If you're after a compact executive saloon, BMW's improved sixth generation 3 Series is very difficult to overlook. June Neary checks it out
Will It Suit Me?
There's aren't many truly benchmark cars - but BMW's 3 Series is one of them. It sets the standard in the compact executive class and I was very keen to try the revised MK6 version. I'm not a compact executive person (well, certainly not 'compact' anyway) but models of this kind are also expected to excel at family duties too. Which was the task for my bright red 320d test car.
I haven't liked the look of all of BMW's most recent models, but the style of this one is definitely growing on me. The key design theme with this improved model seems to be about making the car look wider and lower than before, so BMW has revised the front and rear bumper assemblies with broader horizontal elements. The headlights have also been tinkered with, LED indicators now acting as eyebrows across the top of the light units. At the rear, the tail lamps are full-LED units with more heavily curved light bars. Take a seat at the wheel and the cabin seems quite minimalist at first, with many of the minor functions being marshalled by the iDrive controller but when I counted the number of visible buttons in my test car, it still came to nearly 60. Nevertheless, it all looks agreeably elegant and the sweep of the dashboard roll top is a good deal sleeker than the rather ungainly double-bubble shape of its predecessor. Updates are minor: a splash of chrome here and a high-gloss surface there. Other improvements include cup holders in the centre console with a sliding cover and an additional practical storage area for items such as a smartphone, positioned forward of the cup holders. The back seat isn't quite as cramped as it once was in a 3 Series but I found that it was still a pinch for three and the rear-wheel drive layout meant that some middle passengers objected to the hefty transmission tunnel that runs down the centre of the car. Still, headroom isn't too bad, although if you're anything above six foot you might find it a tad pinched. Legroom? It's no worse than t would be in a rival Audi A4 or Mercedes C-Class model but the sharply ridged hard plastic cutouts in the seat backs aren't at all comfortable should your knees make contact with them. Pop the boot and you'll find 480-litres of fresh air but you will need to pay extra for the optional split/fold rear seats. The 57-litre fuel tank isn't huge but given the improvements in economy of the latest 3 Series, touring range will still be more than acceptable.
Behind the Wheel
I'm no dynamic driver, but even I can feel the thing that sets this 3 Series apart from its compact executive saloon rivals: rear wheel drive. I'd have felt it even more had my test coincided with a rainy snap, though electronic gadgetry makes rear-drive cars like this easier to control these days. Like all of the best driver's machines, this one will flatter the inexpert driver, yet has the depth of talent to reward the enthusiast. As for engines, well there are plenty of tempting options. At the bottom of the line-up, the 318i offers a 1.5-litre 3 cylinder unit borrowed from the MINI (!). Then there's the 184bhp 320i, a variant offered with rear or four wheel drive. Next up are the six cylinder variants, the 252bhp 330i and the 326bhp 340i. Diesel drivers meanwhile, get a 116bhp 316d variant at the bottom of the range. Then there's the 150bhp 318d, the 190bhp 320d, the 258bhp 330d and the 313bhp 335d. The 320d and 330d get xDrive 4WD as an option, while the 335d gets it as standard. Power is deployed through a slick six-speed manual or, if you prefer, an optional eight-speed automatic which is a gem of a gearbox. You'll end up driving it much as you would a top-drawer twin-clutch sequential manual, so responsive is it and BMW even claims it'll return better fuel economy figures than the manual box. Whichever 3 Series you choose it's hard not to be impressed with the suspension. This is a bigger car than its predecessor yet body control is better and that hasn't come at the expense of ride quality. Quite the opposite in fact. Even on big alloy wheels fitted with run-flat tyres, the latest 3 Series rides British B-roads better than it really has any right to. Audi and Mercedes might have closed the gap to the old car but this improved MK6 model sets a clear class benchmark.
Value For Money
In making the majority of the engines smaller and relying on turbocharging, BMW has increased efficiency across the board. Take the 320d I tried as an example. It'll return a combined fuel economy figure of 67.3mpg - and its emissions of 111g/km read like a misprint. Choose the special 320d EfficentDynamics Plus eco model and although power drops from 27PS to a still brisk 163PS, emissions drop to 102g/km and fuel consumption nudges up to 72.4mpg. This drops VED tax by another band and also means that on one tankful of fuel, you'll be able to travel around 900 miles between fills. This is achieved through features like the electromechanical power steering, Auto Stop-Start that's fitted to all versions, Brake Energy Regeneration, on-demand control of engine ancillary components and the tyres with less rolling resistance. Weight has been pared back, and aerodynamics have been improved to a figure as low as 0.26 thanks to features like the Aero Curtain which wraps the front wheels in their own cocoon of air to reduce turbulence.
Could I Live With One?
Without doubt, this improved sixth generation 3 Series has moved the game on in terms of driving dynamics whilst at the same time concentrating on improving efficiency and driving down ownership costs. It's a one-two combination that its rivals seem quite unable to respond to. Here's a BMW that makes driving fun again and does so with such frugality that you never feel guilty about enjoying the car. Were I to be shopping in this sector, I'd find it a hard package to resist.