Wherever you are these days it feels like you’re never far from a BMW 3 Series.
The mid-sized saloon was once the premium alternative that Mondeo drivers aspired to but now it’s more common than the Ford, thanks to attractive finance deals that have made premium as attainable as the "mainstream”.
That’s not to say its lost its premium touch, just that the relative exclusivity of the blue propeller has diminished over the decades.
Obviously, the continued success of the 3 Series hasn’t just been down to the badge and BMW has consistently offered one of the best overall packages in the mid-sized executive segment. And this latest model is no different.
Starting at £32,500 it’s competitively priced against the Audi A4, Mercedes C Class, Lexus IS, Jaguar XE and even the Mondeo Vignale - Ford’s doomed luxury effort to win back buyers from the premium brands. However, our M Sport 320d started at £36,000 before the addition of £8,500 of options.
Exterior styling is very much the understated don’t-scare-the-horses variety that typifies the segment. The interior is a bit more adventurous and offers a high-quality, high-tech cocoon in which to spend time. Our test car was finished in tasteful cream leather with premium-feeling metal finishes to the dash and centre console. Standard equipment includes a 10.3-inch media/nav screen with BMW’s Live Cockpit Professional and fully digital instruments, three-zone climate control, two rear USB charging sockets, a 360-degree camera system and internet connectivity that brings the option of everything from live traffic mapping and weather updates to music streaming.
It’s a matter of personal taste but as good as the BMW’s interior is, I favour the slicker, less fussy arrangement of the Audi A4, although both are nicer than the gaudy Mercedes C Class.
With perhaps the exception of the Jaguar XE, the 3 Series is the most rewarding car to drive in its class. It might not be as light and scalpel sharp as previous generations but there’s still more of connection between driver, car and road than in an A4, C Class or Lexus IS. There’s more feedback from the steering and even in this mid-range diesel spec some liveliness from the rear-driven chassis with its 50/50 weight distribution and sports suspension.
The engine is the run-of-the-mill four-cylinder diesel that seems to have been the default in this class for years. With 187bhp and 250lb/ft, it’s a step above the entry-level 318d and packs a decent punch. It’s also wonderfully refined. We’re now at a point where under low to medium loads this four-pot feels as smooth as a six-cylinder. It’s only when you bury the accelerator that it loses some of that refinement. The smoothness is also interrupted by the eight-speed sports auto box which has a slight jerkiness about it.
The 320d will cover the 0-62mph dash in just 6.8 seconds but returns real-world economy of 52mpg against official figures of 44mpg and CO2 emissions of around 150g/km. It’s remarkably efficient and clean given the performance, and has equivalent Audi and Mercedes models beaten.
They hit back with more standard equipment or lower list prices but, truthfully, the margins between them are small.
The fact is that this class is so tight that it’s hard to say with absolute certainty which is the best of the bunch. Where one model gains an edge on its rivals it gives back ground elsewhere and much of it comes down to the exact technology, drivetrain and specification you want. Nonetheless, opt for the current 3 Series and you won’t be disappointed. It’s no wonder Mondeo Man lusted after one so much.
BMW 320d M Sport
Price: £36,200 (£45,415); Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, diesel; Power: 187lb/ft; Torque: 250lb ft; Transmission: Eight-speed automatic; Top speed: 149mph; 0-62mph: 6.8 seconds; Economy: 41.5-44.1mpg; CO2 emissions: 146-155g/km