The BMW 3 series is one of those benchmark cars against which others are always judged. Generation after generation has set the standard for other compact executive models. 

They often make handy tow cars as well. The 330d Touring won its weight class at the 2013 Tow Car Awards. So, the latest model has a lot to live up to. 

The popularity of the 3 Series is founded on driver appeal. The previous generation was great to drive, but to enjoy it at its best meant specifying the optional adaptive dampers. 

We’ve been driving the 318d on standard suspension and a 330d with adaptive M Sport suspension. It’s a refreshing change to report that the car on regular springs and dampers doesn’t feel like the poor relation. 

There’s a firm edge to the ride with the standard set up, but it stops well short of being harsh. As speeds rise you appreciate the car’s control and composure. 

The adaptive M Sport suspension (£2200 as part of the M Sport Plus package) lets the driver choose between Comfort and Sport. Select Comfort and the car rides with more finesse than the standard model. Switch to Sport and the design is, well – sporty – keeping roll to a minimum and without a hint of float over dips and crests. It’s a little too stiff for comfort on the daily commute, but on an empty B-road it makes the 3 Series very rewarding to drive. 

Feelsome steering adds to the fun. It’s direct, precise and well weighted. Perhaps there’s not as much feedback through the wheel as you get from a Jaguar XE, but it’s not far off. 

Not everyone will care too much about sports-car-like handling, but it’s not irrelevant to caravanners; cars with a composed and controlled ride tend to be stable while towing, so the signs are the new 3 Series will make a good tow car. 

Even the least powerful diesel, the 318d, should be powerful enough to tow a suitably matched caravan. With a kerbweight of 1530kg for the auto (the manual weighs 10kg less), the 318d has an 85% match figure of 1301kg. That’s well inside the legal maximum of 1600kg. The noseweight limit is 75kg. 

In previous 3 Series generations, the 318d has always been in the shadow of the 320d – generally thought of as the sweet spot of the range for performance, price and economy. While today’s 318d still gives away 40bhp to the 320d, it feels surprisingly lively. It has 236lb ft of muscle, and the brilliant eight-speed auto makes the most of every sinew. What’s more, the engine is impressively quiet, and there’s little wind noise. In fact, the 318d makes a very quiet motorway cruiser. 

The cabin is more hushed at speed than the 330d’s. Not only is the six-cylinder engine more vocal, bigger wheels and tyres generate more road noise, especially over coarse surfaces. It’s not a rowdy car by any means, but the 318d shows that less can be more when it comes to quiet and refinement. 

In performance terms, though, the 330d is in a completely different league. The six-cylinder diesel produces 262bhp and 428lb ft of torque, enough for a 0 – 62mph time of 5.5 seconds. Press the throttle to the floor and the 3 Series surges towards the horizon. 

For such a quick car, it’s relatively economical, with an official combined figure of 46.3 – 47.9mpg. That’s surprisingly close to the 318d auto’s 52.3 – 55.4mpg.

As you’d expect, the 330d adds some heft, to the benefit of car-to-caravan matching ratios. With a kerbweight of 1665kg, the 85% match figure is 1415kg.  The legal towing limit is 1800kg, and the maximum noseweight is 75kg. 

In dry weather, both the 318d and 330d put their power to the road well. But it’s worth noting that as well as the rear-wheel-drive models we’ve driven, xDrive 4×4 versions of the 320i petrol and the 320d and 330d diesels are available. 

Inside, BMW has upped the ante in terms of tech, build quality and space. The improvement in rear legroom is especially welcome, boosting the 3’s credentials as a family car. The boot has a 480-litre capacity, matching the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class saloons. For more luggage room, wait for the Touring (estate) version, which is available to order now for delivery in the autumn. 

The saloon’s prices start from £32,565 for the 320i SE petrol, and £32,575 for the 318d SE diesel. Go for the 330d M Sport and you’ll be asked to pay £41,565 before you go near the option list. In the case of our test car, more than £10,000 of extras had been added…

So it’s certainly not cheap, but where does the new 3 Series sit in the compact executive pecking order? Well, the Audi A4 rides more comfortably, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class is arguably more special inside, and the Jaguar XE is neck and neck with the BMW for driver appeal.  But as an all-rounder, the 3 Series is the car to beat. Much as it has been time and time again.