Twenty years ago the BMW 3 Series was the aspirational car of choice for Mondeo Man.
It was the premium alternative to mainstream saloons/hatches and declared to anyone that was interested that you’d taken a step up the corporate ladder.
Now, thanks to the “wonders” of PCP deals, the 3 Series outsells the Mondeo and everywhere you look, car parks and motorways are packed with Munich’s baby exec saloon.
To maintain such success the 3 Series hasn’t just traded on the desirable badge but has consistently offered one of the best overall packages in the mid-sized executive segment. And this latest all-new model is no different.
Starting at £32,500 it’s competitively priced against the Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class, Volvo S60, Lexus IS, Jaguar XE and even the Mondeo Vignale – Ford’s doomed luxury effort to win back buyers from the premium brands. However, our M Sport 320d started at £36,000 before the addition of £8,500 of options.
Exterior styling is very much the understated don’t-scare-the-horses variety that typifies the segment. The interior is a bit more adventurous and offers a high-quality, high-tech cocoon in which to spend time. Our trim test car was finished in tasteful cream leather with premium-feeling metal finishes to the dash and centre console. Standard equipment includes a 10.3-inch media/nav screen with BMW’s Live Cockpit Professional and fully digital instruments, three-zone climate control, two rear USB charging sockets, a 360-degree camera system and internet connectivity that brings the option of everything from live traffic mapping and weather updates to music streaming.
It’s a matter of personal taste but as good as the BMW’s interior is, I favour the slicker, less fussy arrangement of the Audi A4, although both are nicer than the gaudy Mercedes C-Class.
BMW 320d M Sport
Price: £36,190 (£45,405 as tested) Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, diesel Power: 187lb/ft Torque: 250lb/ft Transmission: Eight-speed automatic Top speed: 149mph 0-62mph: 6.8 seconds Economy: 53.3-55.4mpg CO2 emissions: 110g/km
With perhaps the exception of the Jaguar XE, the 3 Series is the most rewarding car to drive in its class. It might not be as light and scalpel sharp as previous generations but there’s still more of connection between driver, car and road than in an A4, C Class or Lexus IS. There’s more feedback from the steering and even in this mid-range diesel spec some liveliness from the rear-driven chassis with its 50/50 weight distribution and sports suspension.
The engine is the run-of-the-mill four-cylinder diesel that seems to have been the default in this class for years. With 187bhp and 250lb/ft, it’s a step above the entry-level 318d and packs a decent punch. It’s also wonderfully refined. We’re now at a point where under low to medium loads this four-pot feels as smooth as a six-cylinder. It’s only when you bury the accelerator that it loses some of that refinement. The smoothness is also interrupted by the eight-speed sports auto box which has a slight jerkiness about it.
The 320d will cover the 0-62mph dash in just 6.8 seconds but returns real-world economy of 52mpg against official figures of 55mpg and CO2 emissions of just 110g/km. It’s remarkably efficient and clean given the performance, and has equivalent Audi and Mercedes models beaten.
They hit back with more standard equipment or lower list prices but, truthfully, the margins between them are small.
The fact is that this class is so tight that it’s hard to say with absolute certainty which is the best of the bunch. Where one model gains an edge on its rivals it gives back ground elsewhere and much of it comes down to the exact technology, drivetrain and specification you want. Nonetheless, opt for the current 3 Series and you won’t be disappointed. It’s no wonder Mondeo Man lusted after one so much.