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In compelling 320d guise, Munich’s seventh-generation 3 Series successfully reclaims compact executive class honours

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Even BMW probably didn’t anticipate just how radically the 3 Series would change its fortunes.

In the 44 years since the original ‘E21’ replaced the dainty 02 Series, more than 15 million Threes have been sold across seven model generations. Even in a global market increasingly populated by SUVs and crossovers, only the larger BMW 5 Series accounted for more of BMW’s sales in 2018 – and by a mere 0.8% at that. Since its 1975 introduction, the 3 Series has not only become the Munich-based manufacturer’s meat and potatoes but also the benchmark by which all other contenders in the compact executive class are measured in so many ways.

Dual tailpipes lend themselves nicely to the 3 Series’ identity as one of the more athletic contenders in the segment

Such immense, genre-defining success inevitably means the weight of expectation lays heavy on the new generation’s shoulders. Not only does this 3 Series have to be demonstrably better than its rivals, there must also be a qualitative dynamic improvement over the standards of its immediate predecessor – considered ‘soft’ by a great many BMW devotees.

This new ‘G20’ model certainly has its work cut out, then: when this magazine road tested the ‘F30’ 3 Series back in 2012, the result was a full five-star rating. It goes without saying that we don’t award such endorsements casually, but it was the F30’s class-leading blend of economy and performance, impressive handling and stylish, practical interior that saw it earn its stripes.

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So, does this new G20 model better its rivals in quite the same fashion? Our £36,515 320d M Sport’s rivals have never been more competitive. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is sharper to drive and more luxurious than it’s ever been; and a recently refreshed Jaguar XE has staked its claim to the title of standout driver’s car within the segment, after the Alfa Romeo Giulia shook things up a few years ago.

Model tested BMW 320d M Sport Price £38,205 Power 188bhp Torque 295lb ft 0-60mph 6.9sec 30-70mph in fourth 7.5sec Fuel economy 47.4mpg CO2 emissions 112g/km 70-0mph 46.2m

The BMW 3 Series range at a glance

After a family car? Volkswagen Golf. Posh off-roader? Range Rover. Premium exec? A BMW 3 Series saloon. 

To make that choice even more justifiable, this 2019-onwards 3 Series is offered with engines to suit all. There are four diesels, four petrols and a plug-in hybrid to choose from. The base 148bhp 318d diesel is fine, but the 187bhp 320d is a better bet that’s almost as economical. Neither has quite the pulling power of the 261bhp, six-cylinder 330d or the might of the M340d, which, with 335bhp, is the most powerful oil-burning 3 Series.

The entry-level petrol is the 154bhp 318i, followed by a 181bhp 320i, 254bhp 330i and the delightfully quick 369bhp 3.0-litre six-pot M340i. Meanwhile, the 288bhp BMW 330e uses the same 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine as the lower-order petrols but has an additional battery and electric motor to allow for short stints of zero-emissions driving. 

Entry-level SE Pro trim gets automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, automatic lights and wipers, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, three-zone climate and 17in alloys. 

Mid-range Sport Pro adds 18in alloys, leather trim and heated front sports seats; M Sport models have M Sport suspension and brakes and an upgraded Professional Connected Package for the infotainment, while range-topping M Sport Pro adds black exterior highlights and trimspecific metallic paint, as well as an M Sport Pro Pack with adjustable adaptive suspension.

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DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 3 Series 320d 2019 Road Test review - hero side

In a similar vein to the BMW X5 and the recently introduced BMW BMW X7, BMW’s designers have taken the BMW 3 Series’ image in a bold new direction – one that might not carry the same delicate sense of everyman appeal that has characterised many of its predecessors.

The car’s classic three-box profile is still present and correct, and despite the fact that some of our testers detected a whiff of Lexus about the styling detail, you couldn’t fail to identify it as anything other than a BMW. But the G20 3 Series is a larger, wider and taller car than the F30 that preceded it: something that may just put off those who value an abiding sense of compactness about cars of its ilk. At 4.7 metres nose to tail, it’s now 85mm longer than its forebear, and just 66mm shorter than the influential ‘E39’ 5 Series. A wheelbase that has been extended by 41mm, however, should pay dividends in terms of rear passenger space.

Discreet M badges aft of the front wheels and a slightly more aggressive bodykit are further visual signifiers that our 320d is the range-topping M Sport variant

Despite this increase in size, the new 3 Series is up to 55kg lighter than the F30, being based on Munich’s aluminium-rich ‘cluster architecture’ platform. BMW claims a 1455kg kerb weight for the 320d in automatic form; Millbrook’s scales put our generously optioned M Sport test car at 1639kg, with that weight not only spread very evenly front to rear, but from corner to corner as well.

Significant chassis upgrades have been implemented to ensure the 3 Series retains its dynamic edge. Its front and rear tracks have been widened, and negative camber angle for the front wheels has been increased. Its body is stiffer, and the introduction of new ‘lift-related’ dampers gave BMW’s engineers even greater scope to further hone the Three’s body control and ride.

Most of the engine variants available are either 2.0-litre petrol or diesel units, with the 261bhp six-cylinder 330d crowning the diesel line-up. Our 320d’s four-pot develops 188bhp at 4000rpm and some 295lb ft of torque – just like its predecessor did – delivered to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. That TwinPower Turbo diesel engine now features multistage sequential turbocharging as opposed to twin-scroll parallel turbocharging in an attempt to improve response and efficiency.

Four-wheel drive is available for the 320d, while the forthcoming BMW 3 Series M340i performance model will employ BMW’s xDrive system as standard. Variable-ratio power steering features as a function of M Sport trim, while fully adaptive dampers are an option (although our test car didn’t have them).

INTERIOR

BMW 3 Series 320d 2019 Road Test review - cabin

Even if you were to blank out the iconic blue-and-white roundel on the 3 Series’ characteristically thick-rimmed steering wheel, it’s unlikely you’d identify this cabin as belonging to anything other than a BMW.

The architectural relationship to Munich’s wider contemporary model offering is clear: a high-resolution central display still sits atop two central air vents, which in turn straddle a bank of buttons for the HVAC and media systems. The centre console, meanwhile, houses the gearshifter, drive mode selection switches (now individual ones rather than a toggle) and rotary dial controller for the infotainment suite.

BMW’s infotainment system is generally excellent, but I do think making Apple CarPlay a subscription-based service is a cheeky move. I wonder if this will irk many in the long run.

As far as graphical sophistication and fluidity is concerned, it seems fair to say that BMW now leads the class. Only the infotainment systems in the newest Audi models (which have only just found their way into the Audi A4) really give BMW’s Operating System 7.0 a run for its money in terms of visual wow factor. The car’s digital instrument cluster isn’t quite as neat-looking, but is still clear and easy to read.

Satellite navigation, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity are included as standard – all of which can be accessed easily via the rotary dial or the 8.8in touchscreen, the latter increasing to 10.25in in size with BMW’s Live Cockpit Professional option (standard on M Sport cars).

Apple CarPlay preparation is also included as standard, although rather controversially this service is only available free of charge for the first year of ownership. Once that year is up, you’ll need to pay an annual subscription fee to continue being able to use it. BMW still refuses to acknowledge the significant portion of its customer base that use a smartphone powered by Google, with Android Auto remaining absent.

While the 3 Series may not feature quite the same level of glossy piano-black or textured metallic panelling as you’d find in a BMW 8 Series or a BMW X5, feeling short-changed in terms of both perceived and real quality seems an unlikely eventuality. This rings particularly true when you compare the 3 Series with its closest rivals: it’s simply leagues ahead of an Alfa Romeo Giulia, and only the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 offer comparably impressive material fit and finish. It’s a smart cabin, this, in both a visual and tactile sense.

The driving position is typically spot on. Our test car came equipped with the £1700 Premium Package, which introduces electronic adjustability and additional lumbar support to the already comfortable front sports seats. Thus equipped, the task of finding that Goldilocks-zone seating position between pedals and steering wheel is dispatched with a few prods of a switch.

As for space in the back, the trusty road test tape measure put typical rear leg room at 780mm. That’s still less than is offered by the C-Class, but the BMW trumps the Benz as far as head room is concerned. In any case, there’s more than enough space here to comfortably accommodate two taller adults – though squeezing three across the rear bench is an undertaking best reserved for shorter hops. A 480-litre boot is par for the course. Both the A4 and the C-Class offer the same amount, as does the previous F30 3 Series.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 3 Series 320d 2019 Road Test review - engine

BMW’s sequential turbocharging makeover for the 320d’s four-cylinder engine has yielded improvements to the car’s performance almost across the board. When you consider that the outgoing F30-generation 320d remained such a competitive act on both acceleration and efficiency even in the last years of its life, you can probably guess how strong a position that puts the G20 in here.

It’s very rare, for example, to see standing-start pace from a car with any four-cylinder diesel engine strong enough to deliver a 0-60mph time beginning with a six. The 320d manages it alright, sprinting to 60mph from rest in just 6.9sec, where the original E30 M3 only managed it in 6.1sec, and most four-pot diesels in this class still need 7.5-8.5sec.

One of its precious few demerits, rolling comfort on suboptimal B-road surfaces, can be addressed by adopting adaptive dampers, standard suspension or regular tyres

BMW’s official claim for 0-62mph is 6.8sec but, given our figures are recorded with two occupants on board and a full tank of fuel, we can easily believe that claim would be credible in optimal conditions.

In-gear acceleration and performance flexibility is equally strong. The 320d’s engine has only very occasional moments of hesitation when its eight-speed gearbox has to orchestrate a hurried ratio change before it can respond to a biggish throttle input – but, by the standards of most eight- and nine-speed automatic transmissions, this one is pleasingly decisive and makes for easy drivability. Catch the powertrain while it’s already hooked up, meanwhile, and it provides plenty of mid-range thrust in the middle and lower ratios, while it also revs more freely beyond 4000rpm than even the last 320d’s engine – which was already freer-breathing than most.

Mechanical refinement might have taken an even bigger step forward, however. The 320d has never before earned a rank among the smoothest, quietest-running or best-isolated cars in a class that also includes the Mercedes-Benz C-Class C220d and the Audi A4, but it deserves one now. The engine starts and stops without fidget, spins up mostly without clatter or coarseness and remains unintrusive even when working hard. It’s not a joy to listen to, but neither would you reasonably expect it to be. You might even say, as part of an engine range with increasingly few six-cylinder options, its audible character is less of a turn-off than it once was.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 3 Series 320d 2019 Road Test review - on the road

More measured and assured than an Alfa Romeo Giulia; flatter-, lighter- and tauter-feeling than a Jaguar XE; and a lot more naturally athletic, poised and immediate to drive than any other compact executive saloon you might compare it with. So begins the edited highlights on exactly how the 320d feels to drive versus the competition, and how it goes down a typical UK road.

The car has fairly pacey steering, particularly in M Sport trim (where a variable-ratio rack is fitted as standard), but there’s usefully meaty weight to the rim that gathers with the increasing steering ratio, and a gradual increase in steering pace off-centre rather than a sudden one. All that allows you to quickly develop an intuitive sense of control over the front axle, and to begin enjoying what you’re doing at the wheel of this car almost instantly.

I wouldn’t run from run-flats, and, while I can see a case for adaptive damping, I like the honesty and simplicity of BMW’s passive M Sport springs – and the associated ride wouldn’t put me off.

Motorway stability is excellent, handling precision is uncommonly good and lateral grip levels are generally high – but not so high that they can’t be probed or even overreached at the rear axle with the car’s cleverly tuned electronic stability controls disengaged. Thus, the rear-driven handling charisma we would expect of a BMW 3 Series shows up for inspection. Being plainly firmer-sprung and more laterally stiff than any other car of its kind, the car turns in very crisply indeed and retains first-order chassis balance and steering authority even under plenty of lateral load. The chassis rotates really keenly underneath you, then, while the engine produces just enough performance to begin to over-rotate the driven axle in the lower gears and brings the car’s handling, vividly but benignly, to life.

Don’t worry for a second that modern electronic driving nannies or ever-increasing tyre sizes have drained the fun out of what’s arguably the most important BMW of them all, then. Here, it’s thoroughly present and correct – and as convincing a selling point as ever.

With its remarkable level body control and agile, compelling handling, the 320d takes to Millbrook’s Alpine Hill Route with an enthusiasm rare among executive saloons.

The keenness with which it deals with the course’s tighter turns is all but unmatched among cars of its kind. The steering manages to be direct but not surprisingly so, making the turn-in phase settled but also making it easy to clip every apex and keep very close tabs on the placement of the front axle.

The four-cylinder engine remains quite couth even when working really hard. It only just develops enough power to begin to throttle-steer the 320d in tighter turns and the lower intermediate gears, but can certainly begin to neutralise the car’s attitude even in quicker ones, and always makes for engaging limit handling.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

There’s a little bit of compromise to report of the 320d here. On lowered, stiffened M Sport suspension and run-flat tyres, the car’s ride is certainly insistent – and, at times, a bit animated. It doesn’t often fidget for long or become too vertically excited, even over motorway expansion joints; and only the sharpest of lumps and edges elicit a noticeable level of coarseness from it. But it’s notably short of being the equal of a Jaguar XE or a well-equipped Mercedes C-Class for rolling comfort.

The ride is quiet and settled on average motorway and A-road surfaces, and allows you to relax on a long-distance cruise readily. With acoustic double-glazed glass as standard, wind noise isolation is impressive too. Discreet but effective lane keeping, active cruise control and speed limit assist systems come as part of BMW’s Driving Assistant Professional option. It’s worth having if you’re a high-mileage driver, particularly since you can turn the sensitivity levels of those systems up and down to suit your personal taste.

Take to a choppier B-road, though, and while the car remains poised and controlled at all times, it does so at a slight cost. The 3 Series deals with bumps a bit impatiently and, when the surface gets really challenging, doesn’t always feel totally calm or reassuring in the way it keeps its tyres in contact with the Tarmac.

If you want greater rolling comfort from your 320d, however, adaptive dampers are available – and they do make for a more absorptive ride on rougher roads, according to wider testing. Alternatively, an SE-spec car without run-flat tyres and on BMW’s standard suspension would be another route to a more relaxed ride. Both are good reasons not to be too hard on a suspension tune that’s intended to suit sporting tastes, and does that outstandingly well.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 3 Series 320d 2019 Road Test review - hero front

Next to the Audi A4 40 TDI S line S tronic (£36,945) or Jaguar XE D180 RWD R-Dynamic SE (£37,615), the £36,515 sticker price for a manual-equipped 320d M Sport seems very competitive. Both rivals might offer similarly generous levels of equipment as standard, but the Audi’s relative age and front-driven configuration serve to dampen its appeal next to the BMW, as do the Jaguar’s performance and fuel economy deficits.

And it’s economy that might just be the most attractive real-world quality of BMW 3 Series ownership. Set to Eco Pro mode, the manner in which the 320d reservedly sips away at its fuel defied belief among our testers.

Freshness of the 320d, and popularity of the C-Class, delivers a sizeable relative lead in residual values for the BMW

At a sustained 70mph cruise, the trip computer returned an average figure of 63.3mpg. Accounting for the BMW’s 59-litre fuel tank (you only get a 39-litre tank with SE trim cars), this amounted to a potential touring range of 821 miles.

The good news continues when you get to depreciation, too, as the BMW is forecast to outperform those rival products from Audi and Jaguar. After three years/36,000 miles, the 320d M Sport is expected to retain 44% of its original value, versus 41% for the Audi and 37% for the Jaguar.

 

VERDICT

BMW 3 Series 320d 2019 Road Test review - static

The BMW 320d has been as consistent a contender for the title of ‘best car in the real world’ as the industry has made in decades – and the new G20 version has unquestionably raised its game. It’s better in ways that will greatly please long-time BMW 3 Series owners – outright performance and sporting flair, as well as handling precision and driver appeal – but also in others that make it a more complete executive car.

Both practicality and perceived cabin quality have taken big strides, and the car now has electronic driver aids and infotainment features that would be the envy of almost any saloon. It has also advanced on real-world fuel economy and, in becoming a car easily capable of topping 60mpg at one moment and sprinting like a hot hatchback to damned near 150mph the next, sets a dynamic standard matchable by absolutely none of its peers.

BMW’s one-time default-choice exec hits even greater heights

In a segment where new rivals have been given room to emerge and old ones the opportunity to eke out a significant sales lead, this car is clearly the product of a company intent on making the 3 Series the default affordable executive option – for keen drivers, but perhaps even for others too. Right now, it deserves to be considered nothing less.

 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

BMW 3 Series First drives