What’s Hot: Behaves like a 'sport sedan' should, balanced looks, sharp handling.
What’s Not: Interior storage is scarce, we’d love more steering feel.
X-FACTOR: A small adjustment in spec delivers big dividends for BMW’s quintessential sports sedan.
Vehicle Style: Medium luxury sedan
Price: $61,500 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 135kW/270Nm 2.0 litre turbo | 8spd automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.0 l/100km | tested: 9.2 l/100km (city cycle)
Often imitated, but rarely bettered: the BMW 3 Series has conquered the formula for fun-to-drive executive saloons.
But, with a rapidly improving chasing pack - the C Class, Audi A4 and Lexus IS lines among them - BMW doesn't have the luxury of sitting on its hands.
It now offers the 3 Series range with a choice of two no-cost ‘Lines’, Luxury and Sport, with the previous Modern Line now scratched.
Dress-ups for the most part, but the line you pick does set the tone for the driving experience.(There were some light revisions to the feature list made earlier in the year, and there are more updates coming.)
TMR took to the wheel of the Sport Line, in 320i guise. No powerhouse, sure, but more than enough to make the shuffle to the office a bit more enjoyable, and ample for the the odd squirt down the coast.
So, after all this time, does the 3 Series still have what it takes?
- Powered leather sports seats with adjustable bolsters.
- Leather-trimmed steering wheel with controls for audio system, cruise control and speed limiter.
- iDrive infotainment controller, satellite navigation, six-speaker stereo.
- Dual-zone climate control.
- Boot capacity: 480 litres.
Step into the 320i and you’ll find an interior that is simple, stylish, and functional.
Compared to the more recent C-class interior, the 3 Series doesn’t quite possess the same richness of materials and fastidious attention to detail.
Still, the Sport Line comes with anodised red highlights mixed with gloss black for that all-important sporting feel.
The dashboard layout is logical, with controls easily at hand and BMW’s iDrive controller is still one of the best systems of its kind.
Standard interior fittings in the 320i Sport Line include Sensatec ‘man-made leather’ trim (shown here with optional Dakota leather), red-ringed sports instrument cluster and head-up display, dual zone climate control, powered front seats, automatic lights (for the standard bi-xenon headlamps) and wipers, plus ‘Business’ navigation.
The sports-profile front seats have the right amount of grip and can be tailored to suit all sizes thanks to adjustable bolstering.
Power adjustment with driver’s memory makes it easy to find the right position and the only thing lacking is lumbar adjustment (its a $493 option), which is always appreciated on a longer drive.
Rear seat passengers will find acceptable levels of leg and headroom.
Two in the rear is no trouble at all, add a third passenger though and the tall 'n wide centre tunnel makes that position less accommodating.
Boot space is a healthy 480 litres.
In the cabin you'll find lengthy door pockets up front, a covered cupholder and small lidded bin ahead of the gearshifter and, thank the stars, BMW has at last scrapped the phone dock in the centre console making it useful again.
ON THE ROAD
- 135kW/270Nm 2.0 litre turbocharged petrol inline four.
- Eight-speed automatic transmission, rear wheel drive.
- MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear suspension.
- Adaptive M Suspension.
- Four-wheel ventilated disc brakes.
- 18-inch alloy wheels.
With BMW’s extensive powertrain line-up it can be hard to know which engine is the best match.
The 320i we drove - with 135kW at 5000rpm and 270Nm between 1250 and 4500rpm - sits at something of a ‘just right’ middle-ground among the petrol offerings.
It isn’t a performance motor - the 328i and 335i are the better options in that regard - but it can still boogie if needed.
A big part of the recipe for success comes from the smooth and intuitive eight-speed auto.
It mixes nearly-imperceptible gear changes with lightning-fast kickdown when required, ensuring that the engine is ready to deliver its very best at all times.
The drive mode can be cycled through Sport, Comfort and Eco settings, the latter providing a genuine fuel saving, but it does neuter performance.
Sport Line models get some extra zest from a Sport+ setting which sharpens throttle, transmission and adaptive suspension responses for a genuinely sporting character.
The Adaptive M Suspension system is now standard on all models, from 320i and 320d up, and as well as sharpening responses in Sport mode also helps keep the ride comfortable around town.
Despite rolling on big 18-inch wheels, we found no complaints from passengers about comfort or refinement; BMW is managing to pull the double with its suspension set-ups - sharp dynamics and a comfortable ride.
At all times it feels taut and very well-controlled, and, as speed rises, the control simply gets better and better. At freeway speeds nasty road surfaces disappear beneath the car.
Steering is quick to react, but not quite as sharp as the hydraulic systems of a decade back. That said, should you have the chance to string a quick succession of bends together, you'll be more than happy with the results.
Lastly, thanks to their background capability at washing off Autobahn speeds, the brakes in the 320 never faltered for the more mundane work they have to do in Australian conditions.
Thankfully, they do it without the grabiness that afflicts some European cars, although there’s plenty of brake dust as a side effect.
SAFETY | RATING: 5/5
ANCAP rating: 5/5 Stars - this model scored 36.76 out of 37 possible points. Please not, this score applies to vehicles tested under the previous ANCAP regime in 2012
Safety features: Safety equipment includes six airbags, stability and traction control, ABS brakes with emergency brake assist and cornering brake control. Headrests and three point seatbelts feature in all positions.
As part of the 2015 update lane departure assist, autonomous emergency braking, pedestrian warning and 360-degree view cameras are also join the standard features list.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
BMW faces off against German rivals with the very smart looking C-Class putting up a strong fight, while the Audi A4 is getting long in the tooth but does represent strong buying if you can negotiate a decent deal.
Japanese rivals include the Lexus IS and Infiniti Q50 - but the Lexus needs an engine overhaul, while the Infiniti needs more polish all-round.
Coming soon, the Jaguar XE may also prove to be a thorn in BMW’s side but we’ll put that to the test once it arrives in Australia.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Even after decades of fattening, the 3 Series is still very much the driver’s car - particularly in Sport Line specification and with Adaptive M Suspension.
There’s that ever-so-delicate balance of driving dynamics that sets the true 'sport sedan' apart. Test this car out on a winding drive through the hills and you will realise its brilliance.
But, there’s also room for the family, polite manners for ferrying business colleagues about, and quiet refinement to keep you sane during the work week.
For anyone shopping in the ‘compact exective’ class, the 3 Series still offers plenty.
For drivers though, and thanks to the recently sharpened standard features list, the 3 Series is hard to beat.
PRICING (excludes on-road costs)
- BMW 316i - $53,800
- BMW 320i - $61,500
- BMW 320d - $63,800
- BMW 328i - $70,400
- BMW 335i - $93,430
- BMW ActiveHybrid 3 - $100,200
- BMW 318d: $63,900
- BMW 320i - $64,900
- BMW 328i - $73,800
- BMW 320i - $67,000
- BMW 320d - $69,300
- BMW 328i - $75,900