Can the new BMW 3 Series reclaim its Best Mid-sized Sports Sedan crown from the Jaguar XE?
BMW and Jaguar have an impressive lineage when it comes to sporty executive cars.
In the compact/medium segment it was BMW and its 3 Series that, for decades, set the benchmark for the way a luxury four-door steered.
Yet with some slight faltering in more recent generations, the 3 Series allowed the 2015 Jaguar XE to step in and have its measure dynamically.
Not taking too kindly to that, BMW released its countermove in 2019 in the form of a new-generation 3 Series codenamed G20. With the serendipitous timing of an MY20 update for the XE, it gives us an intriguing rematch.
As part of the XE's update, Jaguar Australia has radically streamlined its smallest sedan to just two variants, powered by the same engine.
We have the highest-spec Jaguar XE P300 HSE R-Dynamic, which is priced from $71,940 and lines up closest with the second most affordable 3 Series, the $74,900 BMW 330i M Sport.
An updated Alfa Romeo Giulia that is due later this year may want to have a say, but for now is it England or Germany that builds the better luxury sedan for executives who want to get behind the wheel rather than, literally, taking a back seat?
Pricing and features
The BMW 3 Series range starts from $68,900 for a 320i model, a bit above the most affordable XE, the $65,670 SE.
BMW raised prices across its range in mid 2020 (with exchange rates blamed) and the 330i has jumped $3000 to $74,900 before on-road costs.
With on-road charges taken into account, the 330i adds up to $81,229 on the road, against $79,300 for the XE HSE using Sydney as a base, final figures may vary by state.
Both models come with a fairly comprehensive collection of convenience features and driver-assistance systems (the latter of which we’ll cover in more detail in Infotainment and Technology).
Delve into the spec details and the 330i offers some advantages over the XE HSE. It has tri-zone climate control that also gives rear passengers temperature control where the Jaguar is dual-zone only, adaptive suspension is standard where it’s a $1850 option on its rival, and the BMW also incorporates wireless charging, a head-up display and a 360-degree camera that cost extra on the XE.
Wireless charging for the XE is only $180; an HUD is $1300; and it’s a dollar per degree of view for the surround-view camera ($360).
If you want your XE to be more practical, you also need to pay $460 for split-folding rear seats that are standard on the BMW.
There are a few features in the Jaguar’s favour: the XE has electric steering wheel adjustment, tyre pressure monitoring and cabin ambient lighting (both available as an option on the BMW), and a 380-watt, 11-speaker Meridian audio. For just $800, that audio can be upgraded to an 825-watt, 17-speaker surround-sound system.
The 330i comes with a 205-watt ‘Hifi’ but can be switched to a 464-watt, 16-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound system for $846 (or $1100 with luxury car tax factored in).
Each car’s interior is upholstered in genuine leather, with a choice of colours. Trim details can also be tweaked. All front seats have electric adjustment.
A 330i buyer can opt for sportier-looking Alcantara/Sensatec seats (no cost) or have fancier ‘Merino’ leather for the seats as well as parts of the doors and dash. For no charge, the M Sport look can also be exchanged for a more restrained Luxury Line trim package.
The 330i is also available in a wagon body style, from $78,990.
Infotainment and technology
BMW and Jaguar equip their sedans with plenty of driver-aid kit, with tech including adaptive cruise control systems that work in stop-start traffic as well as high speed, blind-spot monitoring, auto high-beam, lane keep assist, parking assistance, and speed-limit monitoring.
A Driving Assistant Professional suite that is optional on the 320i is standard on the 330i. It includes the aforementioned active cruise plus front/rear cross-traffic warning and various steering-support systems that can nudge you gently back into your lane, control steering autonomously (for a very limited time), help you swerve around an unexpected hazard, and even try to steer the car away from a potential side impact.
The 330i also gains more advanced parking systems over lower-spec models, including a panorama view display to add to the surround view, plus a Reversing Assistant semi-autonomous function that will retrace the BMW’s forward movements in tight spaces in the opposite direction. The driver just controls the accelerator and brake pedals.
The XE provides lane-driving assistance, applying mild counter steering if it detects you drifting out of your freeway lane or into the path of an overtaking vehicle.
As an option there’s Jaguar-Land Rover’s Clearsight rear-view mirror, which gives the driver the ability to switch from the regular mirror to a video feed – provided by a camera integrated into the roof’s sharkfin antenna – to help vision in case rear passengers are blocking the view or the rear window isn’t clear for some reason.
High-tech headlights are optional on both cars – laser lighting for the BMW and ‘matrix’ LEDs for the Jaguar.
A pair of 10-inch high-definition displays is a key change for the XE’s updated interior. First seen in the i-Pace electric car, the Touch Pro Duo system lifts the British sedan’s infotainment game while giving a more contemporary look to its climate controls.
The upper touchscreen is responsive, well presented, and provides plenty of digital shortcut buttons.
It can’t match the overall slickness or intuitiveness of BMW’s iDrive 7.0, though, which stakes a claim for the segment benchmark. Controlling the menu system can be done via either touch or centre console controller, or even voice for some functions.
Each system includes app set-ups, digital radio, 4G networking, navigation, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.
Wireless charging should be standard on the Jag, however. And while the BMW’s no-name audio looks under-specced next to the Jaguar’s Meridian system, there’s still a fine sound quality – allowing the volume to be cranked up without distortion.
It’s not a completely one-sided digital-display contest, because Jaguar’s 12.3-inch instrument panel offers greater customisation than BMW’s surprisingly limited, same-size ‘Live Cockpit Professional’.
The XE driver can choose from a selection of layouts, which include focusing on a singular, central rev counter (with digital speedo neatly positioned in the middle of it) with varied info displayed either side, or traditional dual ‘dials’ with a central section displaying either an enlarged navigation map, trip computer details, media selections, or driver-aid information.
There’s little scope to change the BMW’s layout, and that includes being forced to stick with the anti-clockwise rev-counter graph that seems out of step with the company’s ‘ultimate driving’ mantra.
The climate controls in the BMW are more straightforward to use, where the Jaguar’s require a bit of fiddling to choose between changing temperature, fan speed and seat ventilation.
Jaguar’s MY20 update has improved the XE’s interior quality through revised trim and all-new door cards, and it’s a cabin that compares well with the inside of an Alfa Romeo Giulia or (ageing) Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
There are plenty of soft touch-points; the overall solidity and tactility just isn’t quite a match for what’s found in this 3 Series – or an Audi A4.
A tangible sense of quality in the BMW comes from details such as the knurled metal used for the central vents’ thumb scrollers, iDrive controller and volume/on-off button, and the textured metallic finish used on the centre console and dash that feels cold to the touch.
Ambient lighting strips on the doors and dash add to the, well, ambience, but just require an additional outlay of $700.
The 3 Series feels a bit roomier up front, too, while electric side bolsters make it easy for occupants to switch from more relaxed comfort to more intensive body support, or vice versa.
Both cars cater well for the storage of smartphones, coffees and other small oddments, and cupholders can be hidden beneath sliding lids so the centre consoles can look smarter/tidier.
The BMW has particularly good door pockets, which include a deep, integrated bottle holder and a section for items such as a sunglasses case.
A mid-life update isn’t going to change a vehicle’s packaging without prohibitively expensive re-engineering, so the XE remains tighter in the rear seat than ideal for a luxury sedan.
Legroom is fine only if a 5ft 9in person is sitting behind someone of similar height, toes are squeezed a bit under the front seats, forward vision isn’t great, and with limited light it’s not a place for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.
The bench is a bit flat, too, and the middle centre seat is ruled out for adults with its high transmission hump and bulky rear section of the centre console.
There’s also a high transmission tunnel in the 330i, though in terms of width there’s more chance of squeezing three adults across the back.
Adults in the outboard seats will certainly be comfortable, with plenty of headroom (even with the optional sunroof fitted), lots of legroom, a much better view through the windscreen, and cushioning that is more comfortable and supportive.
Rear passengers are also treated to their own temperature control, two USB ports, seatback net pouches, and door pockets that can take 1.5-litre bottles.
Rear-door access offers good width and there’s a rewarding sound to the way the doors shut.
Open the boot lids and the 330i has the wider boot aperture that’s backed up by a more luggage-friendly load area.
The Jaguar’s boot is narrower and, at 410 litres in capacity, is 70 litres down on the BMW. (A 330i wagon’s boot is only slightly bigger again, at 500 litres.)
The 330i’s rear seatbacks are a 40-20-40 configuration, which allows a middle section to be folded to store longer items even when passengers are in the outer rear seats.
Our XE test car had the same set-up, albeit as a fitted option. A minor point: the BMW’s seatback release levers look more premium than the Jaguar’s pinball-machine-style release pulls.
Under the bonnets of both luxury sports sedans, you’ll find the industry-ubiquitous 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder format.
And here we have two fine examples of the breed.
Jaguar cut 12 variants from its XE line-up in 2019, and while Australia lost a V6 option the company did keep its most powerful four-cylinder, badged P300.
In the lower SE spec, the 221kW/400Nm engine gives the XE a performance advantage over direct price rivals such as the 320i.
There’s more parity with the 330i, which produces the same torque, if less power at 190kW.
BMW quotes 5.8 seconds for the 0-100km/h benchmark acceleration run – a tenth ahead of the XE.
By the seat of the pants, there’s as little between the duo for performance as these figures suggest.
Both engines can provide smooth, relaxed motoring to fit the luxury side of the equation, and then get punchy for sportier driving.
For further symmetry, a ZF eight-speed auto sends power to the rear wheels in each case.
The BMW’s version is the sharper operator for quicker driving, where the 330i’s Sport+ mode excels at decisive downshifts for corners to the point that even a keen driver could choose to ignore the paddleshift levers.
In the XE, it’s best to use the paddles to maintain momentum on windier roads. When the engines are being worked hard, the BMW’s four-cylinder is better at maintaining its refinement.
There was a relatively big difference for the BMW and Jaguar’s respective fuel consumption.
At the end of a long test drive that incorporated suburban roads, country roads and a fair amount of freeway, the XE HSE registered 9.3 litres per 100km on its trip computer compared with 7.2L/100km for the 330i.
The figures are consistent with previous tests, where we’ve registered as low as 6.1L/100km for the 330i and 9.0L/100km for the SE version of the XE. Officially BMW claims 6.4L/100km to Jaguar's 6.7L100km.
The latest 3 Series sits on BMW’s rear-drive CLAR (cluster architecture) platform shared with more expensive models rather than the front-drive-based UKL platform used by the 1 Series hatch and 2 Series Gran Coupe. And it helps turns back the clock for BMW’s signature model.
Stiffer yet lighter than before, the new 330i showcases a divine balance through corners, its front and rear axles working in total harmony. The steering is more precise and more consistently weighted than in recent 3s … or those aforementioned 1 and 2 Series models.
And while you can’t lower the roof (at least until the new 4 Series Convertible arrives), it’s a more engaging drive than the company’s own sports car, the Z4 roadster.
Sport and Sport+ modes – selected via centre console buttons – stiffen the dampers, though for country roads the 330i’s Comfort mode is the pick, bringing some extra compliance while still feeling encouragingly planted.
Our 330i test car was equipped with an optional electronically controlled M Sport Differential ($2400), designed to enhance traction as well as proactively skewing more torque towards the outer rear wheel to help push the BMW around corners.
If there’s a criticism of the driving modes, it’s that the BMW’s Comfort setting could be a touch softer – sacrificing some of that impressively determined body control for greater suppleness at lower speeds when the owner’s focus is on getting to work or the shops rather than getting to the engine’s redline. Run-flat tyres contribute to the firmness, though.
This is where the Jaguar XE plays a trump card, because the Brit offers the better, more absorptive suspension around town (if not quite as wonderfully comfortable as the XE SE on smaller, 18-inch wheels).
Both cars have 19-inch wheels wrapped in 225/40 rubber up front and 255/35 rubber up back – the BMW’s tyres Bridgestone Turanzas, the Jaguar’s Pirelli P Zeros.
Although the 330i’s ride is far from plush around town and occasionally busy, it crucially avoids becoming brittle or crashy. Our testers’ view is that it’s an acceptable trade-off for the rewards that come on the open road.
Both cars make for excellent freeway cruisers, though on country roads the XE can’t quite match the 330i’s superb ride/handling balance – the Jaguar sometimes treading a fine line between floatiness and suppleness, and allowing smaller intrusions to vibrate the driver’s seat.
The XE’s steering remains a highlight, however. While some extra heft wouldn’t go amiss for more enthusiastic driving, there’s unerring accuracy and its lightness can be appreciated on urban roads.
If negotiating corners is as enjoyable to you as negotiating deals, a visit to a BMW or Jaguar showroom should be a priority.
And pick the 330i rather than an X3, or the XE rather than an E-Pace or F-Pace. As good as all those SUVs handle for their high-riding body style, none can match the sedans for a level of involvement that goes beyond their lower, sportier driving positions.
XE choices may be extremely limited but at least the SE and HSE are strong options. The XE drives just as you might expect a Jaguar sedan to drive, with a broadly talented chassis and a competitive drivetrain. It’s one of Jaguar’s most affordable models yet also one of its best.
Ever since the E46 series that expired in 2006, it’s been easier to pick holes in successive 3 Series generations. For the G20, it’s a case of minor quibbles, rather than major flaws.
Now with a roomier and richer interior, more advanced technology, and reinvigorated dynamics, the 3 Series is back to the fore. And at this particular price point, the 330i is currently a luxury sports sedan without equal.