BMW 3 Series (E90): best cars in the history of What Car?

We're looking for the best car in our 47-year history, and want you to name the winner. Today, consumer editor Claire Evans makes the case for the E90 BMW 3 Series...

BMW 3 Series E90

On sale 2004-2012 | Number sold 1,878,733 (worldwide)

There was no sign of middle-age spread when BMW celebrated the 30th birthday of the 3 Series with the arrival of the all-new E90 in 2004. 

The fifth incarnation of BMW’s small executive saloon was bigger than the previous E46 3 Series, but it wasn’t any heavier and that meant it was just as much of a joy to drive. Near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution gave it superb natural balance, and the combination of rear-wheel drive and direct, communicative steering endowed it with ballerina-like poise. 

e90 dash

The reason I believe the E90 3 Series is the greatest car in What Car? history, though, is that it moved the game on significantly in terms of its green credentials and refinement, yet remained the best saloon for keen drivers. And it’s the humble 2.0-litre diesel-engined 320d that achieved this (remember diesels were fine back then), not a straight-six-powered leviathan from the top of the model range. 

And I’m not alone in having this opinion; the 320d's superiority over its rivals was demonstrated in its first What Car? group test soon after it went on sale. It wiped the floor with the Audi A4 2.0 TDI, Jaguar X-Type 2.0D and Mercedes C-Class C220 CDI, with the review concluding that the new 3 Series was the best car in the test “by a mile” and that it made these rivals feel “utterly outdated”. 

BMW 3 Series E90

That it was crowned both Executive Car of the Year and overall COTY winner in 2006 demonstrates its superiority over models in other car classes, including the BMW 525i, Mazda MX-5 and Mercedes S500, as well as its direct rivals. When it came time for handing out the prizes, we cited how the quietness of the 320d made it the preferred choice for any journey. “An empty road, a city at rush hour, a long haul on the motorway – we’d take the BMW every time.”   

The accolades continued as the years rolled by. In fact, the E90 won the gong for Best Executive Car for every one of the eight years it was on sale. And in its final year, the diminutive 3 Series thrashed two executive titans, the BMW 520d and Jaguar XF, to retain the title. 

E90 dash

So why was the E90 head and shoulders above rivals? Because it set new standards for refinement and driving pleasure, and it’s not often that a car excels in both of these areas. It retained BMW’s all-important driver appeal; with 184bhp on tap, the 320d could sprint to 60mph in 8.7sec, and its combination of resolute grip, informative steering and stunning body control ensured it would remain surefooted – and immense fun – when hustled along a twisty B-road. 

However, engine and road noise were subdued most of the time and in top gear it could cruise almost silently at motorway speeds. The only fly in the ointment was the BMW’s run-flat tyres, which made its ride a bit harsher than its rivals. 

E90 facelift pan

There were other advantages, too. With CO2 emissions of below 120g/km and average fuel economy of 49.6mpg, the 320d was affordable to run for private and company car drivers alike. It was pretty practical, too, with plenty of space up front and more rear leg room than its predecessor, the E46. 

One final point is that the E90 was the first 3 Series to get BMW’s industry-leading iDrive infotainment system. With a rotary controller instead of traditional buttons, it used the same basic design philosophy that still gives the system the edge over rivals for ease of use. In fact, only recently, iDrive came out as our highest-rated infotainment system in a test of more than 20 different brands

e90 touring

So, in the year the 3 Series celebrates its 45th birthday, I think it’s fitting to vote for the giant-slaying E90. It was our executive car of the year eight times, beating larger models in some years, and it is the model that helped BMW lead the way in the executive class. 

Come back tomorrow to read about our next contender for the title of best car in the history of What Car?: the Audi A3

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Read about more contenders for the title of best car in the history of What Car? and find out how you can vote >>

Prefer something modern

Here we count down our top 10 new executive cars and name the ones to steer clear of. If any of them take your fancy, just click on the relevant link to find out more or see how much of a discount you could get by using What Car?'s New Car Buying service.

Mazda 6

The latest Mazda 6 offers strong but quiet diesel engines and plenty of room for passengers, plus Mazda's infotainment system is second only to BMW's for ease of use. Only the fact that the 6's low-speed ride is firm and the handling less precise than you might expect stops it finishing higher.

Read our full Mazda 6 review >>

9. Jaguar XE

Save money on a new Jaguar XE with What Car? >>

2019 Jaguar XE front

Taking on the German brands in the executive car market is a big task, but Jaguar has made a good go of it with its junior saloon, the XE. It's offered with a strong range of engines and rewards keen drivers with excellent steering and sharp handling. It's let down a little when it comes to interior quality, but a generous equipment list should entice company car drivers.

Read our full Jaguar XE review >>

8. Mercedes C-Class

Save money on a new Mercedes C-Class with What Car? >>

2019 Mercedes C-Class front

The C-Class is one of the big three when it comes to executive cars – the other two being the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, which feature further up this list. Merc's car does a lot well, too, combining strong and efficient engines with a smart interior and lots of toys. However, the ride is rather firm on standard suspension.

Read our full Mercedes C-Class review >>

Next: more of the best executive cars >>

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