The BMW 3 Series is aging. Rivals such as the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class are newer. The only thing new for 2018 for the 3 Series are some changed packages and new colors.
The performance in many configurations still stands out, with three bodies, six engines, two transmissions, and rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive creating no less than 15 models, counting the almighty high-performance M3 (which rates its own review) to the 330e iPerformance plug-in hybrid sedan.
Engines include the high-mileage 328d diesel, 2.0-liter turbo four in the 330 making 248 horsepower, and scorching 3.0-liter turbo six in the 340i making 320 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. All the engines need premium (or diesel) fuel, even the lowly 180-horsepower engine in the 320i.
When you mix in the different trims, the definition of the 3 Series blurs. For example there’s Sport Line for the 328i, 328d, and 340i. There’s also an M Sport package, and a Track Handling package with big blue brake calipers.
The all-wheel-drive Gran Turismo is a five-door hatchback that’s nearly eight inches longer than the sedan, on a wheelbase that’s four inches longer and three inches taller. Creatively, it leads the way in styling, as part crossover, part fastback, and part wagon.
BMW 3 Series models include 320i, 320i xDrive all-wheel drive, 328d, 328d xDrive, 330i, 330i xDrive, 340i, 340i xDrive sedan; also the 330e iPerformance plug-in hybrid sedan, 330i xDrive Gran Turismo, 340i xDrive Gran Turismo, 330i and 328d xDrive wagon, and the M3.
The entry-level 320i gets manual front seats in leatherette upholstery, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, 6.5-inch display, and iDrive. Options include wheels, infotainment, heated seats, carbon-fiber rear spoiler, wireless Apple CarPlay, and rearview camera.
The lines are classic and elegant, sharp and expressive, with large headlamps and air intakes and a distinctive rear end. BMW doesn’t copy the aero wedge that seems too popular nowadays.
The striking Gran Turismo pushes design in an original direction, as a big hatchback fastback coupe, with a rising beltline that gives it visual rake at the hood. Smoothly, it blends crossover, coupe and wagon.
In the cabin, the 3 Series suffers from its age, when it’s compared to high-tech wonders like the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class. Depending on the model and trim, the materials will be rich and luxurious or muddled and budget. The standard front seats have decent bolstering and nice leg support, even without being leather; while the flat dashboard features a standing screen that needs new materials.
The 3 Series is as big as it’s ever been, but it’s still considered a compact car. The back seat squeezes adults, but there’s good headroom. There’s also good cargo space, with a big trunk of 15.8 cubic feet.
BMWs are known for good handling, so it’s no surprise that you get a sharp turn-in, nicely weighted steering, and flat cornering in every type of 3 Series. The old hydraulic power steering gave more feedback than the current electric power steering, but that’s true with almost every car, and you can’t hold back progress.
The 3 Series also offers a smooth ride, with a suspension that’s tuned for run-flat, high-mileage tires. If there are any sharp edges over bumps, it’s probably from the tires.
Acceleration-wise, the 320i with its 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo making 180 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque feels weak compared to the others, running from zero to sixty in 7.1 seconds.
The 330i uses the same engine tuned to make much more horsepower and torque, 248hp and 258 lb-ft. And it shows, as the 330i will make the same sprint in 5.5 seconds, and sound better doing it.
The 340i with its 3.0-liter turbo six is way fast and talented, with big torque available at a wide range. We love that it’s a classic inline six, not a V6.
The most common transmission in these three models will be a smooth eight-speed automatic, but lo and behold, a six-speed manual remains available. BMW knows its buyers are drivers, and isn’t about to let them down, at least not yet. We like to think of ourselves as drivers, but still … the eight-speed automatic is pretty desirable. Its shifts are quick, precise, confident, and correctly timed.
The 328d makes 180 horsepower and another ton of smooth torque, with the standard eight-speed automatic. With its high mileage, its best fit seems to us to be as a family wagon.
The 330e iPerformance plug-in hybrid makes 248 combined horsepower from a 7.6-kwh hour lithium-ion battery and turbo four engine.
The Driving Dynamics Control modes are Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus. Sport mode sharpens the steering and transmission, while Sport Plus loosens up the stability control.
There’s an optional variable sport steering system that mechanically alters the steering ratio depending on the immediate task, making parking easier and high-speed cornering tighter.
Finally, for more aggressive cornering, the M Sport package lowers the chassis by 0.4 inches, stiffens the springs and shocks, fattens the anti-roll bars, and uses 18- or 19-inch alloys with fat tires. And for the most aggressive cornering, the Track Handling package adds the variable sport steering, adaptive suspension, and bigger brakes with blue calipers.
The BMW 3 Series brings crisp handling and a tight ride. Distinguishing among them, you get adequate acceleration in the base 320i, happier get-up in the 330i, now-we’re-talkin’ boost in the 340i twin-turbo inline six. These sedans are somewhat dated, but the newer Gran Turismo offers distinctive styling. There’s also the options of diesel and plug-in hybrid. So many characters in just one car.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.