Even BMW probably didn’t anticipate just how radically the 3 Series would change its fortunes.

In the 44 years since the original ‘E21’ replaced the dainty 02 Series, more than 15 million Threes have been sold across seven model generations. Even in a global market increasingly populated by SUVs and crossovers, only the larger 5 Series accounted for more of BMW’s sales in 2018 – and by a mere 0.8% at that. Since its 1975 introduction, the 3 Series has not only become the Munich-based manufacturer’s meat and potatoes but also the benchmark by which all other contenders in the compact executive class are measured in so many ways.

Such immense, genre-defining success inevitably means the weight of expectation lays heavy on the new generation’s shoulders. Not only does this 3 Series have to be demonstrably better than its rivals, there must also be a qualitative dynamic improvement over the standards of its immediate predecessor – considered ‘soft’ by a great many BMW devotees.

This new ‘G20’ model certainly has its work cut out, then: when this magazine road tested the ‘F30’ 3 Series back in 2012, the result was a full five-star rating. It goes without saying that we don’t award such endorsements casually, but it was the F30’s class-leading blend of economy and performance, impressive handling and stylish, practical interior that saw it earn its stripes.

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So, does this new G20 model better its rivals in quite the same fashion? Our £36,515 320d M Sport’s rivals have never been more competitive. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is sharper to drive and more luxurious than it’s ever been; and a recently refreshed Jaguar XE has staked its claim to the title of standout driver’s car within the segment, after the Alfa Romeo Giulia shook things up a few years ago.

Price £38,205 Power 188bhp Torque 295lb ft 0-60mph 6.9sec 30-70mph in fourth 7.5sec Fuel economy 47.4mpg CO2 emissions 112g/km 70-0mph 46.2m

The BMW 3 Series range at a glance

Although it is likely to spread both upwards and downwards at a later date, BMW’s 3 Series range starts for the moment with 320i and 318d priced within a tenner of one another. Trim levels open up at SE and progress through Sport and M Sport strata, with BMW having elected to drop the Luxury trim level it offered previously. If you want to avoid run-flat tyres, meanwhile, you should either stick with a low-end SE or a high-end 330i or 330d M Sport with optional high-performance rubber.

Forthcoming is the 330e plug-in hybrid, which promises improved fuel economy with reduced carbon emissions. An estate-bodied 3 Series Touring has subsequently been revealed (and will also be available as a plug-in for the first time), while those demanding greater performance will have to turn to the M340i until 2020, when the range-topping M3 is expected to arrive.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW 3 Series

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