The BMW 3 Series is what many company car drivers aspire to run, thanks to the kudos the BMW badge brings, terrific driving manners and a quality interior. Why should they have all the fun? The 3 Series is a fantastic used compact executive car to buy, whether you’re going to use it for commuting, taking the kids to school or fetching a week’s worth of shopping. Just like your smartphone, the 3 Series can do it all.
You’ll usually find two versions of the BMW 3 Series for sale. The first was built up to 2019 and is available as a saloon, estate (badged as the Touring) and a rare hatchback (called the GT). The latest is available in two body styles: saloon and Touring. Its muscular styling is fronted by a rather aggressive face that’s dominated by a grille that seems to get larger with every new version.
The body’s sharp creases and contours send the message that this is a car that means business, echoing BMW’s decades-old ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ mantra. All of this applies to the 320d and 320i versions, so you can guess what the high-powered M3 brings to the party.
This is a car that means business.
What’s it like to drive?
If you love driving, but don’t think a dedicated sports car will fit into your life, the 3 Series is a brilliant compromise. BMW gets just about everything right, from the perfect driving position and the quick-ratio steering to the brilliant handling and responsive engines – you’ll finish every journey with a smile on your face. Sure, the ride quality is a little firm, especially on larger wheels, but BMW has even managed to improve on that with the latest model.
Most engines are either 2.0-litre or 3.0-litre units with different power ratings. All are capable of pootling around town or keeping up with the flow on the motorway, and the automatic gearboxes in particular are very impressive. One more thing – an sDrive badge translates as rear-wheel drive, while xDrive means four-wheel drive.
You’ll finish every journey with a smile on your face
Audi has tended to outshine BMW when it comes to interior quality, but the latest 3 Series is more than a match, with lots of soft-touch plastics, leather, wood or metal, depending on trim level. If you want a used Audi that measures up against the 3 Series for interior, take a look at a used Audi A4.
There’s also a central infotainment screen that differs in size according to trim level and, on the newer models, either digital or analogue instruments ahead of the driver – the older model’s dials are physical.
It’s easy to get comfortable, with the front seats fully adjustable either manually or via motors, and there’s enough leg and headroom for tall adults. The rear seats in the older 3 Series are best reserved for two adults because legroom is tighter.
It’s a different story in the later car, although the hump in the floor means a third person’s feet will have to straddle it like they’re riding a donkey at the beach.
BMW’s infotainment system has long been class-leading, thanks to its superb iDrive controller. Some models have the option of voice and gesture control – although the latter is a bit of a gimmick. BMW has only recently started to allow its cars to speak to Android Auto, while Apple CarPlay has been supported for years.
All models get sat-nav as standard, along with climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and a DAB radio. Higher trims bring sports seats, auto wipers and lights, swankier interior materials, parking sensors and dual-zone climate. Additional extras include wireless smartphone charging, a Harman Kardon sound system and a wi-fi hotspot – ideal if you don’t have much data on your phone plan.
The Touring is the 3 Series you’ll want if your idea of a fun day out is a trip to IKEA – the estate car’s volume is similar to the saloon’s (at close to 500 litres) and you get a large boot opening that makes loading bulky items easier.
Folding the Touring’s rear seats back (they’re split 40/20/40 on the estate) extends the volume to 1,500 litres – the equivalent of six large suitcases or a few flat-packed bookshelves. Split-folding rear seats were an option on the older saloon. Whichever body style you opt for, boot space is on a par with rivals such as the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The rear seats on the latest model are reputed to be wide enough for three child seats, with Isofix points only on the outer two seats. Oddment storage extends to a good-sized glovebox, door bins with cup holders, a central cubby between the front seats and nets on the back of the front seats – perfect for passengers to store their road-trip snacks.
Running costs and reliability
The 330e plug-in hybrid is the BMW 3 Series that tends to get all the attention, thanks to its ability to run on pure-electric power for around 30 miles and return well over 100 miles to the gallon (on paper). It’s a very good option if you tend to cover lots of local journeys rather than long motorway trips.
The diesels are the better all-rounders, with the 320d achieving average economy of 60mpg in the real world. The most economical petrol engine is the 318i, which returns 44.1mpg officially, according to the latest WLTP figures.
Naturally, engines with higher power outputs will drink more and cost more to insure. The latest M3 will give you economy in the low 20s if you behave like your favourite F1 driver.
What we love
We love how the 3 Series feels as much at home on a twisty B-road as it does on the motorway. It’s a superb all-rounder with a great choice of engines, gearboxes and a couple of body styles that give it broad appeal.
It’s perfect for parents with children of all ages and both models have good safety ratings – the most recent version has Active Guard Plus, which brings a raft of impressive kit such as pedestrian detection.
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Town and country drivers
Is the BMW 3 Series the ultimate driver’s car? Quite possibly: it’s massively capable both in town and on the motorway. There are plenty of engines to choose from and many of them are economical – choose wisely and you’ll end up with a car you’ll fall in love with for years.
This review was