By Andy Enright
The sixth generation BMW 3 Series is a car that needs little in the way of introduction. Launched in 2012, it's since been recognised as a benchmark in the compact executive car sector and whether you opt for the four-door saloon or the five-door GT hatches or Touring estates, there's plenty of talent spread through the range. Buying used should be a fairly trouble-free experience. There's stacks of used stock out there and with a bit of careful trawling, you ought to be able to turn up a car in the right spec, condition and colour.
The 3 Series has been around for more than four decades of production, and over 12 million examples have been sold worldwide of this, the most successful car of its kind. And yet, every time BMW launches another generation of this model, it's easy to be taken aback at just how far the Munich company has moved the game on. This sixth generation version, dubbed the 'F30' in BMW-speak, was launched in the Spring of 2012 and carried on its broad shoulders an almost unimaginable weight of expectation.
But that was to be expected. This, after all, is a car the company just could not afford to get wrong. The previous E90 model had to battle harder than expected in the UK against rival Audi A4s and, to a lesser extent, the Mercedes C-Class and struggled even more in the important US market. The global recession didn't help - and nor did the increasing quality of cars in the mainstream Mondeo sector below, models which could often look very tempting compared to the basic functionality of an entry-level yet still quite expensive 3 Series. This sixth generation model, then, was the car tasked with rebuilding the line to its prior rude health. It had to justify premium pricing with premium quality, extra equipment and ever-more efficient running costs. And continue to set itself apart from its Audi and Mercedes rivals with outstanding driving dynamics thanks to its unique rear-driven layout.
When it launched in spring of 2012, the line-up was a bit thin. There was the 2.0-litre turbo 328i saloon, the 3.0-litre turbo 335i and a pair of 2.0-litre 320d diesels, a standard 184PS engine and a 163PS EfficientDynamics eco version. BMW quickly added many more to this number. In November 2012, it announced the 1.6-litre 320i EfficientDynamics variant, good for 170PS. There was also an entry-level 136PS 316i, also powered by a 1.6-litre twin-turbo engine.
At the same time, BMW debuted the 318d Touring and 316d Touring which used a 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin turbodiesel engine. In the 318d Touring, the engine produced 143PS, while in the 316d Touring it gave 116PS. We also got a four-wheel drive options for the 320d and the ActiveHybrid 3 petrol/electric model. In June 2013, the hatchback Gran Turismo body was announced.
In early 2014, the 3 Series got updates to its automatic gearbox system with the fitment of Proactive Drive, which took information from the sat nav to hold or drop gears when approaching roundabouts, bends and so on. This followed an improvement to the resolution of the sat nav and Bluetooth streaming facility. The mighty M3 saloon arrived in June 2104, powered once again by a six-cylinder engine but, for the first time, augmented by turbocharging.
What You Get
Here's a car that looks better in the metal than it does in pictures - really good in fact. Sit this sixth generation model next to its predecessor and it looks lower and more aggressive - longer too, by 93mm. The reason for that tapered bonnet profile is pedestrian impact legislation, but whereas this stipulation ruins the styling of some cars, BMW has made this 3 Series look very purposeful indeed. Much of that is down to the stance. It's so easy to get this wrong, but this car gets it so right. Here's an example of why. BMW realised that in order to offer decent rear legroom, the car's wheelbase would need to be longer, so 50mm was grafted in between front and rear wheels. But instead of leaving it at that, the designers kept the balance of the design by almost equally widening it, a little more at the back than at the front so as to achieve the pleasingly dynamic, bottle-rocket effect. At the rear, there's a coupe-like profile and L-shaped light units with LED light bars.
The cabin seems quite minimalist at first, with many of the minor functions being marshalled by the iDrive controller, but there are still plenty of buttons scattered around the dash. Nevertheless, it all looks agreeably elegant and the sweep of the dashboard roll top is a good deal sleeker than the rather ungainly double-bubble shape of this car's predecessor. The bright accents on the dash of the Sport trim level aren't going to be to all tastes though. There's a reasonable amount of stowage space, with sizeable door pockets in the front that can hold a bottle on each side, although those fitted to the rear doors are a bit meaner.
The back seat always used to be the 3 Series weak spot, especially so when it was trying to take business away from huge mainstream medium range models like Ford's Mondeo. Just as well then, that this car offers noticeably more space in the rear. Take a seat here and you'll find an extra 100mm more legroom, which is certainly welcome, although the sharply ridged hard plastic cutouts in the seat backs aren't at all comfortable should your knees make contact with them. Headroom isn't too bad, although if you're anything above six foot you might find it a tad pinched. Overall though, you're looking at a useful improvement on what went before in a cabin slightly larger than comparable Audi and Mercedes models. It's still a pinch for three adults though and the rear-wheel drive layout means the middle passenger's not going to be loving the hefty transmission tunnel that runs down the centre of the car.
Pop the boot and you'll find 480-litres of fresh air, but original buyers needed to pay extra for the optional split/fold rear seats and the ski-hatch for longer items. Of course, if you are regularly going to be carrying bulky items, you'll be wanting to talk to your dealer about the Touring estate or the Gran Turismo hatch models.
What to Look For
According to a survey of the 50 largest contract hire and leasing companies, BMW produces the most reliable company car in the UK, in the shape of the F30 3 Series. Proving its reliability, the BMW 3 Series was also awarded the title 'Used Car of the Year' at the Car Dealer Used Car Awards 2013 and 'Executive and Luxury Used Car of the Year' at the What Car? Used Car awards 2013. The F30 has been extremely reliable to date, although it's clear that at launch, cost had been taken out of the car, even compared to its predecessor. You only need to look at the cheaper boot hinges and deletion of front LED turn indicators to see this. Also, make sure you're actually buying an F30 rather than an E90 model as some E90s were held over as dealer specials and can carry very late plates as a result.
An M3 needs a good look over to ensure that the suspension alignment is good, that there's been no crash damage and that oil servicing has been performed on the button.
(approx based on a 2013 335i saloon) A clutch assembly is around £175. Front brake pads are around £72, a full exhaust about £550, an alternator around £200 and a rear tyre around £130. A starter motor is about £180.
On the Road
While it's true that it's hard to buy a bad modern car, it's also the case that so many cars today are distinctly two-dimensional in the way they drive. Search for the hidden depths of talent in some cars and it won't take long to realise that it's just not there. The 3 Series has always been different. Yes, it impresses at first acquaintance, but it's the sort of car that offers more the more you ask of it. You'll be pleased to learn that this part of its dynamic make-up hasn't changed in this latest iteration. Like all of the best driver's cars, it will flatter the inexpert driver, yet has the depth of talent to reward the enthusiast.
The basic formula here hasn't changed much. Front engine, rear wheel drive, and near perfect 50:50 weight distribution have defined the 3 Series to date and this one doesn't deviate too far from that script, although BMW did, for the first time in the UK, also sell a hybrid and even a line-up of xDrive all-wheel driven versions as part of the original MK6 3 Series range.
Ultimately, it's the standard rear driven layout that really marks this car out from its direct front-driven rivals. Super-effective traction and stability systems keep those back wheels in check so that if you're not a driving enthusiast, you'll notice no difference. But if you are, then the feeling of being pushed by the back wheels as you exit a bend never fails to offer up a great feeling of pleasure.
As for engines, well at first glance, it seems like there's a huge number on offer. At second glance, you might think differently. All the volume four cylinder models share the same size powerplant, a 2.0-litre diesel in different states of tune that delivers 116PS in the 316d, 143PS in the 318d and either 163 or 184PS in the 320d. Petrol people meanwhile, get a 2.0-litre litre unit that offers up either 184PS in the 320i or as much as 245PS if you go for the 328i. If you're wondering about six cylinder engines, well yes, you seek out those in either diesel or petrol form (the top 335i petrol unit develops a throaty 306PS), but try the four cylinder alternative first; even a 320i manages sixty from rest in just 7.3s on the way to nearly 150mph and the 328i is a second and a half faster still. Just how much quicker do you really need to go than that?
The 184PS 320d diesel also gets to sixty in around 7.5s, but a potent 380Nm of torque makes it feel faster than that. True, it's not especially refined at idle, but once you get the thing going, you'll find this one of the most flexible, responsive powertrains of any kind full stop, with a level of performance that seems faintly ridiculous for a car with a claimed combined fuel economy figure of 61.4mpg.
So it's quick and satisfyingly rear-driven. But hasn't BMW risked spoiling all of this by adopting the kind of electric power steering system that in some rival cars robs the enthusiast of the response really needed at the helm? Apparently not. Just as in a Porsche 911 from the same era, the Bavarians have got this system absolutely right, the feedback incredibly accurate and responsive. Just like the lovely 6-speed manual gearbox: why can't all stick-shift transmissions be like this? If you really must have an auto, BMW made a very good one for this model - a very efficient 8-speeder. Reassuring too, to see that BMW here resisted the urge to ditch the conventional handbrake in favour of an electronic system.
Whichever 3 Series you choose, it's hard not to be impressed with the suspension. This is a bigger car than its predecessor, yet body control is better and that hasn't come at the expense of ride quality. Quite the opposite in fact. Even on big alloy wheels fitted with run-flat tyres, the sixth generation 3 Series rides British B-roads better than it really has any right to. Audi and Mercedes might have closed the gap to the old car in this era but this F30 model remains a class act.
Part of the reason is the car's Drive Performance Control system. It's fitted across the range and allows you to switch the car into different modes according to your mood. In standard form, it changes throttle response, engine mapping and, if you've an auto gearbox, the change parameters for that depending on your selection between efficiency-orientated 'ECO PRO', laid-back 'Comfort' and more assertive 'Sport' modes. It also alters the steering feel too, something you can sharpen further by opting to pay extra for the more responsive Servotronic steering.
Original buyers who went for one of the 'Sport' models could have their cars fitted with a set of adaptive dampers so that they could alter the ride to suit road and mood. It'll firm up nicely if you click the Drive Performance Control rocker switch into 'Sport' and, if you've found a car with this particular option, the system will also offer an additional 'Sport +' setting that'll relax the DSC control to give you a little more tail-out cornering leeway - if you should be that way inclined.
This sixth generation 'F30' generation 3 Series is the first we can remember since the old third generation 'E36' version that generated a bit of grousing from journalists. Rather than being too different, some complained that the F30 wasn't different enough. But look under the skin and it's a huge leap forward, offering all wheel drive, a hybrid, a range of efficient all-turbocharged engines and some delicious driving tech.
It's no longer the standout driver's choice in its class but it offers a range of qualities that has seen sales march steadily upwards. As a used buy, it looks a strong bet. The biggest slug of depreciation is over and even the cars introduced right at the start of the model run were excellent.