A new 3-Series is about as big as it gets in terms of desirable company cars, but can it maintain the class-leading position of its predecessors?
On the road
On the road
The new BMW 3-Series is as big a deal as anything that will launch in to the company car sector this year. It’s long been the attainable aspirational car, the sign that ambitious executives have reached a certain height on the career ladder.
It’s also been long-lauded for its driver appeal, with the rear-drive layout and chassis set-up orientated towards fine handling, added to which there has always been a great selection of engines.
BMW’s task with the new model was to keep all the good bits and make steps forward in areas crucial to the modern business world. The key targets for the new 3-Series’ development were to maintain and improve that sporty drive, bring on new innovation and focus on the car’s design.
1. Although SUV sales are climbing all the time, the 3-Series is still more important. BMW says it will sell three of them for every X3 SUV it sells in the UK.
2. It’s a sign of how far things have come that the first-generation M3 performance car shares its 6.8-second 0-62mph time with the new 320d.
3. The M Sport trim level will take a high share of sales, with 65-70% of customers picking the top spec, and SE and Sport equally splitting the rest.
The new car has launched with five engines, although more will be added as we move through 2019, and the 320d, the company car meat and drink for many years, will be the key one for the corporate market. Sitting in the middle of the three diesel options, the 190hp 2.0-litre engine comes with a low of 110g/km in SE trim, or 112g/km on larger wheels. The CO2 figure rises by another 5g/km for the manual gearbox that is still offered on this 320d, and on the 150hp 318d that is only a fraction better on emissions. Given there’s no worthwhile efficiency saving, the £1300 price step to the more powerful version is probably a sensible move. The top diesel, the 265hp 330d, is almost £3000 more than the 320d, and is a lovely, strong powertrain for those with the money to afford the extra price and the tax hit also involved with the 133-138g/km model.
The 320d is also the only model currently offered with the xDrive four-wheel-drive system. It adds £1500 and 8g/km, but is growing in popularity among buyers, and the 320i and 330d engines will get xDrive versions in the third quarter of 2019. That 320i is one of two petrol engines currently offered, along with the 330i.
BMW has kept the trim levels simple, running from SE to Sport and M Sport, with the entry model getting a notable spec upgrade to include the likes of a reversing camera, three-zone climate control, folding door mirrors, ambient lighting and 8.8-inch touchscreen as standard, as well as lane-departure and front-collision warnings. Sport takes the alloys up an inch to 18-inch, as well as adding heated sports leather seats and a larger fuel tank that goes from 40 litres to 59, all for a £1400 upgrade, while the further reasonable £1500 step to M Sport adds the 10.3-inch touchscreen with intelligent personal assistant system, as well as sports suspension and the attractive M Sport bodykit.
From a design perspective, there’s no doubting that this is a 3-Series, although round the rear in particular there is a faint hint of Lexus IS, particularly with the tail lights. The nose takes on a larger, bolder grille that, while not as in-your-face as that of the facelifted 7-Series or new X7, still dominates the nose more than previously, and the black colouring makes it stand out more, like it or not.
On the inside, the slight lifts in quality put the new BMW where it needs to be, and the M Sport gets the larger 10.3-inch infotainment screen that is accompanied by the Intelligent Personal Assistant system that has the ability to learn driver preferences, behaviour and even individual voice nuances. The ‘Hey BMW’ voice activation command can be changed to anything the driver wants – within taste and decency limits – and can control functions including the radio station, climate control temperature, phone calls, navigation destinations and even colour of the ambient interior lighting.
In a case of good news, bad news, BMW has now at least seen fit to offer Apply CarPlay as a standard feature on all models, but just couldn’t resist trying to get money for something the majority of manufacturers offer for free; after 12 months drivers will have to pay a subscription to keep their iPhone connectivity. Also offered on M Sport cars (on a trial basis for three months before subscription charges) is Microsoft Office 365, which will synchronise emails, contacts and calendar entries, as well as Skype calls. Very useful, but frustrating that it’s only available via an additional monthly subscription fee.
The infotainment is controlled by touchscreen or, happily, the central rotary dial, although it’s not quite as pleasant to use as that in the old model.
The driving position is good, and there’s a decent amount of front storage areas, including a door bin moulding specifically to keep bottles in place, while the M Sport’s leather sports steering wheel is chunky in rim but pleasantly compact in diameter.
Maybe the Audi A4 or Volvo S60 just about trump it in terms of all-round cabin quality, but it’s well ahead of Alfa Romeo, Jaguar or Mercedes rivals.
In the back, there’s more space than larger passengers will be used to from a 3-Series, even though it’s still not exactly luxurious for legroom, while the 480-litre boot matches both the previous car’s and those of its main Audi A4 rival.
The 320d engine has long been a fleet hero, and the mildly worked-over version in the new car continues to be a delight for both performance and efficiency. The 320d manages to out-accelerate any of its main rivals while still trumping them in efficiency terms by at least one company car benefit-in-kind band, which is no mean achievement. It’s also quiet, thanks in part to spec and aerodynamic improvements. All cars are fitted with acoustic glass, effectively double-glazing the car, while the aerodynamic improvement for the new model is likened by BMW to the difference between the previous car and an X3 SUV, which helps with wind noise as well as efficiency.
But a key 3-Series goal has been achieved, because the BMW is still the king for keen drivers, and that’s despite threats from the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Jaguar XE. The steering feel, the way the car reacts and the chassis control all inspire confidence that it’s a car happy to be pushed without threatening anything untoward, and while such driving isn’t necessarily to be encouraged, it’s the most rewarding compact executive saloon when an empty piece of B-road presents itself. There is a price to be paid in a long-distance ride quality that’s firmer than those of the Audi A4 or Mercedes C-Class, but it’s by no means harsh or uncomfortable, and worth the compromise for anyone that appreciates fine handling attributes.
Then there’s the business case. The new 320d has been priced in the same £37,000-£38,000 ball park as most of its main rivals (apart from the C-Class because Mercedes seems to have reverted to its position of old where its cars are pricier than its key rivals). However, a better residual value, very strong emissions figures and decent SMR costs give the BMW an insurmountable lead in terms of whole-life costs, beating rivals by more than 2.0p per mile. When you combine that cost saving with decent standard spec, excellent driving dynamics and the badge allure of the iconic 3-Series, it’s fair to say the new model successfully takes everything the old car was good at and makes some significant advances. Which means it’s a winner.
The 3-Series has evolved over seven generations since the first car was launched in 1975, and has come to define the segment in which it competes.
BMW’s biggest-selling car globally, the 3-Series has grown by more than 35cm since the first two-door model was launched.
The first six-cylinder 3-Series arrived in 1977, and helped propel the model past one million sales by 1981. It was the following year that the second-generation car arrived, with the range expanding to include the first four-door saloon in late 1983. This model also greeted convertible and estate models for the first time, and the 3-Series’ first diesel.
In 1990, the Mk3 car was launched, spawning the Compact in ’94 and the first 3-Series Coupe in ’95.
The fourth-generation car of 1998 was a turning point for UK fleets, with the first company car favourite 320d being launched, then with 134hp and 49.6mpg. It became the 3-Series’ biggest-seller in 2003.
Come 2005, the fifth-generation car featured Efficient Dynamics tech, then the Mk6 followed in 2012, and was the first four-wheel-drive 3-Series in the UK.
What they said
What They Said
“The BMW 3-Series is the most complete and capable car for fleets in the premium mid-size segment. At the heart of the seventh-generation model are innovative connectivity features that have been designed with our business customers in mind, including BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant and Microsoft Office 365 integration."
"The 3-Series once again raises the bar for unparalleled handling characteristics yet at the same time remains highly competitive for company car drivers with BIK rates from 30% on the 320d.”
Rob East, general manager, corporate sales, BMW Group UK
Need to know
Three things we like...
The rear has the most obvious styling change, and it works well
It’s a neat touch that the car on the dash is colour-coded
Folding mirrors are standard on all trims, a move that is not before time
...And one we don't
The bold black kidney grille is larger than before, and maybe a bit too in-your-face
The 3-Series is still the king of the fine-handling compact executive saloons, it’s a relief to report.
The 320d trumps ail its major rivals for CO2 emissions, which also means lower BIK bills.
Rear seat area is larger than before, although still not as roomy as bigger rivals’. Boot space matches that of the Audi A4.
Improved equipment on the entry car in particular is welcome, and there are very sensible walk-up prices, while options aren’t too costly, especially the packages.
The rear is more shapely, but the nose is only subtly changed, and not completely for the better.
Comfort and refinement 8/10
Better aerodynamics and improved glazing both help the refinement levels, and the 3-Series rides well enough for a more sporting saloon.
Nice quality, logical design and a decent spread of stowage options, plus handy pre-set buttons that can also control navigation destinations and phone contacts.
The rotary control is maybe a touch too sensitive, but the infotainment system has been well developed and integrates clever functionality.
Whole life costs 9/10
Excellent residual values and SMR costs help turn a competitive price into running costs and driver benefit-in-kind payments that better its main rivals’.
CCT opinion 9/10
It’s not a dramatic improvement, but that wasn’t required because the old car was still up with the class best even as it got to the end of its life.
The 3-Series makes improvements in the key areas that were required without losing the driver and badge appeal that put it at the top of the class.