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BMW 3 Series Face-lift First Drive

By raccars Published

To head off the surprisingly strong challenge of Jaguar’s new XE, BMW has face-lifted its crucial 3 Series compact executive car.

BMW 340i

Price: £38,125 / £39,505 (range starts at £24,975)

Gearbox: Six-speed manual (eight-speed automatic)

0-62mph: 5.2 seconds (5.1 seconds)

Top speed: 155mph

Fuel economy: 38.7mpg (41.5 mpg)

CO2: 179g/km (159 g/km)

On sale: Now (delivery September)

Insurance group: TBA

Three 2015 BMW 3 Series facts

1: Almost every engine in the 2015 BMW 3 Series range is new. One of them is actually shared with the MINI Cooper!

2: On-the-road prices start from £24,975

3: Ordering at BMW dealers is open now, with deliveries starting in September 2015 – just in time for the new 65-plate registration

What is it?

The BMW 3 Series is a premium car icon. It’s been around since 1975 and has been idolised pretty much from launch. The aspirational appeal was cemented in the 1980s and has just grown and grown from there. Even if it’s an absolute base-spec version, there’s still something appealingly desirable about a 3 Series.

For years, BMW has thus had the compact executive car sector sewn up. Rivals such as the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class have tried to topple it, and newer brands such as Lexus' 300h and Infiniti's Q50 also both had a go, but none quite managed to better the BMW.

But now, Jaguar’s entered the sector, with the all-new XE – and things have become serious. Because the Jaguar XE is an excellent car, a surprisingly accomplished machine that is more than a match for the BMW. Overall, there’s an even greater shock: it’s actually the more appealing car head-to-head.

BMW wasn’t having any of that. So, just weeks after Jaguar stole its ‘best compact executive’ sector leadership crown, the firm is getting us behind the wheel of the face-lifted model, subtly improved in all the key areas to retake the crown. That’s the theory, anyway. But can it?

Styling and interior

To the uninitiated, the face-lifted BMW 3 Series looks just like the old one. BMW isn’t one for major overhauls and the 2015 3 Series is no exception. Even the sub-M3 range-topping test car, now called 340i, doesn’t radically differ from the old one.

The clues are mainly in the lights, which are sleeker, have smarter LED light patterns front and rear and, back at the front, are offered as full LED units for the first time. Other changes include a slightly more sporting front bumper, new colours and alloy wheels, and a marginally lower ride height overall to give it a sportier stance on the road.

Inside, it again differs little. BMW’s new-generation 4G-compliant (and standard range-wide) sat nav infotainment system is fitted, and there’s now a sliding cover ahead of the gearlever (previously there was an awkward cupholder). Materials quality has been enhanced, so it looks even richer, but it’s still a matter of degrees rather than radical change.

Performance

BMW offers a broadly all-new (and all-turbo) range of petrol and diesel engines in the new 3 Series. Would you believe, there’s actually a 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol turbo from the MINI Cooper that opens up the range! But most cars sold will be the 2.0-litre turbodiesels, which we’re going to test later in the year.

For now, it’s the range-topping 340i we’re driving. Despite the badge, this is a 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo petrol engine, with 332hp of and 326lb ft of pulling power. It’s a very potent engine – that sort of power was not flashy of M3s back a while ago.

Despite being turbocharged, the meaty motor responds quickly to the accelerator – and, because it’s turbocharged, driving force and immediacy are excellent. It feels like a much bigger engine and the absence of lag shows how well BMW has developed its latest turbo engine.

Performance is thus excellent. It’s actually faster with the optional eight-speed automatic gearbox, accelerating from 0-62mph in just 5.1 seconds (beating some more expensive Porsches…) and surging forward at all engine speeds. It also sounds good – OK, it’s perhaps a bit soft at lower revs, but the six-cylinder bark when you extend it to the redline is very satisfying.

BMW has also developed its electronic assist systems well. The traction control helps the rear wheels grip and find bite without spoiling the driving experience. They let you deliver as much power as possible whatever the conditions.

Handling

The old 3 Series was always a star draw for handling and this is something BMW has only enhanced in this new version. OK, our test 340i was the top-spec model, with the optional BMW Adaptive Dynamics suspension, but it was impressive enough to suggest BMW has likely enhanced regular cars too – besides, it’s an option offered across the range that we’d highly recommend.

It’s a car that gives you plenty of confidence thanks to its well balanced feel and intuitive rear-drive setup. As we’ve explained, it’s a very powerful car, but you can use this power without feeling uncertain through bends. The car bites well, the rear end is grippy and the incisiveness across twisting roads is more akin to a sporty hot hatch than a luxury compact executive car.

Ride quality has also improved a little. It’s still taut and controlled, but the old car could at times be a little too firm and jiggly, particularly in town. BMW has tuned out some of that harshness here, without spoiling control at higher speed. We’ll hold off our final judgement until we try it on UK roads, but initial evidence is that BMW has made a useful step forward for passenger comfort.

The one glaring weak point of the test car was BMW’s optional Variable Steering. This ‘speeds up’ the steering input as you turn on more lock, theoretically to make it easier to drive. It does nothing of the sort, spoiling the drive and giving a really odd feel through the steering wheel that is not very pleasant or confidence-inspiring. Despite only costing £290, avoid it at all costs.

Price and value

Prices have gone up a little, inevitably, but BMW points to the better value offered by the new 3 Series range. All models now have the latest widescreen sat nav system as standard, which is a real boon in this competitive sector, and BMW’s plans to keep on adding functionality to it means the value benefits of this may be compounded over time.

Equipment levels for all cars are better and BMW has also simplified the model range to a core of SE, Sport, Luxury and M Sport models, to make things clearer and easier for car buyers. Just watch the options list: it’s enormous and, tempting as it is, can quickly push prices up alarmingly…

Fuel economy

The BMW 3 Series is one of the most fuel efficient compact executive cars you can buy. It betters key rivals from Mercedes-Benz and Audi across the board, and it’s only the challenge of some volume variants of the Jaguar XE that’s really worried BMW in recent months.

Indeed, Jaguar actually bettered BMW and got a key diesel variant to emit less than 100g/km CO2, a real achievement. Now, finally, BMW can match it, with the new 320d ED Plus (albeit only as an automatic).

More generally, whereas only the EfficientDynamics model previously dipped below 110g/km CO2 – a key company car target – now there are far more regular 2.0-litre turbodiesels that achieve this, including the appealing new £30,985 320d ED Sport version.

If you don’t want diesel, the petrol versions are more economical too: the 318i SE averages over 52mpg, despite also hitting 62mph from rest in less than 9 seconds. Our test 340i was very fuel efficient too, although only as an automatic. Choose the eight-speed automatic and it will average 41.5mpg and emit 159g/km CO2; take the regular six-speed manual instead and this falls to 36.7mpg and 179g/km…

Verdict

Has BMW grabbed the compact executive best car crown back from the Jaguar XE? Well, we’ll have to get them back-to-back to make a definitive call – it’s that close.

The Jaguar is excellent but the BMW’s always been brilliant too, and now it’s even better. The detail changes certainly further hone the package and the exciting 340i’s performance is thrilling; for now, we’re thus holding off making our for a little later in 2015 to see if the BMW 3 Series has beaten the Jaguar and, once again, become the best compact executive car you can buy.

Watch this space…

RAC Cars Jaguar XE review

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