Thought the 3 Series was losing its edge? Well it's back, with a facelifted version that offers improved performance and dynamics. Does it reclaim its top spot after our drive on UK roads?

What is it?

We all know what it’s like to feel pressure. But imagine the pressure you’d feel if you were a BMW engineer and your boss said: “Okay, next job on your list: improve the 3 Series.” Yikes.

Not only is it a massive seller for the Munich marque, accounting for 25% of all BMWs sold, but it’s also the benchmark small premium executive, and has been for the past 40 years.

Perhaps that’s why BMW didn't radically alter the looks of this facelifted version. The front air intakes have been enlarged and the headlights, which now include an LED option, have been changed. At the back, BMW’s signature L-shaped light design has been crystallised by new all-LED tail-lights. Cabin modifications are equally restrained, with the addition of gloss-black surfaces and some extra chrome highlights.

Of more interest, considering the challenges posed by the Jaguar XE and forthcoming new Audi A4, are the performance and economy gains achieved by this new modular 2.0-litre diesel engine, which uses Efficient Dynamics technology. Power and torque are up by 6bhp and 15lb ft respectively, while the all-important CO2 emissions are down to 111g/km and fuel economy has improved to 67.3mpg.

What's it like?

Those performance gains may be modest, but this was always a beefy diesel which is now even more meaty. Whatever the figures may say, in a real-world drag race the BMW will monster an equivalent Jaguar XE - especially with this superb eight-speed automatic gearbox, which knocks a tenth of a second off the zero to 62mph time of the manual version. Just keep 1500rpm showing on the tacho and you can rest easy that there’ll always be plenty of poke available.

We had hoped for some bigger improvements in refinement. It’s on a par with the XE's Ingenium diesel and better than the gruff-sounding Mercedes C220 Bluetech, but knowing how whisper-quiet this engine is in a 5 Series begs the question: why the background clatter here?

The 3 Series’ claim to being the best handling car in its class took a bit of a wobble when we drove the Jaguar XE. As a countermeasure, BMW has retuned the steering and stiffened the 3 Series’ suspension, which on this M Sport model, is even stiffer still and 10mm lower.

Our test car also had the optional adaptive dampers and 19in wheels, and while it’s always firm – even in the Comfort setting - it’s extremely well controlled. The body tracks the topography of a typical British B-road like a kestrel on the hunt: there’s hardly any rebound off crests, and it stays remarkably level through corners.

For such a stiffly sprung car, bump absorption is okay. It’ll take the edge off most lumps and bumps, but hit a vicious pothole and you will feel it. But if you prefer to tour in your car, rather than feel like you’re in a touring car, best go for SE trim and smaller wheels.

On a damp track, the 3 Series seemed a little grip limited – which could be down to the tyres - but still beautifully balanced. This is when you realise that banging on about 50/50 weight distribution is not only marketing spiel, but also smart engineering, too.

The revised steering is a bit of a mixed bag. This was the Servotronic set-up, which at speed lacks weight around the straight-ahead but throws in too much resistance thereafter, especially in Sport mode. However, stick with the standard rack (as opposed to the variable option) and that’s juxtaposed with excellent gearing that results in it feeling linear and accurate.

Back to top

The optional M Sport brakes fitted to our car didn’t feel great, even though they do stop you well. The initial feel is okay, but start to lean on them and there’s a point where the pedal loses any progressive quality. 

As tends to be the case with big tyres, you get a lot of road noise at speed, although that said, a similarly shod XE is appreciably quieter. The old 3 Series’ issue of wind noise around the mirrors is still in evidence, too, but it’s the lesser of these two evils.

The small cabin upgrades feel greater than the sum of their parts. The gloss-black surfaces and additional chrome detailing enhance the premium feel; throw in the well-damped switchgear and functionality of the superb iDrive, and you’re left in little doubt that this is one of the better cabins in the class.

Otherwise it’s much the same as before. The driving position is good, apart from the slightly offset pedals and the lack of lumbar adjustment on the grippy M Sport seats. The cabin is also roomy enough to seat four adults easily, and the boot is the bigger than a that of a Mercedes-Benz C-Class or an XE.

Should I buy one?

There was chat that the 3 Series was losing its sporting edge, but there’s no doubt that this M Sport version is plenty sporty enough. In fact, even though each change is individually small, they all add up to make this new 3 Series a demonstrably better all-round car.

Is it back to being the best small premium executive? Yes, but not by the huge margin it once enjoyed. The competition is just too good these days, and when the new Audi A4 breaks cover in a month or two, the pressure will be back on.

BMW 320d M Sport saloon

Location Bedfordshire; On sale Now; Price £32,085; Engine 4 cyls, 1995cc, diesel; Power 187bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1505kg; 0-60mph 7.3sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 67.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 111g/km, 20%

Back to top

John Howell

John Howell
Title: Senior reviewer

John is a freelance automotive journalist with more than a decade of experience in the game. He’s written for most of the big car mags, not least as a road tester for Autocar and as deputy reviews editor for our sister brand, What Car?. He was also the features editor at PistonHeads and headed its YouTube channel.

Cars, driving and machines are in his blood. When he was barely a teenager he was creating race-bale racetracks on his family’s farm – to thrash an old Humber Sceptre around. It broke regularly, of course, which meant he got a taste (and love) for repairing cars. That’s why he eschewed university, choosing instead to do an apprenticeship with a Jaguar dealer. That’s where he built up his technical understanding.  

After that he moved into high-end car sales, selling Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris and Maseratis through the franchised network. But it was a love of writing and appraising cars that, eventually, led him to use his industry experience to prise open the door of motoring journalism. He loves cars that exceed their brief in some way. So he finds as much pleasure in testing a great, but humble, hatchback as he does sampling the latest Ferrari on track. Honest.

Join the debate

Add a comment…
Adrian C 16 January 2016

The Ultimate Driving Machine

I've driven a few facelifted 3s and a few XEs, including XEs on the sport suspension and the adaptive suspension. All of the 3s I've driven rode on the adaptive suspension. To me, the facelifted 3s handle better than the XEs, no matter which suspension setup the XEs rode on. The 3s corner more flatly and feels sharper, even if the XE's steering feels more progressive.
spqr 6 September 2015

No disagreement really

From what I have experienced at Mercedes-Benz my CLS-Class was not really a rogue one. Customers were constantly coming into the dealer when I was there (regularly for 8 weeks as the technicians tried to sort it out) complaining about their cars. Everything from old style A-Classes to an SL-Class owned by a dyed in the wool Mecedes-Benz owner in his 70s who told me quality had been sliding since the late 80s in his view. My own experience has put me off Mercedes-Benz for life. As for disagreeing what is "premium" I do not think the man in the street would know what car nuts mean by the term. Most likely the non-enthusiast will see BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz as "posh" or "wicked"/"sick" depending on their age! Those of us interested in cars should (rightly) expect high quality from manufacturers with the appropriate reputation and of course prices. I agree with your contention on that point. I just do not think we get it and the reason for that is the "cutting of corners" on quality and engineering input that has been going on for at least 20 or more years. My point I suppose is that we should not be too surprised by that sad state of affairs. I have had to spend rather more than I really wanted to with BMW to get a car that met my expectations of quality this time around because the 2 Series, 3 Series and 4 Series were just not up to snuff.
spqr 3 September 2015

Premium etc

After having 9 BMWs (1, 3, 5, Z Series) over 25 years I was getting increasingly irked by the fall in quality standards, particularly an E82 125i Coupe which essentially had a cabin which fell apart. Being disillusioned I bought a Mercedes-Benz CLS 350 in 2013. Its CPU failed twice, once in rush hour traffic putting my life and those of other road users at risk. I got rid of it naturally and bought my 10th BMW. I have just taken delivery of BMW number 11. At present BMW is holding onto some of its quality standards (at least a BMW never tried to kill me, homicidal tendencies in cars are not a "premium" feature or an indicator of quality)but to get the full benefit you have to buy a larger car than the 3 Series (or as it turns out a CLS-Class). The reality is that small cars from "premium" brands, whatever the term "premium" means to you, are not as accomplished, quiet, comfortable or as well appointed as their larger brethren. If Roll-Royce, Ferrari and other similar brands are not "premium" i.e. "of the highest quality", according to Chambers English Dictionary then what is? BMW, Mercedes-Benz etc are luxury/premium/expensive (insert word of choice) brands producing expensive and in some cases very high quality cars. However in their pursuit of market share and competition with "lesser" brands they have diluted their brand values and quality by making front drive hatchbacks, people carriers and SUVs. This means quality has slipped. Expectations need to be or should have been adjusted. As stated above this is not a new process it started at least 20 years ago for BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The days when BMW could over engineer a 2002 or E30 to compete against shonky Fords and Rover Group products or Mercedes-Benz standards really were "Das Beste oder Nichts" are long gone. Those days are now replaced, at least in the "lower orders (1, 2 and 3 Series A, B and C-Class) with market share, bottom lines, "below eyeline" quality cuts in the cabin etc. The fact that the buying public do not realise this is all to the good for these companies as they can sell cheaply engineered FWD hatches and small saloons but still charge a "premium" (an excess over the price - according to the dictionary).
gigglebug 3 September 2015

We'll just have to disagree

We'll just have to disagree on what we think premium means in relation to cars (The dictionary definition has little relevance really has it?) I would be willing to bet you any amount of money you like though that if 100 random people were asked to name a "premium" brand of motor car that either one of BMW, Mercedes or Audi would be answered a lot more than either Rolls Royce or Ferrari. They for the most part they are considered unattainable to average folk so are largely out of sight, out of mind (you have to remember that for the most part people don't have an avid interest in the cars they use or the cars around them). Shame to hear about the CLS, it was a car I was generally interested in. Still prefer the original design to the updated styling but the missus' Merc was bought new in 2005 and that's been a bit wonky to be honest (like a lot of Merc's from that time) so has put me off having one from that period. Assumed the newer version would have at least been better made? Maybe (hopefully) you just got a rogue one?