- Excellent engines
- Sporty handling
- Plug-in hybrid option
- Not the clear class leader it once was
What stands out?The sixth-generation BMW 3 Series is an athletic and nicely 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, from the modestly powered, three-cylinder 318i to the extravagantly quick twin-turbo M3. You can even have a plug-in petrol-electric hybrid in the 330e.
While this model first arrived in 2012 it underwent a series of upgrades including one in 2018 shortly before being replaced. This review focuses on that 2018 model, but can serve as a guide for cars that arrived here after October 2015 should you be looking to buy a used one.
What might bug me?BMW uses run-flat tyres that do what the name suggests: they allow you to keep driving after a puncture. The catch is, you are not supposed to drive a flat tyre faster than 80km/h, nor further than 80km. So if the flat happens in the boondocks, you’re in strife.
The exception among 3 Series models is the M3, which uses regular high-performance tyres but has no spare wheel. BMW supplies a tube of sealant. You squeeze this into the flat tyre, enabling the car to travel a limited distance.
Even though 3 Series cars don’t carry a spare wheel, they have no more boot space than obvious alternative cars from other makers.
What body styles are there?A four-door sedan, and a five-door wagon called Touring.
The previous-generation 3 Series coupe and convertible were renamed 4 Series for the latest generation. But that’s another story.
The BMW 3 Series is rear-wheel drive and is classed as a medium-sized car, higher priced.
What features does every 3 Series model have?Large-diameter aluminium alloy wheels (beginning at 18 inches on the 318i, 320i and 320d) with low-profile tyres. Extremely long-lasting LED headlamps and tail-lights. Dual-zone climate control (which allows different temperatures on either side of the cabin).
A head-up display, which projects speed and navigation information onto the windscreen (helping you to keep your eyes on the road). Cruise control with speed limiter.
An audio system with digital (DAB+) radio reception, MP3 and USB compatibility, Bluetooth connectivity with voice control, and at least six speakers. Controls on the steering wheel for those functions.
A rear-view camera that displays a bird’s-eye-view of the car from above, showing obstacles to the rear and each side.
A central colour screen (6.5-inch on the 318i, 320i and 320d; 8.8-inch on the 330i, 330e, 340i and M3) with satellite navigation.
Front fog-lights, heated exterior mirrors and rain-sensing windscreen wipers.
BMW Connected Drive. What BMW calls the Lifestyle version includes a three-year subscription to internet-based services such as BMW Online (news, weather, Google local search, office, and apps) and the BMW Connected app. It also includes Remote Services, which lets you operate various functions from a remote location. For example, you can lock and unlock the doors, control the ventilation, and find the car if you forgot where you parked it.
A suite of active safety aids that includes lane-departure warning (to tell you that the car is drifting to either side), and partial automatic emergency braking that works at city speeds. At speeds below 60km/h, the car will sound warnings and if necessary brake itself to maintain a safety gap to the next car or to avoid a pedestrian. (However it will not initiate full emergency braking.)
There are six airbags: two directly ahead of the front-seat occupants, two to protect front occupants against side impacts, and a curtain airbag down each side to guard front and rear occupants against head injuries.
Automatic Start/Stop, which cuts your engine when you stop, say at traffic lights, without shutting down other systems. The engine comes on as soon as you take your foot off the brake.
Electronic stability control, which can help maintain control if the car loses grip on a slippery surface. All new cars must have this feature.
The 3 Series is covered by BMW’s three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty. The battery that powers the electric motor in the BMW 330e carries a six-year warranty.
Which engine uses least fuel, and why wouldn't I choose it?BMW offers a big range of engines for the 3 Series, including a plug-in hybrid drivetrain – which teams a petrol engine with an electric motor whose battery can be charged from household power outlets – arrived with the 330e in May 2016.
Of the conventionally powered cars, the lone diesel model, the 320d, is the fuel-saving champion, using just 4.4 litres/100km in the official test (city and country combined). This turbocharged engine feels very refined, especially for a diesel. It also provides impressive acceleration and effortless cross-country cruising.
One reason you might not choose it is that the 320d costs a lot more than the least costly 3 Series model, the 318i, which borrows its charming three-cylinder, 1.5-litre, turbocharged petrol engine from the Mini Cooper. It uses a bit more fuel than the diesel – 5.4 litres/100km – and does not go quite as hard. Nevertheless a standard eight-speed automatic transmission helps it haul you around.
Another reason not to choose the diesel is that you want to enjoy the smoothness and response of BMW’s bigger petrol engines. They start in the 320i, which uses only marginally more fuel than the 318i but has significantly more power. Its new four-cylinder, 2.0-litre turbo engine feels beautifully refined, and has ample performance.
Nevertheless, BMW believes most people will choose the even gutsier 330i. This has essentially the same engine as the 320i but retuned to produce about 35 per cent more power. Remarkably, it doesn’t use any more fuel in the official test: 5.8 litres/100km.
In a real-world comparison conducted for the April 2016 issue of Wheels magazine, a BMW 330i averaged 9.3 litres/100km, ranking as the most frugal of five mid-size prestige sedans reviewed.
Frankly, the 330i has more performance than most people will ever need, but some like that.
The 320i and 330i are also available in a stylish Touring (wagon) body, for SUV-beating luggage space and driver-appeal.
Some people want even more power, from one of BMW’s revered six-cylinder turbocharged engines.
The 340i uses a new 3.0-litre turbo-petrol six. It’s smoother and even more responsive than the 330i, and is for people for whom too much is barely enough.
And then there’s the mighty M3, a bonafide supercar with an even more powerful 3.0-litre six, this time with two turbochargers. Unnecessary, but awesome if that’s your thing.
Finally, if you believe you will be using your 3 Series mainly for getting around a city and its suburbs, you could have good reason for bypassing all of the conventional diesel and petrol engines and choosing instead the petrol-electric plug-in hybrid model, the 330e. For round trips shorter than about 25km you can drive a 330e using no petrol at all, relying instead on its electric motor and battery, which you can recharge fully at home in about three hours. On long trips in the country, fuel use will approach that of the 320i, whose petrol engine the 330e adopts (albeit in significantly more powerful form).
All 3 Series models except for the 330e are available with an excellent six-speed manual gearbox, but this is special-order. Most people prefer BMW’s eight-speed conventional automatic.
The M3 offers the same six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed computer-controlled dual-clutch manual (called M-DCT), which shifts gears by itself (like an automatic but quicker).
What key features do I get if I spend more?The first option is a no-cost one – Sport Line package. Available on 318i, 320i, 320d, 330i and 330e, the Sport Line pack is the equivalent of adding red braces to a suit. High-gloss black exterior trim, and the same gloss black on the dashboard (with Coral Red highlights), combine with red detailing on the car key, instruments and the stitching on the sports steering wheel. Sport Line also brings sports front seats with extra bolstering – to hold you in place better around corners.
Step past the three-cylinder 318i and spend more for a four-cylinder 320i and you get the more powerful and refined engine and the choice of sedan or wagon (Touring) body styles.
You also gain powered front seat adjustment, with memory on the driver’s seat (so that you can restore immediately your settings after a companion has driven the car). There is Adaptive M suspension, which lets you adjust how the car rides over the road – choosing to maximise comfort, or to sacrifice some comfort for sharper handling. And you get a Lights Package that brings LED interior courtesy and reading lights, ambient lighting that illuminates the cabin softly at night, and puddle lights that show you what’s under the doors when you open them.
The sedan-only 320d brings you the fuel-sipping diesel engine, and the same equipment as the 320i.
Spend more again for a 330i (sedan or wagon) and you get the more powerful of the two four-cylinder petrol engines. Wheel diameter increases to 19 inches and the rear tyres get wider, adding a little extra grip but achieving more in looks. The 330i has leather upholstery (less costly models have man-made Sensatec trim). You can unlock the car without removing the proximity key from your pocket or bag. And you get the 8.8-inch colour screen with a more versatile satellite navigation system, which includes a DVD drive, 3D map view, and 20GB of music storage space.
For not much more than a 330i you could have instead the 330e, which brings you the petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain based on the 320i’s engine. Equipment matches the 330i’s, except that the 330e does not have the driver-adjustable adaptive suspension.
A Luxury Line package is a no-cost option on the 330i and the 330e. It includes wood-veneer interior panels and a bunch of exterior and interior chrome highlights. (Luxury Line is also a no-cost option on the six-cylinder 340i. It is available at extra cost on the 318i, 320i and 320d, where it also brings you leather upholstery.)
Spending considerably more on a 340i brings you the turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine and a container load of extra gear. There is a leather-trimmed instrument panel, a powered blind for the rear window, roller blinds for the rear side windows, extended smartphone connectivity, and a superb 16-speaker Harman/Kardon surround-sound system. The power-adjusted front seats gain an adjustment for lumbar (lower back) support, and heaters. Adaptive LED headlights dip automatically for oncoming drivers, and shine into corners when you turn the wheel. Variable Sport Steering adjusts how directly the front wheels respond to the steering wheel.
You also get Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go function. This includes automatic braking that can initiate a full emergency stop at city and highway speeds (up to 210km/h), if it detects an obstacle. It also slows you to the speed of a vehicle ahead, and returns to your set speed when the road is clear. And it can control the car in stop-start traffic, braking and accelerating to maintain your place.
(This more sophisticated, radar-based auto braking system is available as an extra-cost option on the 320i, 320d, 330i and 330e.)
And you get Connected Drive Freedom, which brings concierge services (any-time call-centre assistance for destinations and points of interest, which are then auto-programmed to your vehicle).
The 340i offers an M Sport package as a no-cost add-on. That means front seats that hold you in place better, an excellent M Sport steering wheel, a firmer Adaptive M suspension tune for sharper handling, and a range of interior and exterior window-dressing that includes an M Sport bodykit.
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 broader bodywork with touches such as four exhaust tips to make sure it doesn’t get ignored. And that thunderous twin-turbo driveline, of course. The M3 Competition lifts the performance profile a further notch, with bigger and wider tyres, stiffer suspension, a marginally more spartan interior, and yet more power.
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 a salesperson plenty of questions and be absolutely sure you’re getting what you want, rather than merely what he or she wants to sell you from stock on the floor.
Does any upgrade have a down side?It’s worth noting there isn’t much to distinguish the different 3 Series models visually, so spending more doesn’t necessarily mean more street cred. Nor do they vary greatly for equipment and in-cabin pampering. So if the 318i is fast enough for you, you might be wasting your money on a higher-spec car. That said, the 318i one of only two models without ride comfort adjustment standard, so this may be an option worth investigating. It’s labelled Adaptive M Suspension.
The other model that does not have adaptive suspension is the 330e, on which it is not available. The 330e is also heavier than other 3 Series cars, and its 80kg battery is placed over the rear axle, moving the weight balance rearward and cutting boot space by about 25 per cent.
One option to avoid is Variable Sport Steering. Standard on 340i (and optional on 318i, 320i, 320d, 330i and 330e), it makes the steering feel very responsive on really twisty roads, where it works as intended. But when cruising on bumpy country roads – the type that don’t exist in Germany, where the set-up was developed – the Variable Sport Steering can feel artificial, as though you are driving in a computer game, which is somewhat disconcerting.
The M3 is a serious, hardcore, 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 its vast performance reserves, though it can be surprisingly economical when driven carefully.
Any 3 Series model wearing 19-inch tyres or bigger (330i, 340i, M3) will be expensive to re-shoe when the time comes.
How comfortable is the 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 tactile, precise action and the instrument gauges are crisp and clear.
The front seats on all models are supportive and comfy, while the M3 has brilliant sports seats, which are necessary given the cornering forces it can generate.
The four-cylinder engines are slick and refined when working hard, but a little dull-sounding in urban pottering. The three-cylinder 318i is an altogether different beast, with a thrummy note and a personality that’s perky rather than sophisticated.
The plug-in hybrid 330e is especially quiet inside, in part because it carries more sound-deadening insulation than other 3 Series cars. When driven on just its electric motor, it is almost silent. The 330e always starts from rest under electric power, cueing the petrol engine seamlessly when needed. In suburban driving, eking out every last metre of electric range and working the regenerative braking to gather more charge is strangely fun. A display on the dash shows where the energy is going.
The six-cylinder 340i is incredibly smooth and rapid. The M3’s soundtrack is much angrier, enhanced by a synthesised audio file that pumps through the car’s speakers. It has a fairly loud (and addictive) exhaust bark – especially the manual version: a dramatic contrast from the 340i’s refined manners.
The M3s ride 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 much better than they used to be, don’t ride as softly as an equivalent conventional tyre, especially on the 18-inch (and bigger) wheels BMW now fits standard.
What about safety in a BMW 3 Series?Every 3 Series BMW has stability control, six airbags, run-flat tyres, a multi-view reversing camera, a head-up display, lane-departure warning, and city-speed auto-braking. It is a rounded package that emphasises protecting you in a crash, enhancing your control of the car, reducing the hazard to others around you in low-speed manoeuvring, and supplying a safety-net for distraction or inattention.
The auto-braking will warn you and, if required, apply the brakes at city speeds to maintain a safe distance from the car in front, or to avoid a pedestrian. That said, it won’t initiate a full emergency stop as some other cars’ systems do.
The exception here is the 340i, whose more sophisticated, radar-based auto braking system will do that, and from speeds up to 210km/h. However, you can option that system on the 320i, 320d, 330i and 330e.
The lane-departure warning monitors your position in a lane on the highway, alerting you should you begin drifting wide – perhaps dangerously, from fatigue or distraction.
Run-flat tyres help you maintain control of the car if a tyre deflates suddenly.
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) rated the current 320d (only) its maximum five stars for safety, in June 2012.
I like driving - will I enjoy this car?Absolutely. Even the least costly 3 Series models bring 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 – something the 3 Series is renowned for.
That’s mostly the result of 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, and effective suspension tuning that aims to provide a comfortable ride without the trade-off of reluctant cornering and soggy steering.
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 and handling limits, clothed in a sensible four-door package that also rides respectably.
But it’s the much-cheaper 330i – especially in six-speed manual guise – that nails the sweet spot for 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 few 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.
How is it for carrying stuff?BMW claims a capacity of 480 litres for the boot in all but one 3 Series sedan, which is about as much as you will get in any similar car. (The exception is the 330e, whose battery reduces boot space to 370 litres.)
The Touring swallows heaps of luggage (495 litres below the luggage cover; 1500 litres with the rear seat folded flat). A split tailgate allows you to open just the upper glass section, rather than the entire bootlid.
The rear-seat backrest is split 40:20:40, so it’s adaptable for all sorts of long loads while still carrying three or four people.
Where did BMW make this 3 Series?All Australian-delivered 3 Series sedans except the M3 are made in BMW’s South African plant. The M3 and all 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 many years.
What might I miss that similar cars have?Possibly a broader suite of active safety features, such as you might find in a Mercedes C-Class or Audi A4.
Maybe all-wheel drive, also available on an Audi A4.
Proximity key entry – where you don’t have to remove the key from your pocket or bag to unlock the car – is standard only from the 330i and above. (Many much less costly cars from other makers have this as standard.)
There’s also the Jaguar XE. It places more of an emphasis on exterior styling than the BMW, to the slight detriment of cabin and boot space, but the XE is still plenty roomy enough. Better still, it’s brilliant to drive, with the best handling and steering in this class, as well as the finest turbo-diesel engine. Definitely worth a serious look.
You might also consider the Alfa Romeo Giulia – or as a very competent alternative to an M3, a Giulia Quadrifoglio.
I like this car, but I can't choose which version. Can you help?Our pick would be the 330i, manual or auto. It delivers plenty of performance, luxury, efficiency and sportiness, without a huge price tag. Its feels 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 M suspension, which adds greatly to the 3 Series’ athleticism.
Make it a 330i wagon and you’ll wonder why anybody buys a compact SUV.
When did BMW replace this 3 Series?The sixth-generation 3 Series range was comprehensively updated in October 2015 – what BMW calls a ‘Life Cycle Impulse’ (LCI), which is code for a mid-life freshen-up. It brought a lot of extra equipment at some price points, a response to the increased equipment levels and improved value of major competitors. The 330e petrol-electric plug-in hybrid arrived in May 2016, and the M3 Competition a few months later.
A less luxurious and costly M3, the M3 Pure, arrived in July 2017. The entire range received a minor upgrade for the 2018 model year, which included an updated infotainment package and some cosmetic tweaks.
It was replaced by the seventh-generation BMW 3 Series, which arrived in Australia in March 2019 with two initial variants, the 320d and 330i, both of which are powered by diesel and petrol 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engines respectively.
- Excellent engines
- Sporty handling
- Plug-in hybrid option
- Not the clear class leader it once was
How are you finding our new site design? Tell us in the comments below or send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2021 MG ZST Essence review
The MG ZST Essence is the flagship variant of Australia's most popular small SUV, but does its bargain price come at the expense of quality?
Hyundai Ioniq 5 review: First drive
The Ioniq 5 is on its way to revolutionise Hyundai's EV game. It won't be cheap, but our first drive tells us buyers won't be disappointed.
2021 Toyota RAV4 review
The Toyota RAV4 is comfortable mid-sized SUV offering plenty of standard features and technology, plus a choice of efficient petrol and hybrid powertrains.