The BMW 3 Series isn't the benchmark it once was. The sedan has grown bulkier and less edgy in its old age, missing the chops that once made it the gold standard. But at least the current generation feels like a step in the right direction. This latest 3 Series is more stylish, improved in the tech department, and by all accounts, better to drive than the generation before it.
As is the case with any former benchmark, the BMW 3 Series lives under constant scrutiny. Everybody is out to get it, in one way or another. And now there's a new battery-powered predator that looks to steal the crown from the former front-runner: the Tesla Model 3.
While not a traditional gas-powered rival to the BMW 3 Series, a la Mercedes-Benz, Audi, or Lexus, the electric Model 3 and the gas-powered BMW actually share a ton in common. Both produce about the same amount of power, have similar dimensions, boast impressive safety equipment, and depending on how you spec them, cost about the same.
On their own, these two cars are great. But how do they stack up comparatively for the savvy cross-shopper who is willing to cross the gas-electric divide? We’re testing the BMW 330i with the M Sport package and the Standard Range Tesla Model 3 side-by-side to find out.
BMW: BMW went for evolution rather than revolution when designing the current 3 Series. A lot of outgoing design elements seemingly carry over – especially on the front fascia. The laser headlights (new for 2019), lower grille, and hood of the current 3 Series look like updates to the prior model’s features rather than those of a totally redesigned vehicle. The backend, however, with its smoked lighting elements and ducktail spoiler, is better evolved. Although, keen enthusiasts will be able to point out similarities to the current Lexus IS.
Honestly, the BMW 3 Series won't wow you with its styling, but in general, it looks good. The short front and rear overhangs, sharp beltline, and svelte profile give the BMW a premium presence. With the optional M accessories package (as tested), including the 19-inch wheels, lowered ride height, and dark accents, the 330i is a subtle-looking sports sedan.
Tesla: The Tesla Model 3's styling is the less successful of the two. Considering the Model 3 has virtually the same dimensions as the BMW, it’s surprising how stubby the Tesla looks in comparison. Blame the Tesla's massive greenhouse due to its lack of a gas engine. Both the Model 3 and 3 Series stand identically tall at 56.8 inches, but the Tesla's lower beltline and larger glass area makes it look frumpier next to the svelte 330i.
The Model 3 also wears the same “surgical mask” front fascia borrowed from its siblings, the Model S and Model X. We understand that no gas engine means no real need for cooling, but other EVs sometimes use a faux grille or styling features to help offset the abundance of sheet metal. The Tesla Model 3 doesn't, and the bulging nose and arching crease line look off-putting in comparison.
The rear is probably the Model 3's most attractive angle. The LED taillights are cleanly styled, and merge neatly into the trunk lid. The tiny lip spoiler, meanwhile, helps reduce some of the car’s inherent stubbiness, and the aero wheel caps give it an aerodynamic look (even if our tester spent most of its time with the base alloys exposed). Still, the BMW gets the nod in this category.
BMW: The BMW 3 Series’ of recent memory haven’t had great interiors, especially when comparing it to more upscale, current alternatives like the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4. And that's still true of this model. While the 3 Series uses some nicer seat material (the $1,450 Cognac Vernasca leather, in particular), the rest of the cabin feels less inspired.
Faux black leather and soft-touch plastic covers a lot of the dash and door panels, which aren’t as good as the real thing. The Aluminum Tetragon trim (a sort of silver, patterned metal) accenting the dash doesn't make it feel more premium, either. And none of it feels entirely cohesive; the mishmash of materials and patterns feel unorganized and ill-conceived.
Tesla: As part of Tesla's green push (and likely to keep costs down), the Model 3 doesn't have any leather trim in its cabin. It uses a faux vegan leather instead. But this is a much nicer place to sit than the cabin of the BMW even without real cowhide. The faux black leather feels upscale, and the simple use of it atop the dash – mixed with light wood and some aluminum trim – gives the Model 3's interior a clean, cohesive feel.
The lone 15-inch center screen, with no buttons to distract from it, looks a bit tacked on to the dash, though. And the piano black plastic-covered cubbies between the screen and the center armrest are highly prone to attracting fingerprints, not to mention finicky to open and shut. But, the Model 3’s interior still makes better use of materials and generally looks and feels higher-end than the BMW’s .
BMW: The outgoing 3 Series is but a slight blemish to the sports sedan's otherwise spotless resume. But take solace in the fact that BMW somewhat righted the ship with its successor. This 330i – with an M Sport differential, larger brakes, and variable-ratio steering rack – does the model's long and impressive lineage justice by returning it, in part, to its sports sedan roots.
This 3 Series is agile. The M-tuned suspension, which drops the ride height by 0.4 inches, and 20-percent stiffer spring rates improve the car's lateral responses while contributing to a stiffer ride. The BMW is extremely tidy in corners, its accurate steering yields an impressively quick turn-in, and a near-perfect weight distribution provides excellent balance. The BMW 330i’s dynamics might not yet be back atop the segment, but it's still very satisfying to toss around.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine isn’t hugely powerful. That's not to say the engine isn't good, but its 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque don't feel like enough off the line, especially in Normal mode. At least the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and there's plenty of grip from the tires, but this BMW won't wow you in a straight line.
Pop it into Sport mode and everything improves a bit. There's better low-end throttle responsiveness and the steering tightens. On paper, the 330i sprints to 60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds, and based on the seat of our pants that figure sounds about right.
Tesla: The Model 3's straight-line speed is staggering. Mash the right pedal in the Standard drive mode and all 307 pound-feet of torque from the rear-mounted electric motor punches you in the chest. You won't feel as many G forces in the BMW, nor find as much torque (max twist in the 3 Series is 295 lb-ft). The Tesla's instantaneous torque from the electric motor makes it hella fun in the city: it quickly zips around slower cars.
Technically speaking, the Standard Range, rear-wheel-drive Model 3 and the 330i M Sport have similar specs. Both produce about 255 horsepower (the Tesla pumps out 258), but the Model 3 bests the BMW to 60 mph. It takes the Model 3 just 5.3 seconds to get there – 0.3 seconds quicker than the BMW. Based on our butt test, the Tesla feels much quicker because it offers 100 percent of its torque off the line, and more satisfying off the line. Upgrading to the Long Range or Performance models beats the base Bimmer even more brutally, putting it in closer competition to BMW’s like the M340i. Factoring in price (later in the story) helps the Tesla here.
But straight lines can only be so satisfying and the 3 Series buries the Tesla on anything more than a slight curve. The Tesla may have a low center of gravity thanks to its floor-mounted batteries, but its spongy suspension and low-impact, limited-grip Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires (same as the Toyota Prius) make it unruly in faster turns. The rear feels like it wants to give up when pushed, and the high-riding body wafts like an old-timey ship on stormy seas.
The BMW 330i is more satisfying to drive, so it gets our nod here.
BMW: The BMW iDrive infotainment setup in the 3 Series is eye-catching. The central10.3-inch touchscreen forms seamlessly into the dash, and the massive 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster directly behind the steering wheel cleanly integrates digital displays for the speedometer and tachometer, as well as functions like driver-assist features, radio settings, and traffic-sign recognition.
The usability of the central 10.3-inch screen itself is great, with impressive touch responsiveness and smartphone-like speed. Additionally, the graphics are insanely sharp and the backup camera readout is one of the clearest we've ever tested. It even projects a flawless picture in heavy rain given its positioning under the trunklid, where other less-advanced systems typically tap out.
But the over-abundance of settings, options, and menu screens makes the system feel extremely cluttered in comparison to Tesla's flatter, more streamlined setup. The iDrive dial, Gesture Control, and “Hey, BMW” voice command features give users options without the mess of digging through multiple screens, but all are imperfect. And though we've praised wireless Apple CarPlay in the past, multiple connectivity issues with it throughout the week leave a sour taste. At a certain point, we gave up trying to connect to CarPlay entirely.
Tesla: The massive 15.0-inch touchscreen in the Tesla Model 3 isn't as visually appealing as BMW's 10.3-inch setup (in fact, we wish it had the better integrated 17-inch unit from the Model S and Model X). It looks like an oversized monitor hastily tacked onto the dash.
The screen's gaudiness isn't its only offense, either. Outside of obvious tactile elements like window and headlight controls, there are only two real buttons anywhere in the cabin, both located on the steering wheel. Functions like turning on the headlights and windshield wipers are automatic, and adjusting the steering wheel and side mirror controls require digging through the massive central screen. Of course, like in many vehicles, the driver profile keeps these settings consistent to the driver once set.
Tesla does usable infotainment home screens better than anyone, though. Big, bold icons make everything easy to find, the navigation system is clean and flawless, and the screen’s touch responsiveness is better than any BMW’s we've tested. And let's be real – you should adjust things like the steering wheel and side mirrors before you set off anyhow.
BMW: BMW has a fantastic suite of driver-assistance features. The standard Active Driving Assistant includes lane-departure warning, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, and low-speed automatic braking, works well on its own. But it's the $1,200 “Professional” version of the same package you want, which adds rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go.
We're still a far cry from cars driving themselves without supervision, but the 330i's optional driver assist features do a good job of bridging the gap. BMW's systems tackle high-traffic situations with competence – there’s very little ping-ponging from one side of the lane to the other; calm, controlled braking; and a generous amount of hands-off-the-wheel time before the car scolds its left-seat occupant with various warning messages. Our feet barely touch the pedals, and only occasionally do we tug at the steering wheel to let the car know we're still there.
Like most active safety systems, though, this one isn't great in the city. BMW says soon its adaptive cruise control will be able to read traffic lights and act accordingly, something we tested briefly in Germany with impressive results. For now, there's still room for improvement.
Tesla: BMW makes a valiant effort with its active safety suite, but Tesla's hardware is by and large the better option. AutoPilot (an advanced version of lane centering with adaptive cruise control and stop-and-go technology) makes up huge ground in the race to autonomy and the system comes standard on the Model 3, whereas similar equipment costs extra on the 3 Series. AutoPilot delivers smoother inputs on the highway, keeps the Model 3 more centered in its lane, and even automatically changes lanes at the flick of the indicator – something the BMW can't do.
But it isn't perfect, The Model 3 has a hard time automatically changing lanes, either braking too suddenly or accelerating too aggressively to overtake slower-moving traffic. In our experience, the driver assistance features also get easily confused at on- and off-ramps and interchanges. Still, it's better than what the BMW 3 Series offers.
Autopilot, however, truly stands out in city driving. For one, it works in such an environment. BMW's system (as do many others) simply throws its hands up in distress, not able to read lanes or adjust quickly enough to city traffic. The lane-keep system isn't as precise – Miami's shoddy infrastructure probably has something to do with it – but Autopilot impresses us both on the highway and in the suburbs.
BMW: The $40,750 330i is the cheapest way to get into a new BMW 3 Series. Comparatively, only the C-Class has a higher entry cost. That $40K affords you the same turbocharged inline-four with 255 horsepower sent to the rear wheels. Opting for BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive adds $2,000 to the bill.
Our tester – a rear-wheel-drive 330i sedan – asks $59,270 after options and a $995 destination charge. The most expensive add-on is the $5,000 M Sport package, which includes an M Sport suspension, variable sport steering, and an aerodynamic kit, among other things. That's followed by the $2,800 Premium package (heated steering wheel, head-up display, advanced infotainment setup), the $2,450 Track Handling package (larger brakes and a limited-slip differential), and the $2,100 Executive package (Laserlight headlights, parking assist, gesture control). Not to mention the bevy of other overpriced, non-packaged options.
The Cognac Vernasca leather costs $1,450, while the Harmon Kardon surround sound system is another $875 and the adaptive M dampers (which isn't part of the Handling package, oddly) is another $700. If you want the Portimao Blue metallic paint common on the 3 Series, it'll cost you $550. Our 330i tester tops out at nearly $60,000. Ouch.
Tesla: The base Standard Range Plus Model 3 costs $38,990 to start, which makes it $1,760 more affordable than the base BMW 330i. Don’t be fooled by Tesla’s “potential savings” price listed on the website, though. Make sure you’re looking at the Purchase Price instead. Thankfully, Tesla takes a more streamlined approach with its options.
The lone option on our Model 3 tester is its $750 Solid Black paint. That’s it. We didn’t opt for the 19-inch Sport wheels ($1,500), the fancier Deep Blue ($1,000) or red ($2,000) paint jobs, nor the black and white interior ($1,000). But even without the BMW’s $20,000 worth of add-ons, the Model 3 feels as well or even better equipped than the BMW.
Autopilot comes standard, whereas BMW’s less-impressive Driver Assistance Pro package is a $1,700 option. Heated seats are stock, too, whereas the 3 Series either buries them in the $2,800 Premium package, or offers them separately as a $500 add-on. The only option we miss on the Model 3 is Apple CarPlay; Tesla doesn’t offer it at all, nor even satellite radio (though Spotify was added in the car’s most recent update). But our tester’s final $39,740 asking price feels like a bargain in comparison.
Both of these cars are very good. BMW is finally taking steps in the right direction in revamping the iconic 3 Series to – almost – its former glory, while Tesla enters the market with an impressive package out of the gate.
While the BMW is by far the better driver’s car of the two, and slightly better looking in comparison to the Model 3’s egg-like styling, the Tesla has more redeeming qualities. The Tesla has a nicer interior, better tech, and superior safety equipment by way of AutoPilot. Not to mention it comes with virtually all of those features as standard equipment, where BMW charges an arm and a leg for any sort of equivalent.
Given their dramatic powertrain differences, you might think it’s difficult to compare the two. But the BMW 3 Series and Tesla Model 3 share more in common than you might think – size, performance, and safety features most notably. But in the end, while the BMW has four decades of history behind it, Tesla and the superb Model 3 are designed more with the modern buyer in mind. And that gives it the edge.
Winner: Tesla Model 3
|2019 BMW 330i||2019 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range|
|Engine:||Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4||Single Permanent Magnet Electric Motor|
|Output:||255 Horsepower / 295 Pound-Feet||258 Horsepower / 307 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||8-Speed Automatic||Single-Speed Automatic|
|Drive Type:||Rear-Wheel Drive||Rear-Wheel Drive|
|0-60:||5.6 Seconds||5.3 Seconds|
|Top Speed:||130 MPH||130 MPH|
|Fuel Economy:||26 City / 36 Highway / 30 Combined MPG||138 City / 124 Highway / 131 Combined MPGe|
|EV Range:||N/A||250 Miles|
|Cargo Volume:||17 cu ft||15 cu ft|