The reputation of the BMW 3-series precedes it. In previous iterations, it was a repeat winner of our 10Best Cars award, and the nameplate occupies a place of honor in the heart of many a car enthusiast. The 3-series earned that esteem by being, for a long time, one of the most generally excellent sedans on the road. Communicative steering, satisfying powertrains, and exceptional ride-and-handling balance were hallmarks of the nameplate and made BMW’s sports sedan the benchmark against which other brands aspired. But time, alas, makes fools of us all, and age has dulled the reflexes of the 3-series. It’s still very good, with a full lineup of rewarding powertrains, an eminently useful cargo hold, and, as always, that iconic blue-and-white roundel on the hood. But it is no longer a paragon of its kind. The steering wheel fails to deliver useful feedback, the available adaptive suspension seems imprecisely tuned, and the design is aging. We wouldn’t turn up our noses at a 3-series if one showed up in the driveway, but it’s no longer the sports sedan other companies have in their sights.
What’s New for 2018?
BMW has made several minor changes to the 3-series lineup for 2018. Perhaps the most important among them is that BMW’s new infotainment system, iDrive 6.0, is now standard in all models, adding touchscreen capability where previous systems had relied on a rotary knob. LED headlights are also newly standard, and LED fog lights make their first appearance on the entry-level 320i’s standard equipment list. A new exterior color (Sunset Orange Metallic), interior leather color (Cognac Brown Dakota), and interior trim color (Aluminum Dark Carbon) can all be had, at a price. Then there’s a new Shadow Sport package with blacked-out trim on the wheels, head- and taillights, grille, and lower front spoiler. These changes are all fine by us, but we’re more excited about the forthcoming 2019 3-series, which will be all new and, we hope, much improved.
Pricing is in 2018 dollars:
- 320i Sedan: $35,895
- 320i xDrive Sedan: $37,895
- 330i Sedan: $41,245
- 330i xDrive Sedan: $43,245
- 328d Sedan: $42,745
- 328d xDrive Sedan: $44,745
- 340i Sedan: $49,945
- 340i xDrive Sedan: $51,945
- 330e iPerformance Plug-In Hybrid: $46,595
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
All 3-series models—even the diesel and plug-in hybrid versions—drive with enthusiasm and are capable of impressive performance. Sadly, they do so without the peerless balance of communicative steering, brilliant handling, and supple ride quality that defined their much-loved predecessors.
Each gas engine, from the 180-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four in the 320i to the 320-hp turbocharged inline-six in the 340i, feels as if it’s making more power than advertised. Compared with the inline-six’s unparalleled smoothness, the four-cylinders in the 320i and 330i suffer from some coarseness at higher revs, although, compared with turbo four-cylinders from other automakers, the BMW engines are smooth runners.
A ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission is standard on every 3-series. A six-speed manual is available at no cost on the Sedans. Both gearboxes are excellent, with the automatic adapting smartly to driver habits—be it a red-mist, I’m-late-for-work rip or a calm highway cruise—and the manual offering good clutch feel and a shifter that notches satisfyingly into gear.
The diesel four-cylinder is unremarkable, save for its highway fuel economy and the fact that it is sold in the United States at all, given the poor public image of diesels in the wake of Volkswagen’s emissions scandal. Fuel misers might be better served by the smooth and powerful 330e plug-in hybrid’s turbocharged four-cylinder and electric-motor combination. The EPA rates the 330e at 14 miles of electric-only driving, and BMW says it can attain 75 mph—no doubt only for short distances—on electricity alone. The plug-in hybrid 330e (available in the sedan only) can charge from either a 120-volt or a 240-volt outlet. A full charge requires six to seven hours on standard 120-volt house power but approximately 2.5 hours on 240 volts. Buyers can opt for a 240-volt i Charging Station charger from BMW to fit in their garages—for a cool $1080 plus installation.
EPA fuel economy testing and reporting procedures have changed over time. For the latest and most accurate fuel economy numbers on current and older vehicles, we use the U.S. Department of Energy’s fueleconomy.gov website. Under the heading “Find & Compare Cars” click on the Compare Side-by-Side tool to find the EPA ratings for the make, model, and year you’re interested in.
Interior, Comfort, and Cargo
The 3-series is entirely capable of shuttling four adults to and fro in reasonable comfort. Newer competitors such as the Audi A4 and the Mercedes-Benz C-class do a better job of accommodating human cargo, however. Where the Audi A4 offers buyers a minimalist, modern interior aesthetic and the Mercedes-Benz C-class aspires to a more flamboyant brand of luxury, the cabin of the 3-series epitomizes classic German restraint. Despite a plethora of interior color schemes and upholstery options, the 3’s underlying design is generic. This conspires with the ho-hum plastics sprinkled throughout to keep the BMW’s interior from feeling luxurious. Having been on the market for six years now, the current 3-series is starting to go gray around its temples. Its joints are also beginning to creak, in the form of squeaks that escape from the more plasticky sections of its rather plain yet well-laid-out cabin. At least the control layout is straightforward and easy to use, with the iDrive infotainment display mounted high on the dashboard, nearly in the driver’s line of sight.
The basic sedan—the only version we’ve fully evaluated—has a split-folding rear seat and a large, usefully shaped trunk. Despite its class-leading 17-cubic-foot volume, the trunk of the 3-series tied the Audi A4 in our carry-on luggage test. Both sedans hold five of our carry-ons, a number that triples to 15 with the rear seats folded down. Other than its numerous trunk cubbies, the stash spaces are merely average for the class. Front-seat storage is helped by the fairly large door pockets and hurt by the center console’s limited cubbies.
Infotainment and Connectivity
The latest-generation version of BMW’s iDrive infotainment system is among the biggest upgrades to the 3-series in the past two years. A simplified menu makes the system even more intuitive, and the updated on-screen graphics inject a whiff of freshness, too.
BMW’s new iDrive 6.0 infotainment system is standard in the 2018 3-series, bringing touchscreen capability to a system that was previously controlled exclusively by a console-mounted rotary knob. The 3-series is available with the latest gadgetry, from Apple CarPlay to onboard Wi-Fi. Both are optional, but Android Auto is nowhere to be found. And only one USB port seems stingy in this day and age. iDrive responds quickly to user inputs.
Safety Features and Crash Test Ratings
Some older vehicles are still eligible for coverage under a manufacturer’s Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) program. For more information visit our guide to every manufacturer’s CPO program.