BMW’s sixth-generation 3-series will be available in no fewer than 24 different low-CO2 variants, with their availability from launch vital to the success of the new car. Paul Barker finds out more

Within a month of the new, sixth-generation 3-series going on-sale next February there will be 24 different variants on offer at below 120g/km across engine, trim and transmission options.

The 320d and 320d Efficient Dynamics models will be the most important, while in March the company is adding 316d and 318d models, all under 120g/km, in both manual and automatic forms (see table, below). Add in the various trim levels, and BMW claims 24 3-series different models on its price list at 120g/km or below, compared with five Audi A4 models and a single Mercedes C-class, although Audi has just announced revisions to the A4 that will increase the number of sub-120g/km engine options.

“Key from a customer perspective is that we will have the full line-up of engines from launch – that’s what means the most to them,” BMW fleet boss Steve Chater tells BusinessCar. He also highlights an automatic 320d ED model as important. “The 320d ED has been such a strong proposition in meeting customers’ needs, and this gives an extra opportunity,” he says.

The 3-series made the top six of the fleet registrations table in 2010, and the saloon model accounts for a fifth of BMW’s worldwide sales, with the UK the fourth biggest market behind the US, China and Germany.

Like the new 1-series launched recently, BMW has extended the trim levels on the 3-series. It still kicks off with ES and SE, but the range then splits with Sport and M-sport on one branch and Modern and Luxury on the other. Sport and Modern are both a £1000 step up from SE, and Luxury is £2500 above the SE trim, with M-sport yet to be priced for the UK.

Sport is expected to appeal to business drivers, according to Chater, while the Modern trim is designed to appeal to people currently driving a Mercedes or Lexus. “It’s not a classic BMW finish; some people will see it and think it’s not for them, and others will love it,” he explains. “You change elements and trimmings and appeal to a whole different target market.”

Chater denies there would be any confusion over the new trim levels: “It helps in setting RVs and simplifies the key RV-enhancing spec within the trims. There’s no challenge in the new trims – people get it straight away as we’ve still got ES, SE and M-sport. We’re adding models in between and it’s down to personal taste and which one you like or don’t.”

Kit is improved across the range, with all models now getting 17-inch alloys, Bluetooth, 6.5-inch screen, keyless go, cruise control and a USB audio interface. BMW claims the new ES has £1745 of standard equipment over its predecessor, and that’s without items such as the automatic boot opening and multimedia screen that weren’t available on the previous model. The SE trim offers more stylish 17-inch wheels, two-zone climate control rather than single, auto lights and wipers, auto-dimming mirrors and rear parking sensors.

The new model is 93mm longer, 6mm narrower and 9mm higher than its predecessor, and offers an extra 20 litres of luggage space. The increase in length makes a big difference to rear legroom in particular, with two taller adults now able to sit one behind the other, something not possible in the current 3-series.

Two other new innovations will be fitted to the 3-series in the UK for the first time in the form of four-wheel drive and hybrid models. The Xdrive 4×4 system will arrive next autumn, having been offered abroad in previous generations of the 3-series. There’s no confirmation yet of the CO2 and mpg penalty of the heavier system, how much it will cost or which engines it will be offered with, but an insider says it will be available with “the most popular engines”, rather than being limited to just the higher ones. “There is real demand for it,” says Chater. “It may be regionalised, so maybe higher uptake in Ireland or Scotland, but it enables us to go head-to-head with Audi.”

The hybrid, following on from the 5-series hybrid coming early in 2012, will also arrive next autumn. Using the 306hp 335i petrol engine, the hybrid system will run on electric-only for up to 2.5 miles, and is expected to have a fuel consumption figure of around 44.1mpg, around 12.5% up on the 335i it’s based upon. Boot space is cut by 90 litres to make room for the batteries, although the rear seats still fold flat.

But those models are still a way off, and will be minority players for the new 3-series. Key will again be the 320d ED that has recently accounted for up to half of 3-series saloon sales, and the extended range of sub-120g/km options. As Chater concludes: “With the new 3-series there’s no dynamic or performance compromise, we’ve great engines, brilliant whole-life costs, and the indications are very strong regarding the RV position of the car.”