Top 12 Things to Know Before You Buy a 2016 BMW 3 Series

1. What’s new for 2016?

Freshened styling, chassis upgrades, expanded features, and a new 6-cylinder engine. This roster of compact four-door sedans and station wagons constitutes BMW’s best-selling vehicle line. They get appearance changes minor enough to escape casual notice. The lower front air intakes are wider, LED headlamps are introduced, and 17-inch wheels are redesigned. The LED daytime running lamps are reshaped, as are the now full-LED taillamps. And all but the entry-level model come with the black-accented exterior trim from the previously optional Sport Line package.

Revisions to suspension and steering aim at improved handling. Newly available for gasoline models is the Track Handling Package. It includes Variable Sport Steering, Adaptive M Suspension, M Sport Brakes with blue calipers, and 18-inch wheels with Michelin Super Sport summer performance tires. Like the engine it replaces, the new 6-cylinder has an inline layout of 3.0 liters. It inaugurates a new family of BMW 4- and 6-cylinder engines and launches in the newly badged 340i. With 320 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, the 340i bests the 335i model it replaces by 20 horsepower and 32 pound-feet.

2. How much does it cost and what sort of deal can I expect?

Base prices are competitive with class rivals, though BMW is traditionally stingy with standard equipment — leather upholstery is a $1,450 option even on the top-line 340i, for example. So outfitting a 3 Series to fulfill your premium-compact expectations tends to elevate sticker prices to the high end of the competitive set.

Base-price range for the ‘16 3 Series is $34,145-$46,795, including BMW’s $995 destination fee. (This review doesn’t cover the high-performance, low-volume M3 sedan, which starts at $64,195.) The gasoline 4-cylinder 3 Series roster consists of the 320i sedan priced from $34,195, the 328i sedan starting at $39,345, and the 328i Sport Wagon at $43,645. The 4-cylinder diesel 328d sedan starts at $40,895 and the 328d Sport Wagon at $45,145. The 340i comes only as a sedan and it begins at $46,795. The 330e is also a sedan only, starting at $44,695. BMW’s fine xDrive all-wheel-drive system is standard on the wagons and a $2,000 option for the sedans. Gas models offer a 6-speeed manual transmission or an 8-speed automatic at no cost difference. The 320i xDrive, 328i xDrive, 328d, and 330e models are automatic only.

As for deals, buyers are paying on average 8 percent to 9 percent below sticker. That’s according to pricing and is in line with transaction prices on the rival Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Among other classmates, TrueCar reports transaction prices for the Cadillac ATS averaging 6 percent below sticker. The Lexus IS is around 11 percent below and the Audi A4 averages 12 percent below. BMW’s brand-image management means factory cash incentives are rare, though it was offering financing as low as 2.9 percent to qualified buyers in early 2016. And as noted below, demand for the 3 Series has cooled, so dealers should be happy to negotiate price.

3. When will the next big change be?

A full redesign during 2018 for release as a 2018 or ’19 model. Expect more interior room and a leap in tech features, including an air suspension and autonomous-driving aids trickling down from BMW’s midsize 5 Series and flagship 7 Series cars. The ’16 updates represent a midcycle freshening for a 3 Series design that went on sale for model-year 2012. From its model-year 1976 U.S. debut, each successive 3 Series generation has grown in size and, to the dismay of hard-core enthusiasts, become progressively less focused on sport driving and more concerned with mass-market appeal.

The happy result for BMW has been class-topping sales numbers. At the same time, the Audi, Lexus, and Cadillac competition has drawn abreast of, and in some ways surpassed, the performance benchmarks set by the 3 Series. And it’s notable that 3 Series sales fell 6.2 percent in 2015. At the same time, sales were up for the smaller, sportier 2 Series coupe, as well as for the 4 Series coupes, convertibles, and four-door hatchbacks that share the 3 Series’ understructure.

4. What options or trim level is best for me?

There’s a purposeful elegance in the shape and proportion of every BMW, so while extra exterior ornamentation is nice, you may want to begin your 3 Series upgrades with the rather austere cabin. The standard leatherette upholstery is actually quite convincing, but you’ll know if you’re sitting on genuine hides; they’re $1,450 across the board. The price of other options can differ depending on how you group them. But using the volume-selling 328i sedan as an example, you’ll want to consider onboard navigation (stand-alone for $1,950 or part of the $2,750 Technology Package, along with a head-up display). A sunroof is part of the $2,450 Premium Package, along with keyless entry, pushbutton ignition, and satellite radio.

Useful driver aids include a rearview camera (in the $950 Driver Assistance Package with park-distance warning) and blind-spot detection (in the $1,700 Driver Assistance Plus package with lane-departure warning and low-speed automatic braking). Heated front seats are $500, or $800 in the Cold Weather package that also heats the steering wheel and rear seats. To get full Bluetooth and smartphone connectivity requires a $350 upgrade. And any exterior color other than basic black or white is $550. Performance upgrades are addressed below, but you can make your car look more aggressive via the $3,000 M Sport Package with its aero body addenda, shadowline trim, and star-spoke 18-inch wheels. It also includes the M Sport suspension and summer performance tires.

5. What engine do you recommend?

Every 3 Series engine is turbocharged and is a terrific example of its type. Even the 320i’s 2.0-liter (180 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque) is surprisingly lively. For free-thinkers, the diesel 2.0 (180 horsepower/280 pound-feet) is a gem. And the 330e’s electric-motor and 4-cylinder-gas combo (net 248 horses and a stout 310 pound-feet of torque) sounds promising, as does its 5.9-second 0-60-mph estimate.

The new 6-cylinder suffers slight turbo lag off the line, though it’s very strong thereafter and hits 60 mph in around 5 seconds. But work the 328i’s 2.0-liter (240 horses/258 pound-feet) to its full potential and it emerges as the best balance of acceleration — 0-60 in a credible 6 seconds – and value. We’re manual-transmission fans and laud BMW for making it so widely available here. The automatic’s smooth, prompt shifting is hard to fault, though. And xDrive is a smart all-weather hedge calibrated to maintain a rear-drive feel in most conditions.

6. How is the fuel economy?

EPA ratings are very good for the class and thoughtful driving can better them in the real world. The 320i rates 28 mpg city-highway combined with rear-wheel drive and either transmission, and 27 mpg combined with xDrive and automatic. The 328i rates 26 mpg combined with rear drive and manual transmission, and 27 with xDrive. With both rear- and all-wheel drive, the 340i rates 23 mpg combined with manual transmission and 26 with automatic.

Diesel models rate 36 mpg combined with rear-drive and 34 with xDrive, and an impressive 42 and 40 mpg, respectively, in highway driving. EPA mileage ratings for the 330e were not released in time for this review, but it is earmarked for 22 miles of electric-only range from its initial plug-in charge. After that, it operates as a conventional hybrid, automatically using gas, electricity, or a blend to achieve optimal acceleration and fuel economy.

7. How does it handle?

Here’s the elephant in the showroom. Through its first four design generations, the 3 Series had road manners by which cars costing even far more were measured. A dilution of that standard of precision and control began with the 2006 redesign, as BMW sought a wider audience that it believed prioritized roominess and comfort. The retreat continued for 2011, with introduction of today’s sixth generation, the largest, heaviest 3 Series ever. Indeed, the 2 Series has assumed the automaker’s small-car handling mantle, while sport-tuned versions of various premium-compact-class rivals beat the 3 Series for overall dynamics.

This is not to suggest a 3 Series isn’t entertaining to drive. Any version is, even a wagon. But keen enthusiasts will note a disturbingly artificial, disconnected feel to steering that once was unassailable. And suspension composure is no longer unflappable. The 2016 improvements do quell much of the discombobulation that had plagued the car in bumpy turns. But to objective enthusiasts, steering and suspension behavior are no longer selling points. The M Sport package helps. So does the new $2,300 Track Handling Package, though we’re not fans of its Variable Sport Steering, which changes steering ratio while you’re driving. It does quicken response in tight turns, but we find it’s activation and deactivation unsettling and unpredictable.

8. Are the controls easy to use?

Generally. The dashboard is a model of Teutonic orderliness, everything arrayed logically and within easy reach. The info and navigation screen sits alone atop the instrument panel, not truly integrated but at eye-level. And its tablet-like design has a techy air about it. A center-console rotary controller accompanied by a small cluster of buttons is your primary infotainment interface. It’s about as simple as these things get.

We’d appreciate an actual radio station tuning knob, but at least there’s one for volume, plus redundant controls on the steering wheel. The automatic transmission’s gear shift is really a big toggle lever; fuss-free operation requires some practice. The biggest knock against this cabin layout comes when you see the more organic, more contemporary designs in the C-Class, A4, and IS. By comparison, the 3 Series shows its age and is a little too liberal with hard plastic surfaces for this price class.

9. Is it comfortable?

Yes, if you don’t expect to be coddled. The ride is firm and so are the seats. Even the effort required to unlatch a door and open it has a certain starchiness that suggests this thing is built to last. There’s good legroom and headroom in front, though the broad of beam will notice the cabin is compact-car narrow and some might feel closed-in by the driver-oriented cockpit. The rear seat is among the roomiest in the competitive set, but that doesn’t translate to excess knee clearance with the front seats more than halfway back. And tall adults will get their hair brushed by the headliner.

At 17 cubic feet, trunk volume is among best in class, with a long load floor and lid hinges shielded to protect your luggage. The wagon is a fine little hauler, with 27.5 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 61.5 with it folded. Consider it a crossover alternative with a low center of gravity you’ll appreciate in every corner instead of extra ground clearance you’ll rarely exploit.

10. What about safety?

Crash-test ratings are mixed. The ‘16 3 Series earns the maximum five stars for overall occupant protection in the government’s 5-Star Safety Ratings system. It also earns five stars for protection in side and rollover crashes, but drops to four in frontal-collision tests.

In testing by the influential, insurance-industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the ’16 3 Series fell well short of the prestigious Top Safety Pick categories. Its biggest shortfall was in occupant protection during the small front overlap test, designed to replicate what happens when the front corner collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole. In that test it was rated “marginal,” one rung above the lowest “poor” rating. It earned the top “good” rating for side and roof protection, as well as in the “moderate overlap front” test, as when two vehicles collide nearly head-on. Only with the Driver Assistance Plus package, with its low-speed automatic braking, did the 3 Series qualify for a “good” rating in front crash prevention.

11. How’s the reliability and resale value?

Initial quality is good, predicted reliability about average, and residual values strong, though not tops in class. Results we’re available for the 2016 3 Series in time for this review, but owners of the ’15 model rated overall quality above average in surveys conducted by J.D. Power, the leading automotive consumer-assessment firm. Owners rated it only average for ease of use of features and for how those features operated. J.D. Power’s predicted reliability is only average, as well.

As for resale value, the residual-value-tracking firm ALG projects a 2015 3 Series sedan will retain about 35 percent of its original sticker price after five years. The highest resale value in the line goes to the 328d xDrive Sport Wagon, at 39 percent. By comparison, the ATS was at 33 percent and the C-Class line at 34-37 percent. ALG’s residual-value leader in the competitive set is the Lexus IS, at 39 percent overall. Note that beginning with the 2017 model year, BMW will reduce its free scheduled maintenance from 4 years/50,000 miles to 3/36,000.

12. Is it better than the competition?

There’s still an aura about the 3 Series that rivals have yet to match. Its considered youthful, sexy, and sporty. Of course, critics maintain it’s coasting on reputation earned by earlier iterations, that today’s 3 Series doesn’t deserve the title world’s best sports sedan. Indeed, you can look to the C Class for design sophistication, the IS for luxury and reliability, the ATS for driving precision, the A4 for trendy hipness. Drive them all to see what blend of attributes – from prestige to price to performance — suits your premium-compact ideal. We say the 3 Series wears a target on its back. BMW knows it must reassert the values that made it great if the seventh generation is to win both big sales numbers and the wide respect of enthusiasts.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]