 320d, 320i and 328i with its Sport Line package at no extra cost. That gets you some detail difference in the trim: things like a red splash on the ignition key and a sportier looking steering wheel.
Or, you can order any of the 3-Series cars (but not the M3) in what BMW calls Luxury Line, which ditches the red, sporty touches for a more restrained presentation. Again, it’s a no-cost option.
Generally speaking, each model upgrade involves more performance rather than more trinkets. That said, the range of options is complex enough to be confusing. Make sure you ask the salesperson lots of questions and be absolutely sure you’re getting what you want, rather than merely what he or she has already on the floor to sell you.
Does any upgrade have a down side?
It’s worth noting that there’s not much to distinguish the different 3-Series models visually, so spending more doesn’t necessarily mean more street cred. Nor do they vary a lot for equipment and in-cabin pampering. So if the 316i is fast enough for you, you might be wasting your money on a higher-spec car.
The M3 is a serious, hard-core, high performance vehicle. As such, it won’t be cheap to run or insure. Brakes, tyres and other consumables will be expensive and the servicing required is very specific. It will also drink plenty of fuel if you use that performance.
Choose the hybrid model and you also get the usual hybrid compromises of reduced load space and a heavier vehicle, thanks to the battery pack. There’s also the spectre of what happens when the batteries finally die.
Any 3-Series on 19-inch tyres will be expensive to re-shoe when the time comes.
How comfortable is the BMW 3-Series?
BMW has always prided itself on making ergonomically pure interiors. Nothing has changed there with the 3-Series. All the switchgear operates with a plush, precise action and the gauges are crisp and clear.
The front seats on all models are supportive and comfy, while the M3 has proper sports seats – which are necessary given the cornering forces that car can generate.
The four-cylinder engines sound good, but not as good as the six-cylinder 335i. The M3’s soundtrack is a let-down because part of it is a synthesised audio file that you hear through the car’s speakers. The M3’s engine is not as smooth as the 335i’s engine, either.
The M3 rides quite a bit more firmly than the other models, which are easier to live with day-to-day. Even then, the 3-Series as a whole has suspension aimed at taut handling rather than armchair comfort. And the run-flat tyres (while better than previous generations of run-flats) don’t ride as softly as the equivalent conventional tyre.
What about safety in a 3-Series?
The 3-Series has pretty much all of the latest safety technology, and all models make it into the Standout category.
As well as the air-bags and anti-skid system, each 3-Series gets smart braking that can ensure the brakes are fully applied in an emergency, and that also can apply the brakes automatically at city speeds to maintain a safe distance to the car in front. That said, they don’t bring the car to a complete halt as some other cars’ systems do.
Every model also gets what BMW calls Active Protection, which is a clever system that automatically and quickly tensions the seat-belts, closes the windows and shuts the sunroof if the car thinks it’s about to be involved in a crash.
The eye-in-the-sky camera makes reversing and parking much safer. And there is an alarm that warns if you are drifting out of your lane. It adds up to a very safe package.
(To see a list of the safety features on any model, select the car and look under the features tab. Safety-related features are listed in red.)
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the 3-Series its maximum five stars for safety.
I like driving - will I enjoy this car?
Oh yes you will. Even the least costly 3-Series car brings an intuitively satisfying relationship between what the driver puts in and what the car gives back. You steer a 3-Series towards 10 o’clock, and it heads for 10 o’clock. Balance is another word for it.
That’s mostly the result of the suspension tuning, which aims to provide a comfortable ride without the usual trade-off of baggy cornering and soggy steering.
Hybrids don’t usually appeal to enthusiasts but the 3-Series hybrid is sharper than the vast majority of its peers, thanks to its skew towards performance rather than economy.
For real thrills, the M3 is the way to go if you can afford the price of admission. It’s a true supercar with eye-watering acceleration, clothed in a sensible four-door package.
But even the much cheaper 328i has a lot to offer somebody who is interested in how a car feels as much as what it does.
How is life in the rear seats?
The 3-Series of today is about as big inside as a 5-Series of a couple of decades ago, so it’s quite roomy.
The rear seat is commendably wide and will cope with three backsides, and there are temperature-controllable rear air-conditioning vents to keep everybody happy.
That said, some parents find strapping babies into restraints easier if they’re up off the ground, as in an SUV.
How is it for carrying stuff?
BMW claims a capacity of nearly 500 litres for the boot in the 3-Series sedan – that is about as much as you will get in any similar car.
The Touring also swallows heaps of luggage, and it features a split tailgate which allows you the option of opening only the glass section.
The rear seat folds 40:20:40, so it’s quite adaptable for all sorts of longer loads while still carrying three or four people.
Where does BMW make the 3-Series?
Most 3-Series sedans are made in BMW’s South African plant. The ActiveHybrid and M3 sedans and all the Touring (wagon) models are made in Germany.
Making part of a range in South Africa is not new for German brands. Mercedes-Benz has been building C-Class sedans there for years.
What might I miss that similar cars have?
Autonomous braking which will bring the car fully to a stop at city speeds if it detects an obstacle is probably the biggest omission, which the newer Mercedes C-Class has fitted across the board (although only recently).
Another car you might consider is the Audi A4, and it’s available with all-wheel-drive.
I like this car, but I can't choose which version. Can you help?
Our pick would be the 328i, which gives plenty of performance and sportiness without the huge price-tag.
Its engine is perky and playful and it’s smoother than most. In fact, forget that it is ‘only’ a four-cylinder, because it doesn’t go or feel like one. It also has the adaptive suspension, which adds greatly to the 3-Series’ athleticism.
Make it a 328i wagon and you’ll wonder why anybody buys a compact SUV.
When did BMW update the 3 Series?
A facelifted 3-Series arrived in October 2015, bringing higher equipment levels, a new range of engines, and (in most cases optional) more advanced automatic braking and cruise control.