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Review

First Drive: BMW 3 Series saloon car review

07/02/12

IF BMW is feeling the pressure regarding the launch of its latest 3 Series saloon, it’s doing a good job of hiding it. When you make a car that forms one fifth of your total sales profile it’s important to get it right. Fortunately the German firm’s had plenty of practice, as past generations of the car have been well received by the media and buying public.

The previous model wasn’t perfect, though. Rear seat occupants could have done with more legroom and the performance oriented M Sport models were probably a little too extreme for some as the ride was on the harsh side of firm.

In its new ‘F30’ guise, this latest 3 Series saloon addresses such shortcomings and goes further regarding engine performance and economy. Many cars will end up in the hands of company car drivers, making any fuel economy and emissions gains key to its future sales success.

First up, this 3 Series adopts many of the styling cues of its big brother the 5 Series. The F30 3 Series is not only different on the outside, it’s also bigger on the inside. Longer in length and wheelbase, it’s the latter that allows rear seat occupants to stretch out.

Overall, the car’s cabin is plenty big enough fore and aft, with the driver-centric fascia easy to use as everything is close to hand. At the rear BMW has squeezed more space out of the boot, plus there’s a through load option further enhancing its practicality.

BMW is taking a bold decision to separate the overtly sporting and luxury equipment lines. The familiar value-based ES and SE models remain, and now Sport and M Sport models have been joined by Modern and Luxury variants offering a distinctly more luxurious trim materials to signal BMW’s desire to lure Volvo, Lexus and Jaguar drivers out of their plush cabins.

For many fans of the 3 Series it’s the way the car drives that will be the main reason for its appeal. In this area BMW’s ability to keep a lid on any weight gains has helped agility and economy. Furthermore, advances in the engine department have seen power and efficiency gains across the board, while alongside the standard fit six-speed manual gearbox there’s a new eight-speed auto unit available for all engines.

The all-turbocharged line-up runs from an entry-level 316i to a beefy 335i, with the all-important diesel units expected to represent a considerable proportion of sales. In 320d guise, power output is a healthy 184 horsepower while economy is a claimed 61.4mpg. Factor in a tax-friendly 120g/km CO2 rating and it’s not hard to see this variant as a staple on company car user chooser lists.

In SE trim you’ll want for little in terms of equipment and on-road ability. However, kick it up a notch to Sport trim and the added cosmetic and comfort items of kit should make the ownership experience that bit more enjoyable.

Sport trim gives you the chance to experience BMW’s range of M Sport performance options such as adaptive suspension. Previous M Sport cars were only really for hardcore fans, but now the proposition is more forgiving. This translates into a surprisingly supple ride over poorly surfaced roads yet body roll is kept to a minimum so you can attack corners with confidence and vigour.

Combine this experience with the elastic nature of the 320d’s power delivery and you’ve got yourself an incredibly potent machine. It’ll sit at motorway speeds all day long without complaint, but when you want to have some fun it’ll deliver a near-flawless performance with none of compromises of the old car.

And if you’re not into wringing every last drop of performance from your new 3 Series, there’s the 320d Efficient Dynamics car to consider. This is BMW’s eco-champion boasting 109g/km CO2 and 68.9mpg in manual transmission trim. There’s a little less horsepower (163 not 184) but refinement and equipment levels haven’t been sacrificed in the name of tax-beating economy. Plus, even this car can be had with BMW’s eight-speed auto gearbox.

BMW’s generosity extends to a host of new kit for all cars, be it standard fit or optional. The car’s iDrive controller and colour screen falls into the former category for all cars along with fleet-friendly Bluetooth handsfree, while a traffic-aware sat-nav system, reversing camera, the aforementioned M Sport performance add-ons and a wide variety of trim and upholstery options come under the latter.

Now in its sixth generation, BMW’s 3 Series saloon has steadily evolved into a car with a wider remit to please, thus ensuring a broader customer base and a healthy future in the sales charts. It’s still okay to say it’s the Ultimate Driving Machine. Evolution dictates that it just means something different in the 21st century.

FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: BMW 320d Sport saloon, from £29,080 on the road.

Engine: 2.0-litre diesel unit developing 184bhp.

Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the rear wheels.

Performance: Maximum speed 146mph, 0-62mph 7.5 seconds.

Economy: 61.4mpg.

CO2 Rating: 120g/km.

  • Enginesdiesel
  • Power4 (higher than average performance)
  • 0-60 mph
  • Economy4 (better than average fuel economy)
  • CO2g/km
  • Insurance groups3 (average costs)
  • Airbags
  • Seats5

Motors.co.uk value verdict:    stars

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