The latest BMW 3 Series goes straight to the top of the compact executive class

The latest BMW 3 Series has a lot to live up to, as its predecessor has ruled the competitive compact executive sector since making its debut in 2005. However, the old car wasn’t without its faults, and recent improvements to the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class weakened the BMW’s grip on the class crown. As a result, the new 3 Series couldn’t have come soon enough. Bigger, more refined and with a range of efficient new engines, the all-new model promises to once again propel the 3 Series saloon to the top.

Our pick: 320d ED SE

Styling

Viewed in profile, the well-proportioned BMW 3 Series is virtually indistinguishable from the car it replaces. There’s the same low nose, relatively upright windscreen and trademark kink in the C-pillar. But move round to the front and you’ll find distinctive headlamps featuring LED running lights, while at the back the BMW looks very similar to the firm’s larger 5 Series model. At present there are six trim levels to choose from – ES, ED, SE, Luxury, Modern and Sport. The latter is marked out by racy black trim that outlines the windows and lower grille. All models get alloy wheels as standard. Inside, the slickly styled, clearly laid out dashboard takes its cues from the latest 5 Series. All the materials have a classy look and feel, and build quality is first rate. Most models get a choice of either wood or metal effect trim inserts, apart from the Sport, which gets a garish red finish.

Driving and Performance

The outgoing 3 Series set the class standard for driving dynamics, so it’s no surprise to find engineers have worked hard to make the new car equally as engaging. As you’d expect, the steering is direct and well-weighted, there’s plenty of grip and the rear-wheel-drive chassis feels beautifully balanced. What’s more, noise levels are lower than before, easily matching the refined Audi A4. All models get Drive Performance Control, which allows you to select from Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes – each setting lets you fine tune the steering, throttle and ESP settings to suit road conditions. Optional Adaptive Drive damping and Sport steering deliver an even sharper drive, while the comfort setting serves-up a softer ride. A familiar line-up of four and six-cylinder engines are available, but the star of the show is the 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel in the 320d, which sprints from 0-60mph in 7.5 seconds and returns 61.4mpg. A six-speed manual is standard on all versions, with a slick eight-speed auto available as an option.

MPG and running costs

The combination of BMW’s EfficientDynamics technology and reduction in weight has helped make the 3 Series one of the most fuel-efficient compact executive models money can buy. Leading the way is the 320d ED, which emits just 109g/km of CO2and promises an impressive 68.9mpg display at the pumps. Yet even the scorching 242bhp twin turbo 328i petrol keeps emissions down to 149g/kmand will manage nearly 45mpg. As with all BMW models you can take advantage of great value pre-paid servicing packs, which help to keep the cost of mechanical maintenance to a minimum. However, if you want to keep your bank manager happy, then we’d recommend steering clear of the expensive options list.

Practicality

The previous generation 3 Series suffered from a cramped cabin, so the new car is bigger in almost every area. Inside, it now rivals the Audi A4 for space, with occupants in the back getting decent head and legroom. There’s also plenty of storage, thanks to deep door pockets, a large glovebox and plenty of cupholders. Opening the tailgate reveals a well-shaped, 480-litre load bay, which is exactly the same size as the Audi A4. Unfortunately, you’ll have pay around £400 extra if you want the flexibility of a split/fold rear seat. Buyers wanting even more practicality will have to wait until the Touring estate model arrives next year.

Safety and reliability

The 3 Series hasn’t been subjected to Euro NCAP testing yet, but there’s no reason to believe it won’t match the five-star performance of its predecessor. All versions benefit from six airbags, electronic stability control and tyre pressure monitoring. Also included is BMW Assist, that automatically calls emergency services if the car is involved in a serious accident. If you’ve got deep pockets, then there’s the option to add blind spot monitoring and lane keep assist. Every new 3 Series feels solidly engineered, so it should deliver trouble-free motoring. BMW finished ninth overall in the 2011 Driver Power reliability survey, while two previous generations of the 3 Series finish in the top 100.

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