BMW's 3-Series has long been the benchmark against which other compact luxury sedans are measured. While it isn't quite as engaging to drive as its illustrious predecessors, the latest 3-Series does posses a polished interior and a well-tuned chassis along with no less than five different refined and efficient engine options.
Buyers looking for a sportier experience can opt for the 4-Series coupe, which replaces the old 3-Series coupe, while those in need of more cargo space can choose between the 3-Series Wagon and the controversially-styled 3-Series Gran Turismo.
First introduced for the 2012 model year, the current 3-Series continues to offer one of the best balances of handling and luxury in the automotive world.
With balanced proportions, crisp lines and the famous Hofmeister rear window kink, the sedan's exterior pays homage to previous 3-Series models while also incorporating modern touches like BMW's new corporate nose, which features narrowed headlights that spill into the traditional kidney grille.
The cabin incorporates sinuous lines, high-quality materials and an overall feeling of fine craftsmanship. Available Sport, Luxury and M Sport "lines" let buyers personalize the interior with unique trim and upholstery elements.
Instrumentation consists of BMW's tried-and-true quartet of simple, driver-friendly analog gauges, while a tablet-style 6.5-inch display screen mounted atop the dashboard displays stereo and vehicle information. Shell out for the optional navigation system, and the screen is upgraded to a larger 8.8-inch unit.
All secondary systems are controlled through BMW's iDrive infotainment setup, which has evolved over the years from a bewildering complex unit to surprisingly simple and user-friendly system. Redundant controls on the steering wheel and dashboard provide alternate means of accessing the electronics.
The optional navigation system is available with Google point-of-interest search and real time traffic information, and it also features a touchpad mounted on the iDrive knob that lets users write out phone numbers, contact names and navigation destinations - and also zoom in or zoom out the map - with a finger.
Other extra-cost gadgetry includes active cruise control that uses radar and a camera to maintain a set distance from the car in front (even in stop-and-go traffic); a Side and Top view camera system that provides a comprehensive view of the environment around the car to aid parking maneuvers; and a high-resolution Head-Up system that displays vehicle speed along with speed limit and navigation info on the lower windshield.
The 3-Series is available in a dizzying amount of permutations: 320i, 328i, 328d, 335i models are on offer, each with a distinct engine. An eight-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel-drive are standard, and "xDrive" all-wheel-drive is optional. A six-speed manual is a no-cost option on RWD 320i and 328i models, as well as both RWD and AWD 335i variants.
The entry-level 320i is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 180 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. The 320i returns 24/36 city/highway mpg with the automatic and 23/36 with the manual, while the auto-only 320i xDrive is good for 23/35 mpg.
The 328i features an uprated version of the 320i's motor with 240 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of twist. It's rated at 23/35 mpg with the auto and 22/34 with the manual, and the xDrive variant is good for 22/33 mpg.
The diesel 3-Series, known as the 328d, utilizes a 2.0-liter turbodiesel 4-cylinder that churns out 180 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy is rated at an eye-popping 32/45 mpg, or a still-impressive 31/43 mpg with xDrive.
The 335i packs a turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six with 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. This smooth and punchy motor returns 22/32 mpg with the auto and 20/30 mpg with the manual. Adding xDrive lowers mileage to 20/30 mpg with the auto and 20/28 mpg with the manual.
The ActiveHybrid 3 is the gas-electric variant of BMW's 3-Series compact luxury sedan. Though it handles better than the vast majority of hybrid vehicles on the market, a steep price and thoroughly unimpressive fuel economy mean the ActiveHybrid 3 doesn't make much sense from a financial or environmental standpoint.
The ActiveHybrid 3 shares a 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six with the conventially-powered 335i. This gas engine gets a boost from an electric motor housed within the car's eight-speed automatic transmission that essentially takes the place of the torque converter and provides 54 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque. Total system output is a healthy 335 ponies and 332 lb-ft of twist (hybrids require some fuzzy math), enough to scoot the sedan from zero-to-60 mph in a scant 5.3 seconds.
Despite those performance credentials, the ActiveHybrid 3's electric motor is also capable of propelling the car by itself at speeds of up to 45 mph for as far as 2.5 miles, provided the driver has a light right foot. Electric power is sourced from a battery mounted in the floor of the trunk, where it doesn't intrude into cargo space.
The hybrid powertrain adds just under 300 pounds to the ActiveHybrid 3's weight, however, which plays a role in the sedan's dissapointing efficiency ratings. It returns 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway - not terrible figures, but virtually identical to much less expensive 335i's 23/33 mpg figures. This begs the question - why, exactly, would you bother paying extra for the ActiveHybrid 3?
Very Good Driving Machine
Worthy in years past of BMW's "Ultimate Driving Machine" tagline, the latest 3-Series takes a more comfort- and efficiency-focused approach than previous models. The fuel-saving electromechanical steering system is precise but numb in comparison to BMW's older hydraulic setup, and the standard suspension soaks up road imperfections with ease but allows more body roll than one might expect.
Enthusiasts will want to spend extra for the M Sport Line, which includes a lowered sport suspension with adaptive dampers that adjust to driving style and road conditions to prioritize ride comfort or handling responsiveness as necessary.
Another handling-improving option comes in the form of variable sport steering - it continuously adjusts the steering ratio and steering force to provide heightened low speed agility and increased high speed stability.
Standard and Optional Features
The 320i comes standard with leatherette upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, an AM/FM/CD/HD Radio stereo with USB and AUX inputs, a 6.5-inch display screen, iDrive, Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel and 17-inch alloy wheels. To those features, the 328i and 328d add eight-way power-adjustable front seats, a rearview camera, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and memory functionality for the driver's seat. The 335i brings a sunroof, adaptive and auto-leveling xenon headlights, automatic high beams and 18-inch alloy wheels.
All models but the 320i can be spec'd with optional Sport, Luxury and M Sport "lines" with special exterior, interior and even performance extras. The Luxury Line includes unique leather upholstery choices, 18-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels, an M steering wheel, special interior trim choices, the premium package (described below) and pearl gloss trim finishers. The Sport Line includes sports seats, anthracite headliner, a choice of high-gloss black interior trim, brushed aluminum trim or dark burl walnut wood trim, unique leather options, an M Sport steering wheel and black door mirror caps. To the Sport Line's features, the M Sport Package adds shadowline exterior trim, an aggressive body kit, an M Sport Suspension, adaptive dampers, and unique exterior colors and interior leathers.
Individual packages include the Premium Package, which adds leather upholstery a sunroof, a proximity key, lumbar support and satellite radio.
The Technology Package brings a navigation system with an iDrive touchpad, real-time traffic information, a head-up display, BMW Apps and a demo mode for the heads-up display.
The Cold Weather package features heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel and retractable headlight washers.
The Driving Assistance Package includes parking sensors and a rearview camera, while the Driver Assistance Package Plus builds on those features by adding Lane Departure Warning, Active Blind Spot Detection, Attention Assist, Side and Top View cameras and Speed limit Info.
The Dynamic Handling Package includes variable sport steering and adaptive dampers.
The Lighting Package brightens the way with adaptive xenon headlights.
Stand-alone options include a 16-speaker Harmon Kardon premium audio system, automatic high beams and a Parking Assistant system that autonomously parallel parks the 3-Series.
All 3-Series models come standard with dual front, front side, front knee and full-length side curtain airbags in addition to traction and stability control systems.
Also included is BMW Assist eCall, which automatically notifies a BMW call center in the event of a crash and can even predict the severity of occupant injuries.
Options include a Lane Departure Warning system that alerts the driver when the 3-Series begins to wander into an adjacent lane; an Active Blind Spot Detection system that provides a notification if a vehicle is in the driver's blind spot; and an Attention Assist system that analyzes driver behavior and displays a coffee cup icon encouraging a break if it detects signs of fatigue.
The 3-Series is directly in the crosshairs of competing models like the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Sedan, the Audi A4, the Infiniti Q50 and the Cadillac ATS.
The ActiveHybrid 3 is currently all by its lonesome in the compact sport-luxury hybrid sedan segment. Buyers could conceivably cross-shop rides like the Lincoln MKZ hybrid and Lexus ES 300h, which are larger and less expensive but significantly less powerful and athletic. Larger, pricier hybrids like the Lexus GS 300h and Infiniti M Hybrid might also be worth a look.