When BMW launched the first 3 Series car back in 1975, it was relatively expensive, and surprisingly austere inside. You were paying for high quality engineering, and a driving experience, which, although needing care in the wet thanks to rear suspension which had tendency for the back to step out of line, was close to second to none. A lot has changed since then. The launch of a four door version during the life of the second generation car, and taking advantage of break points in UK Company Car tax rules combined with a general increase in affluence in the 80s saw sales start to rise, and the addition of the highly coveted M3 at the top of the range only further increased the desirability of the car to an ever growing number of people. A 3 Series, even in 318i petrol format became quite an aspirational car for many. Every six or seven years, BMW have replaced the model with their latest thinking, so by 2012 we reached the sixth generation of 3 Series, known sometimes by its factory code as the F30. Over the years, the 3 Series range has grown from one body style and three petrol engines of that first E21 range to a complex and ever-changing array of different body styles, engines and transmissions. These days some of them are now branded as the 4 Series, but if you want something that is still called a 3, you can have a 4 door saloon, the more practical 5 door Touring (Estate) or a slightly bulky-looking 5 door hatch known as the GT. And there are lots of petrol, diesel and hybrid engines to choose from. Sales really took off in the 90s and have continued to grow, with the 3 Series taking full advantage of market preference for premium-badged cars made affordable by creative finance schemes such as the PCP. These work as despite the large supply of used 3 Series cars, residual values remain high, and BMW finance seems to be able to offer deals that make one wonder where the profit margin is (it’s in the options and the high spec cars, generally!) with the result that in the UK, the 3 Series is now often in the top 10 best-selling cars in any given month. Whereas those who chose an early 3 Series were definitely buying a car that you would not see very day (it was outsold by the likes of Lancia, don’t forget!), exclusivity is definitely not the reason for selecting one these days, as the 3 Series outsells similarly sized but non-premium badged cars such as the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Insignia by a massive margin. Of course, the 3 Series does have the market all to itself, with plenty of rivals that offer something quite similar. Closest competitors both come from Germany, the C Class Mercedes and Audi A4, and selecting between any of these is often going to be a matter of personal choice. I’ve driven the Mercedes in the US, and was singularly unimpressed by the rough and unrefined engine that powered it (it was a C300), and of course I have extensive experience of Audi models having owned a series of them and driven most of the range either as service loaners or rental cars. I have driven one example of the F30 generation 3 series, a 318d that was supplied by Hertz Espana back in 2015 and it left me feeling a bit indifferent to what the British press had claimed was a “5 Star car”, all the more so as a few days before that test I had driven a UK market Audi A4 2.0 TDi, which I much preferred. Since then, Audi has replaced the A4 with the latest B9 generation and BMW has made the sort of well-thought through updates to the 3 series that typifies how they refine and evolve a model during its product cycle, the biggest changes of which were with what they call a “Life Cycle Impulse”, something which you and I would refer to as a facelift in 2015. In essence, though, the F30 of 2018 is little different in all but detail from the one that launched in 2012. A replacement is due before too long, but for now this is the car which must take the fight not just to the C Class and the A4, but also the highly rated Alfa Giulia and Jaguar XE as well as slew of other possible rivals even before buyers are tempted to defect to a Crossover. My opportunity to reassess the F30 generation 3 Series came back in Spain when Mr Hertz provided one for a long weekend based out of Madrid. In true rental car fashion, the test car came from almost the bottom of the range, a 318d in Advantage spec and finished in the photographically challenging colour of black. How did it fare?
Even if you discount the rather special M3 version, BMW have a large range of engine options available in the 3 Series with a big spread in power output from the lowly models like the 318d of the test car to the 335d and 340i at the top of the non-M range. For some years, it has been the 318d and 320d models that have generated a large part of the total sales, although that is changing with the plug-in hybrid 330e having fiscal benefits that are hard to overlook for some drivers. The test car was the 318d, which is the same model name as I experienced in my 2015 test, so I assumed that the car was indeed the sane. But no, in fact BMW changed the engine in this car in 2015 from the N47 unit to the later B47. In the process, there was a small power increase, from 141 bhp to 148 bhp still generated at 4000 rpm. Maximum available torque did not change. It would take a very thorough back-to-back test to tell the difference, and certainly a three year interval between sampling the two different engines, during which time I have driven literally hundreds of other cars, is not going to make ti easy to comment on whether there really us much of an improvement or not. So I have to report on what I found on this occasion. Despite the name, the engine is actually a 2 litre 4 cylinder unit, whereas those who select a 318i petrol will find getting only 3 cylinders and 1.5 litres of capacity. engine, but the same power output as the 318d. Engine refinement and noise suppression is pretty good, as indeed it was before. The car only just sounds like a diesel when you start it, and it remains relatively quiet and smooth once underway. There are occasions when your ears will get a reminder that when the time comes, you need to find the black diesel pump to refuel it, but mostly, this is a refined unit, with low noise levels. 148 bhp is not that much for a car of this size and weight, though, so the 318d never feels brisk, let alone rapid. Of course it can keep up with the traffic, and acceleration is decent enough but that is about as good as it gets. Unlike my 2015 test car which had a 6 speed manual gearbox, this one had the 8 speed automatic gearbox which was so smooth in changing gear that at times it felt more like a CVT transmission than one with defined ratios. Unlike some BMW gearlevers, this one was intuitive to use with a Park button in the top of the lever, and otherwise you simply push the lever back for Drive or Sport and forwards for reverse. As you might expect, there are Sport and Eco modes, with the former altering the gear change up points and supposedly making for a more sporty driving experience, but more of that anon. The standard Stop/Start system cuts in and out very efficiently. I covered a total of 852 km (532.5 miles) in my time with the car, and only needed to refill it when I was due to return it to Mr Hertz. It took 45.1 litres which means it had consumed fuel at a rate of 53.6 mpg, an impressive figure and definite payback for the relatively modest performance.
BMW used to to use the advertising strapline “The Ultimate Driving Machine”, and few would have argued against it. They don’t use it any more, and this car is one of the reasons why. Whilst pleasant enough, it simply is not that inspiring to drive. The UK motoring press rave over the 3 Series (though interesting the German press do not seem quite so infatuated!), but my experience of this car, and indeed its predecessors in title make me wonder why. I suspect the answer has everything to do with a track and the higher end models, though their effusive praise does seem extend down at least to the 320d. The steering is on the over-assisted side of light, so whilst precise enough, it certainly is not class-leading (non-premium brands Ford and Mazda do it better). For sure the 318d handles well, with plenty of grip, minimal body roll and a nice controlled feel to it as you tackle the bends with some enthusiasm, but it did not feel significantly better than any of its rivals out on the public road. Standard issue are the run-flat tyres which, whilst a good idea in theory, seem to have their problems, one of which is that the extra stiff side-walls tend to have a penalty in ride quality. The test car came on 225/50 R17 wheels, which are relatively high profile and small compared to those fitted to more potent F30 3 Series cars, and they did not seem to have much effect on the ride, which was comfortable enough on Spain’s generally quite well surfaced roads. There were certainly no issues with the brakes, which worked well and had a nice progressive feel to the pedal. There is a conventional pull-up handbrake between the seats. Visibility is very much on a par with other products of this era. Thick pillars don’t generally get in the way too much and there is a good field of view from the mirrors but there are blind spots and judging the back of the car is difficult, as you can’t really see where it ends.
If I was a bit underwhelmed by the driving experience of the 318d, then the interior did nothing to make me feel better about the car. Not for the first time, I thought that this was well below premium standard in terms of material quality. Indeed, with a lot of hard plastics, the choice of materials generally gives a rather cheap feeling to the inside. It’s an area where rival brand Audi are light years better, as even their entry level models have a superlative quality look and feel to them. It does at least avoid the rather tacky look with which Mercedes seem to be afflicting their cars, though. The interior of the test car was all black, with some variation in the appearance from the black (plastic) inlays, though there are some metal-effect ones as well, which also do not really convince as there to denote quality. There is a very chunky steering wheel, in true BMW tradition seeming almost too fat. It is leather wrapped, though the quality of the leather here is not that nice, making you wonder if it is indeed leather. The overall dash design is neat and follows current BMW thinking with a cowled binnacle in front of the driver containing the instruments. There are two large dials, for speedometer and rev counter, and two smaller one for fuel level and water temperature positioned outside the central pair. These are traditional style analogue dials, all clearly marked and easy to read, but with nothing like a digital speed repeater that you see in many cars these days. Key information such as the odometer is at the very bottom of the instrument cluster and is totally obscured by the steering wheel with things set the way I like them. Thankfully, BMW abandoned the irritating one-touch indicators, so these now operate as you would hope from the chunky left hand column stalk, and the right hand one operates the wipers. Lights are controlled from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. There is an auto function for both wipers and lights. Cruise control buttons are on the steering wheel boss along with audio repeaters. The infotainment screen, at just 6.5″, on the small side by modern standards, is mounted high in the centre of the dash in a small recess, making it easy to see at a glance, and looking like it was almost designed to be there as opposed to the after-thought look of the C Class Mercedes. The graphics used are crisp and the system seemed pretty responsive. It does have a touch screen, but the iDrive system which BMW has is easier to operate using the control wheel and buttons in the centre console. There are some pre-set buttons as well as volume and on/off for the audio unit immediately below the display screen. Navigation was included, as well as the expected audio functions and there are plenty of menus to provide service and other information about the car and its usage. Lower down in the centre of the dash are the buttons for the dual zone climate control system. Overall, this is a neat design, unfussy, unlike some more recent and rival products, and easy to use.
Seat upholstery in the test car was a sort of hard-to-the-touch cloth as you often find in low spec models even of this price, reminding you that you really should have upgraded to a more costly leather trim. You will need to use the various manual adjusters to get the seat where you want it, which is not exactly a hardship, but again does little to persuade you that you are really in a premium car. There is a full range of adjustment, so I was able to set the seat down nice and low, and relatively close to the wheel to suit my particular body proportions. There is a telescoping in/out and up/down capability to the steering column, so it was not hard to find the optimum driving position, even if it did mean that I could not see the bottom of the instrument cluster. Sadly, the seat itself was not particularly comfortable, as I found out when undertaking a couple of long-ish journeys in the car.
As each successive generation of the 3 Series has got larger, so space in the rear seats has benefitted. It used to be the case that accommodation here was really tight for adults but that is no longer the case and there is now plenty of room for even the long-legged. With the front seat set well forward, as it was for my driving position, there is generous space indeed, but even if those front seats are set back somewhat there should be ample room for knees and legs here. Whilst there is enough width across the car for three people, the person in the middle probably won’t be that comfortable as the rather large centre console unit extends back a long way and there is also something of a central tunnel, as you might expect from a rear wheel drive car. Headroom is sufficient even for the tall-bodied. There is a drop-down central armrest with cup holders in the upper surface and the rear of that large console unit has air vents in it. The backs of the front seats have stowage nets on them and there are pockets on the doors. The boot is also a generous size. It is both long and wide and there are stowage compartments to either side. There is a well under the boot floor where you could put a few more odds and ends. There is a ski flap which would be useful for long things, such, I guess, as skis. More space can be created by dropping the asymmetrically split folding backrests. Inside the front passenger cabin, there is a good-sized glovebox, a cubby under the central armrest and there are pockets on the doors for your odds and ends.
In the UK, BMW sell the 3 Series not just with a vast choice of engines, transmissions and the option of all-wheel drive on some cars, but also in a series of different standard specs and that’s before you start to personalise your car with the long list of available equipment packages and optional extras. We are long familiar with SE and M-Sport as being the two main offerings, but for this generation BMW added some more, with Sport, Modern and Luxury, and that was before someone in marketing decided to add Shadow Edition as an additional package on some of the trim versions. It makes for a massive range of cars, even allowing for the fact that not all trims are available with all engines. All models in the F30 generation, including the ES (which is only available on the 316d), received significantly enhanced levels of standard equipment, including 17-inch light alloy wheels, automatic air-conditioning, Bluetooth, BMW Professional radio with 6.5-inch colour screen and iDrive, keyless starting, USB, a multi-function leather steering wheel, cruise control and automatic boot opening. SE trim is available with all engines except the 340i, and adds, among other things, different alloy wheels, rear Park Distance Control, two-zone air conditioning and a rain sensor with automatic light activation, for a premium of £850. Sport and Modern versions are priced £1,000 above the equivalent SE, while the difference between SE and Luxury is £2,500. Sport models build on the purposeful and athletic styling of the new BMW 3 Series Saloon and reflect its renowned agility and dynamic handling, through the use of both exterior and interior design cues. Sport has unique light alloy wheels, black high-gloss air intakes in redesigned bumpers and matching bars in the double-kidney grille, and a black chrome tailpipe finisher. Red stitching adorns the sport seats and leather-rimmed sports steering wheel. The interior is in high-gloss black with a red finisher, the instrument cluster has red highlighting and there is extended and switchable interior lighting with exclusive colours, chrome rings around the climate and radio controls and ‘Sport’ insignia on the door entry sills. Sport also comes with an additional ‘Sport+’ mode on the Drive Performance Control and is available on all four-cylinder models except the 328i and 320d EfficientDynamics. ‘Modern’ trim provides a natural, harmonic balance of colours and textures, whilst retaining a refined and elegant character. Modern is available on all engines except the 316d and 320d EfficientDynamics and replaces the high-gloss black exterior embellishments of the Sport with matt chrome and has its own exclusive 17-inch light alloy wheel and bumper design. It also has switchable interior lighting colours, the extended lighting package and matt chrome trim detailing and signature door sills. The standard seats are in part cloth and part leather, whilst there is a two-tone Oyster finish on the dash, with Dark Oyster on the instrument panel and multi-function leather steering wheel. As befits the name, ‘Luxury’ models have a refined, sophisticated appearance, offer the finest quality materials and include an enhanced level of standard equipment. Luxury is available across the range apart from the 316d and 320d EfficientDynamics. Bright chrome replaces the high-gloss black of Sport models or the matt chrome of Modern, and there are exclusive 18-inch light alloy wheels as standard. Inside, the detailing is also chrome, while the upholstery is Dakota leather with an exclusive stitching pattern and the dash and door cappings are in Anthracite wood with a Pearl Chrome finisher. ‘M Sport’ has lowered and stiffened sports suspension, unique aerodynamic body styling and ride on 18-inch M light alloy wheels. The interior will be trimmed in Aluminium Hexagon with a Blue finisher. The sport seats will be covered with Dakota leather, and the door finishers, steering wheel and shortened gearshift will reflect the car’s position as the sportiest 3 Series Saloon model. From what I could tell, Spanish market 3 Series largely followed the same approach, though instead of the SE, they have the Advantage version, which would seem to mirror the spec of an SE.
When I last sampled an F30 series 3 series, back in 2015, I was not convinced that this was the 5-star car that the British motoring press would have us believe, and I found the rival Audi A4 that I drove a few days prior to be a more convincing product. Just over three years on and that conclusion still stands. Make no mistake, the 318d is not a bad car, indeed far from it, as the car goes well enough, proved economical and is spacious inside for people and luggage, but if you think you are getting a true sports-luxury model, here, then you are probably going to be a bit disappointed, as this is neither sporting to drive or luxurious in feel. Lower rank 3 series models are very much a volume car these days, built down to a price and sold with such compelling finance deals to keep the production lines busy that this really is nothing more than the sort of car that the so-called Mondeo-man of 20 years is now likely to be driving. As I’ve said before, I suspect that if you go much higher up the 3 Series range, the car becomes rather more convincing, certainly on the road even if the interior quality might remain somewhat less than you will find in an Audi, or a Volvo. Does that make it the clear class leader we are told by many that it really is? I would like to get the chance to find out.