The BMW 3-series outsells the Ford Mondeo in the UK, yet it’s perceived as being far more exclusive. That’s the power of marketing for you. Not that this really matters, because if a car maker was to create the perfect model range from scratch, the chances are they’d come up with something more like the BMW than the big Ford. Beautifully built and superb to drive, the 3-series comes in almost any body style you could want, with a range of brilliant engines and with pretty much any piece of kit you can think of.
BMW launched the fifth-generation 3-series in January 2005. Codenamed the E90, initially it came in saloon form only but by September there was a Touring (estate) model, too. A year after this we got a coupé, then six months later a coupé-cabriolet arrived. Most body styles are available with a range of four and six-cylinder engines (both petrol and diesel), and thanks to BMW’s talented men in white coats, even the smaller units are smooth, punchy and economical.
While the four-pot units are desirable, the six-cylinder lumps are truly special. There are 325i, 325d, 330i, 330d, 335i and 335d units, the latter two featuring a pair of turbochargers for relentless acceleration with complete tractability throughout the rev range. Whichever edition you opt for, check what options are fitted. Buyers could spend thousands on extra goodies and the value of these isn’t always fully taken into account at resale time. As a result, you could get a lot more for your money by checking out the kit list. Be wary of M Sport cars, by the way; their firmer suspension can be uncomfortably hard when mixed with the run-flat tyres.
Nothing comes close to the 3-series as an all-round package but the Mercedes C-class can match it for prestige and build quality, while it’s fitted with some great engines and comes in a choice of saloon or estate body styles. The Audi A4 is another contender with its brilliant cabin and efficient drivetrains, plus most engines come with a quattro four-wheel drive option, too. Offered in saloon or estate forms, the A4 can match the 3-series in most respects but it’s not as involving to drive owing to its front-drive, rather than rear-drive, chassis.
You’ve probably spotted that we rather like the 3-series, but not as much as most owners. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a really unhappy 3-series owner; it’s no wonder so many are on their second, third or fourth example. If you’re tempted to join their ranks we’d recommend you go for a post-September 2007 car as these have more power, lower emissions or even a completely new engine. Even better, if you can run to a post-September 2008 car, with Efficient Dynamics technologies as standard, it’ll be a long time before you feel the need to upgrade.
What to look out for when buying a used BMW 3-series E90
Despite impressive build quality, glitches do crop up including the tyre pressure monitoring packing in and the run-flat tyres wearing unevenly. On that note, all these cars have run-flat tyres as standard, which means a firm ride (and no spare wheel). Other problems to look for include a leaky power steering system, flat spots on Efficient Dynamics models and the possible failure of the 320d’s turbocharger, evident by a smoky exhaust under acceleration. Finally, if a towbar is fitted, check the electrics all work properly; the BMW’s multiplex wiring is easily upset by bodged auto electricians.
Five recalls isn’t a disaster. Issued between 2006 and 2012, they covered potential problems ranging from failure of the power steering and airbag glitches to the brake servo failing and the rear or side windows falling out.
The one to buy
BMW 330d SE Touring auto
- 2993cc, 6 cylinders
- 241bhp @ 4000rpm
- 384 lb ft @ 1750rpm
- 6-speed auto
- 0-62mph in 6.2sec
- Top speed:
- 47.9mpg (combined)
- Road tax band:
- L 4625mm, W 1810mm, H 1430mm
BMW 3-series rivals
- Audi A4 (click to check used car prices on driving.co.uk)
- Mercedes C-class (click to check used car prices on driving.co.uk)
- Honda Accord (click to check used car prices on driving.co.uk)