The BMW 3-Series, the benchmark for sport sedans, has fended off pretenders to its sporty throne time and again, but that’s not necessarily the case any more. Strong efforts by Audi, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and Infiniti have posed real competition. At the same time, BMW’s latest 3-Series has lost some of the driver engagement that has made it the flag-bearer for the brand’s “Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline.
The BMW was last updated for the 2012 model year, and its contender in this battle of sport sedans, the Infiniti Q50, was completely redesigned for the 2014 model year then received a major update for 2016. How do they compare? It’s closer than you might think.
MORE: Read our 2016 BMW 3-Series and 2017 Infiniti Q50 reviews
Styling is a match of tried-and-true BMW looks versus Infiniti’s striking creased surfaces. The 3-Series’ design hasn’t changed much from one generation to the next, but if it works, why change it? The lines are clean, classic, and elegant, with a sporty flair, on the sedan at least. BMW also offers a wagon and a hatchback called the GT that may not be as attractive, but they offer more utility.
Inside, the ambience is somewhat stark, and festooned with add-ons. Order the navigation system and you get the iDrive system with its center console control dial and a wide LCD screen that looks like an afterthought.
The Q50 is actually a half-size larger than the 3-Series. The sheet metal is simply striking. The creasing and sculpting on the sides is flowing and sensual, especially at the exaggerated intersection of curves and surfaces behind its rear doors.
The Q50’s interior is organized around a sweeping theme that cordons off the controls to the driver with an arc that runs down the center console and also delineates a dual-cockpit look. At the center of the dash is the most controversial element: the dual-screen InTouch infotainment system. It features capacitive-touch displays, with a handful of redundant hard keys, but some controls are handled on one screen and displayed on the other.
The BMW’s cabin is spacious for those in the front seat, and there’s plenty of room for cargo, but space in the rear seat is a bit tight. The Q50 benefits from comfortable front seats, more rear seat space than the class average, and a large trunk.
Driving pleasure is the main reason buyers choose luxury sport sedans, and while the Infiniti is a fine road car, it doesn’t offer the ultimate control of the BMW.
A 3-Series delivers balanced handling and dynamics regardless of body style, but rear-wheel-drive sedans have a slight edge. It may have gotten softer and more comfortable with this generation, but it’s still a capable back-road hustler that inspires confidence even at the limits of grip. And for those who want a track hero, BMW offers the 425-horsepower M3.
The Q50’s driving experience is more programmable. Infiniti’s “steer-by-wire” Direct Adaptive Steering offers nice heft and quick reactions in the Sport+ mode, but it lacks some of the feel of systems with a mechanical connection. The Q50 is a fun car to drive, but when pushed hard it won’t readily take a set in a corner and it becomes unstable under braking. Infiniti tops the lineup with the 400-horspower Red Sport 400. It’s a hot rod in a straight line, but it doesn’t have the hardware to be a track athlete.
Both cars use turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engines. The BMW has fours in 180- and 240-horsepower configurations in the 320i and 328i, respectively. The 340i features 3.0-liter inline-6 that produces 320 hp. While the base engine is under-powered in a premium car, the 328i feels stronger than its horsepower figure indicates and the 340i is a screamer.
Two green-oriented models are offered as well. The 328d delivers outstanding fuel efficiency with a turbodiesel inline-4 that makes 180 hp and a rip-snorting 280 pound-feet of torque. The 330e plug-in hybrid combines 248 horsepower with a 14-mile all-electric range and a 72 MPGe rating.
Infiniti’s has a 208 hp 2.0-liter four, and twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6s with either 300 or 400 horsepower. There is also a hybrid with a strong 360 horsepower and a fairly thrifty 30 mpg combined city/highway fuel economy figure.
BMW’s volume model, the 328i, is EPA rated at 27 mpg combined. The 320i gets 28 mpg, the 340i delivers 23 mpg, and the 328d sips fuel to the tune of 36 mpg.
While our ratings are equal, the Q50 is slightly less thrifty. The 2.0t is rated at 26 mpg combined, the 300-hp version of the V-6 gets 23 mpg and the 400-hp version is rated one mpg lower.
With incomplete safety ratings for the Infiniti, and a “Marginal” rating for the BMW from the IIHS in the small overlap frontal test, it’s hard to pick a winner in terms of safety. Both models are available with a wealth of active safety features, and we especially like Infiniti’s 360-degree camera system.
As entry luxury models, both cars are priced reasonably, at least in base form, starting around $34,000. Standard equipment is somewhat sparse in the entry-level 320i, though, and we doubt you’ll find many lightly optioned 3s on dealer lots. The base Q50 has a few more features, but both car’s top models approach $50,000 and exceed it with options.
Tallying up the scores, we give the BMW the nod for performance and feel the Infiniti is better looking. That makes this contest a draw, which is quite an accomplishment for the upstart Q50 against the sport sedan benchmark.
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