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First Drive: BMW 3 Series

Now in its seventh generation, BMW’s latest updates ensure the 3 Series remains top of the class, finds Jonathan Musk.

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SECTOR Medium Executive   Fuel 48.7-67.3mpg   Price £33,610-£37,660   CO2 110-132g/km

With more than 15 million units sold globally since its launch, the 3 Series has cemented itself as BMW’s most important model. China, the US and Germany are the key markets, while the UK remains high up the list, with 8% of the demand, and will be on sale from 9 March.

But today the 3 Series has its work cut out seeing off seriously credible competition. Perhaps its this battle-stance that persuaded the designers to make the latest iteration more aggressive and purposeful (‘sporty’ in BMW speak). Externally it has grown 76mm in length, is 16mm wider and a gnats’ taller, to allow for superior crash safety over its predecessor. Despite its increased external girth, the interior remains spatially the same size as its predecessor, but with improved use of space allowing for a more comfortable driving position, as well as a centimetre more rear leg room. That’s okay though, as the outgoing car wasn’t exactly lacking in space.

Under the creased bonnet lurk fleet-friendly engines 320d and 320d xDrive diesels, as well as a 330i petrol. The 320d is the expected best-seller with 67.3mpg and emissions as low as 110g/km CO2. Yet, it’s a potent machine, capable of sub-seven second acceleration thanks to 187bhp and 295lb.ft torque. Indeed, the 320d we tested was smooth, powerful and economical. Add all-wheel drive and economy dips to 62.8mpg, while CO2 rests at 188g/km.

As for the petrol, it offers an inspiring blend of quiet off-boil comfort, though prod your right foot a touch enthusiastically and your local tyre shop will soon be on speed-dial. Acceleration to 62mph is despatched in fewer than six seconds thanks to its 2.0-litre four-pot pushing out 255bhp. Impressively, average economy remains 48.7mpg and CO2 a not-overly drastic 132g/km.

Worth adding is mention of the forthcoming 330e plug-in hybrid that will steal some of the thunder with its fuel-sipping promises.

An all new dash refines the interior and adds a touch of logic too; from centre to digital instruments (the largest fitted to any BMW) to heads-up-display (HUD), controls fall to hand. BMW’s new voice activated “Hey BMW” interface also makes its debut and provides a more natural interaction with the vehicle than previously possible. It’s clever too: “Hey BMW, I’m tired” is interpreted by AI and switches on a ‘revive the driver’ mode, complete with pumping bass tunes and pulsating air. It uses software by Nuance; the same as used by rival Mercedes-Benz.

The 3 Series is packed with impressive new technology that’s practical rather than gimmicky, including LED headlamps and plenty of safety acronyms as standard. The range has been greatly simplified too, indicating BMWs attempt to include more gear per trim level and keeping things simple – only six variants and ten options are available. Some of the more interesting ones are Laser headlamps (straight off the i8 and 7 Series), sharing a ‘key’ with others via mobile phone and a parking system that remembers the previous 50 metres before the car was parked, making backing out of tricky situations a doddle.

Dynamically, this is an impressive machine. Handling is precise and weighted, offering excellent driver involvement. All new trick suspension, however, ensures this doesn’t come at the expense of cruising refinement, which the 3 Series manages competently. Adaptive M Sport suspension can be additionally equipped as part of the M Sport Plus package, though drivers aren’t likely to notice the difference unless regularly driving on the door handles. Critically, the new 3 Series retains its beloved entertaining and ‘sporting’ driving dynamics, though Comfort and Economy driving modes area available in addition to Sport at the push of a button. It’s not quite as silent on the road as the C-Class, but the 3 Series’ acoustic windscreen ensures wind noise is kept to a minimum. Not that there’s much of it anyway – the car’s low 0.23cd drag coefficient (an improvement over its predecessor’s 0.26cd) enables it to slip efficiently through the atmosphere. Further aiding road refinement are the standard 17-inch rims that offer a certain level of compliance that’ll be very necessary on mottled UK roads.

Has BMW done enough to keep the 3 Series at the top of fleet lists, especially considering recent launches of both the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4? Happily, the answer is yes – in certain lights. While the C-Class may have the edge on refinement, and the A4 is a safe choice, the 3 Series is arguably the most complete and competent of the three.

The verdict

Lucky number 7. BMW’s sensible improvements have resulted in a more complete and capable 3 Series with technology previously the reserve of much more expensive cars to match its pace.

Key fleet model

320d 190hp

Strengths

Quiet and dynamic to drive, excellent standard kit and economical.

Weaknesses

Longer and wider dimensions mean you need the clever parking assistant.

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Jonathan Musk

Jonathan turned to motoring journalism in 2013 having founded, edited and produced Autovolt - one of the UK's leading electric car publications. He has also written and produced books on both Ferrari and Hispano-Suiza, while working as an international graphic designer for the past 15 years. As the automotive industry moves towards electrification, Jonathan brings a near-unrivalled knowledge of EVs and hybrids to Fleet World Group.