The 3-series majors on refinement and cutting-edge technology but still offers a rewarding, if not overly sporting, drive

It’s hard to believe the 3-series is about to celebrate its 45th birthday but the recipe that made it such as success for BMW back in 1975 when the first generation was launched still stands today. Entertaining manners, strong engines, good build quality and a premium image that shows no sign of being significantly diluted even when the 3-series is now such as ubiquitous part of the motoring landscape.

Now in its seventh incarnation the 3-series is up against tougher opposition than ever. Arch rivals in the form of the Mercedes C-Class and the Audi A4 keep raising the bar and while the previous generation 3-series was a decent premium exec it had begun to slip behind its rivals in certain areas. Its interior was lagging behind while big steps in refinement from the opposition saw BMW having to play catch up.

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The biggest question mark though, was whether BMW would be able to manage this without losing its sporting slant that’s characterised the 3-series for the past 45 years. In the most part it’s succeeded. Thanks to a stiffer body (by up to 50 per cent in some areas), new damper technology and enhanced soundproofing measures the additional refinement box has been ticked. A thoroughly revised interior packed full of tech from the 5-series ensures the 3-series no longer looks like second best inside when compared to its German rivals.

The engine line up has been slightly slimmed down from the previous generation but there’s still a range of 2-litre diesels and petrols, a 3-litre diesel and a soon to arrive M Performance model, the M340i xDrive, along with the de rigueur plug-in hybrid, the 330e. Even the slowest diesel will crack 0-100kmh in less than eight and a half seconds while the quickest diesel, the 330d xDrive manages the same task in 5.1sec.

While the 330d’s engine is exceptional both in terms of output and refinement (it even sounds good) the two other diesels also deliver the goods but without being particularly stimulating. Enhanced soundproofing over the older 3-series means they’re more or less inaudible unless extended. A 0-100kmh time for the 320d of around seven seconds (depending on gearbox, and or whether xDrive has been specified) is plenty quick enough, too.

The three petrol models (320i, 330i and M340i xDrive) should, in theory, be more likely to stir the soul. The 320i and 330i share the same 2-litre turbocharged ’four and while they’re quick enough (the 330i dips under the six-second barrier for the 0-100kmh sprint) they’re not hugely engaging units, with a somewhat flat and uninspiring soundtrack. The M340i is the only petrol six-cylinder and a brief drive in a pre-production model suggests it’s hugely potent – nigh-on M3 levels of performance – while sounding the part, too.

While perhaps the 3-series’ engine line up isn’t as inspiring as it used to be the good news is that its chassis can still entertain, exhibiting the sort of confidence-inspiring balance that’s missing for many rivals. It’s a little dependent on specification though – SE and Sport models are entertaining if a little ragged at the limit while M Sport versions are considerably stiffer and corner more enthusiastically. The best compromise is to be found by opting for the M Sport Plus package which adds adaptive dampers.