Think compact executive saloon and you automatically think BMW 3 Series. The model has been a constant presence for the last 47 years, sitting at the heart of the German marque’s success and making the segment its own.
Other brands have produced worthy and popular rivals but the 3 Series has proved time and again to be the class leader and even as SUVs slowly crush everything in their path it remains BMW’s UK best-seller in 2022.
Part of the reason for its success is the 3 Series’ breadth of appeal, from entry-level diesel saloons to hybrid estates and the lunatic M3. It’s also down to a regularly refreshed range that keeps up with developments in technology and design. So it’s no surprise that three years after the seventh-gen made its debut, it has undergone a bit of a refresh.
On the surface, the changes are most obvious in a new-look front end with slimmer full LED headlights, a more sculpted front apron and a revised version of the mercifully small kidney grille. Side and rear body trims have also been refined and while the overall changes are hardly earth-shattering they do keep the 3 Series looking sharp, especially in the optional “frozen” paint finishes.
The inside has been revitalised with touches from the brand’s latest generation cars. All models now come with a curved glass display that incorporates a 12.3-inch instrument screen and a 14.9-inch central touchscreen, and feature a redesigned dashboard and centre console with a smaller gear selector and new touch-controlled surfaces. The new screens house BMW’s Operating System 8 and Live Cockpit as standard which brings new connected navigation, media and communication functions and is, says, BMW designed for voice or touch control. Unlike some models, however, the 3 Series retains the rotary iDrive controller, for now at least.
Away from the new looks and tech, the 3 Series interior remains a paragon of high-quality materials and simple design. A bit more colour or flair wouldn’t go amiss but it is at least neat and user-friendly. It’s also spacious and comfortable - for four, at least. The large transmission tunnel renders the middle rear seat useless but everyone else is well catered for with decent leg and headroom and brilliantly enveloping seats. Saloon versions offer a decent 480 litre boot but the Touring version not only looks better than its four-door sibling but also has a more usable 500 litres of luggage space. Opt for the plug-in hybrid motor and that, unfortunately, drops to a less impressive 410 litres, although the handsome silhouette remains unchanged.
That plug-in hybrid drivetrain - badged 330e - is part of an engine line-up that incorporates three other petrols and two mild hybrid diesels. All versions now come as standard with an eight-speed auto gearbox and range in power from 181bhp to 369bhp.
The 330e PHEV offers a healthy 288bhp and 310lb ft along with claimed economy of 217mpg and tax-friendly CO2 emissions as low as 30g/km. That means drivers pay just 12% benefit in kind - key for a car aimed solidly at business buyers.
The combination of electric and petrol certainly make for lively acceleration and offer straight line performance second only to the wild M340i and M3. There’s little evidence of the shift between electric and hybrid modes and by driving carefully or selecting EV mode you should get up to 37 miles of EV range.
Plug-in variants miss out on the M Sport trim’s adaptive damping and steering but this doesn’t detract from an overall balanced and engaging driving experience. Even the estate-bodied hybrid turns with immediacy and accuracy and offers the sort of crisp and responsive handling the 3 Series has long been famous for without sacrificing ride comfort.
As well as the sensible hybrid, we stole a quick spin in the less sensible M340i xDrive saloon. This is essentially the M3-lite, using a twin-turbo straight six engine to put out 369bhp and 369lb ft via all four wheels. That means 0-66mph in just 4.4 seconds and a meaty, raspy engine note in keeping with its performance status. There’s also the adaptive M Sport suspension and steering to offer handling to match its superior power which makes this a thoroughly potent cross-country machine but one which is still comfortable and refined enough for the daily commute.
There are only two trim lines on the new 3 Series - Sport and M Sport. Even Sport comes with 17-inch alloys, heated seats, three-zone climate control, all-round parking sensors, those curved screens and the BMW Live Cockpit. M Sport features bigger alloys and more aggressive sporty body trim plus upgraded interior materials. That’s nice and simple, although you could lose days picking through the enormous options list that includes everything from adaptive cruise control to a Harmon Kadron stereo and adaptive matrix headlights. Prices can get very silly but the 3 Series’ strong appeal means the all-important monthly costs are less daunting.
That appeal has prevailed for almost half a century, largely because the 3 Series manages to be the perfect car for so many people. And that hasn’t changed. It continues to be the consummate all-rounder, especially in Touring spec. It offers space and comfort for four, a practical load bay, all the tech you could ask for and class-leading drive along with a tax- and wallet-friendly hybrid drivetrain.
BMW 330e M Sport Touring
Price: £46,610 (£55,955 as tested); Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol with 80kW electric motor; Power: 288bhp; Torque: 310lb ft; Transmission: Eight-speed automatic; Top speed: 142mph; 0-62mph: 5.9 seconds; Economy: 201.8mpg; CO2 emissions: 36g/km