Improved quality is welcome
As one of the best-selling cars in the world and a stalwart of the brand, the 3 Series is one of the most important cars for BMW in the UK. Some of its key rivals have appeared in an all-new form but this is a mid-life refresh for the current 3 Series which means a number of enhancements in various areas rather than a clean sheet of paper.
Even in an era when model proliferation and cross-segment cars are commonplace the BMW 3 Series is compelling evidence that there is still a huge amount of demand for a straightforward three-box saloon. As with previous generations of the 3 Series there is an emphasis on providing an entertaining driving experience as well as premium quality.
For this mid-life facelift the 3 Series has been improved in a number of key areas but it is a mark of confidence from the brand that a good deal has remained largely untouched. Visually there are small changes to the exterior, most notably re-profiled bumpers front and rear, new LED daytime running lights as standard and LED lights at the rear too.
Inside the dimensions of the 3 Series saloon remain as before, with the changes centred on the available technology and the overall finish. BMW claims panel gaps are tighter than before, while additional piano black and chrome finishing is used to raise the feeling of quality throughout. All models now benefit from satellite navigation as standard – although it's BMW's more basic version.
Of greatest significance are the changes to the beneath the surface. The latest 3 Series is available with a revised engine line up, including the three-cylinder turbocharged petrol from the Mini as well as a new four-cylinder diesel in a variety of outputs. The suspension has been revised with tighter mountings to the body, a lower ride height and thicker anti-roll bars.
With such relatively minor changes the 3 Series was never going to revolutionise its own act. It is a well equipped car, despite long lists of upgrades being available, and more than ever puts efficiency and stability at the top of its priorities list. It isn't as lively and engaging on the road as many of its predecessors, but is still a satisfying drive.
In 340i form running costs are at the higher end of the scale, but elsewhere in the range the proliferation of highly efficient petrol and diesel units means there's plenty of scope for a highly frugal 3 Series. Servicing and insurance costs will be a little higher thanks to the premium badge.
The 3 Series should be adequately spacious for most people's needs; front seat occupants have all the head- and legroom they could wish for while the rear is suitable for two adults in comfort, three for shorter journeys. The boot offers a useful space without any notable intrusions and in the cabin there's plenty of oddment space, with the front cupholder design altered to better suit larger cups.
The usual BMW approach to the cabin is welcome here, with precise and clear displays and buttons that are easy to understand. The iDrive system has been refined to the point where it works seamlessly and with very little acclimatisation required. The optional head-up display system is also impressive, being useful and not distracting.
Going hand-in-hand with higher quality is the better refinement on offer. Although a marginal improvement, the increase in body stiffness contributes to better ride quality, while low wind and road noise all contribute to a relaxed cabin atmosphere.
As standard all 3 Series models received an approved alarm and immobiliser system which should deter most thieves. Additionally the saloon configuration means items in the boot are well out of site of prying eyes.
As with many of its rivals the 3 Series comes with a generous array of standard fit safety kit. The car's electronic stability and traction controls are unobtrusive but work well when required, also allowing the driver two stages of slip as well as the fully-on setting. There's also a full complement of airbags and optional systems such as a blind spot warning system and automatic full beam assist.
In 340i form the 3 Series is likely to be a niche choice but anyone willing to take the plunge will find a car that is both entertaining and relaxing to drive. The 3.0-litre powerplant provides effortless performance with refinement, and mated to the excellent eight-speed automatic transmission it switches easily to the demands of the driver. The optional adaptive steering and suspension systems are an acquired taste but the adaptive suspension offers a better compromise on larger wheel options.
The traditional four-door saloon is not best placed to rival the more practical MPV class of cars. Isofix mounting points are present, but the modest rear door aperture can make life difficult. Boot space is also particularly rigid, and can't compete with, say, an X1 or X3. That said, for an undemanding mature family the five-seat arrangement does work.
While a 3 Series might well appeal to new drivers and the lower-powered models even be within reach of more affluent licence holders, this 340i version is too expensive and too powerful to be insured by a novice.
Ever higher quality standards are expected in this class which explains while BMW has sought to up its game on this latest 3 Series. The differences may be subtle but there is no doubt this is a high quality product, with impressive fit and finish throughout the cabin and very little evidence of penny pinching. On the image front BMW continues to be regarded as the sportiest of the premium brands in the segment, despite the early inroads made by Jaguar, and it is for this reason that it remains the most popular choice for buyers.
For a car of this size accessibility is perfectly acceptable, with front and rear doors opening to reveal a well-sized aperture. Rear seat passengers do need to take a little care when entering as the footwell can be a little small if the front seats are pushed back. Access to the boot is very simple, with the boot lid opening with the key or optionally with gesture control.
All 3 Series now receive the Business satellite navigation system as standard, which includes a well-sized display screen, i-Drive controller plus DAB, USB inputs and Bluetooth. Sound quality is good and the control system works very well. The upgraded Professional system adds a wider, higher-resolution display and increased functionality.
With only small visual changes to the exterior the 3 Series remains a car best suited to premium metallic shades, although it will wear fashionable white with ease. On the inside there is a broad choice of colours and finishes, while the addition of piano black and additional chrome is welcome.
In saloon form a little additional care is required due to reduced visibility towards the rear, but other than this the 3 Series presents no particular problems. Basic parking sensors are standard while an upgrade adds reversing cameras and an overhead view for an even easier time.
Tyre repair kit or run flat tyres fitted depending on model.
Petrol engine options – 1.5-litre (134bhp); 2.0-litre (182bhp, 245bhp, 252bhp); 3.0-litre (256bhp, 321bhp, 431bhp). Diesel engine options – 2.0-litre (114bhp, 148bhp, 161bhp, 187bhp, 218bhp); 3.0-litre (255bhp, 302bhp, 309bhp). Transmission options: Six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic gearbox depending on model. Trim levels: SE, Sport, ED Plus, ED Sport, M Sport, Luxury, M3.