Car Comparison

2016 BMW 3 Series vs. 2016 BMW 5 Series: What's the Difference?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2015

If you're in the market for a luxurious new BMW, you might be trying to decide between the 3 Series and the 5 Series. It's an age-old question made even more difficult by the fact that the 3 Series and the 5 Series are both now large enough to comfortably transport four adults, taking away the 5 Series' former advantage. So should your next car be a 2016 BMW 3 Series or a 2016 BMW 5 Series? We're comparing all the key differences to help you make the best possible decision.

Exterior

Despite a near-identical corporate face and a design that's supposed to look relatively similar, the 3 Series and 5 Series are actually fairly easy to tell apart. The main reason is size: The 5 Series is both wider and longer than the 3 Series, and it looks it. But there are also some other key distinctive features, like the 3 Series' unique headlights (they form a point at the car's grille) and the 5 Series' larger overhangs.

If you're comparing 3 and 5 Series GT hatchbacks, the two cars are even easier to tell apart: In addition to obvious size differences, the 3 Series GT features a very obvious vent behind the front wheels that isn't present on 5 Series models.

Interior

The 3 Series and the 5 Series have more in common on the inside than on the outside. That's because the two sedans use largely the same cabin, right down to the center stack, dashboard design, steering wheel and gauge cluster. Admittedly, there are a few differences -- and certain versions of the 5 Series offer better cabin materials. But these two interiors are largely identical when it comes to styling. That isn't true, however, in terms of size, where the 5 Series boasts a larger trunk and a bigger cabin -- especially for rear-seat passengers -- than its 3 Series stablemate.

Mechanicals

Both the 3 Series and the 5 Series are offered with an impressive array of engine options. The base level 3 Series, dubbed the 320i, uses a 180-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. The next step up is a 240-hp version of the same engine, which powers the 328i and also the base-level 528i.

Drivers interested in more power can upgrade even further, to a 3.0-liter turbocharged 6-cylinder that's rated at 320 hp (in the 340i) and 300 hp (in the 535i). While it may seem unusual that the 3 Series offers more power than the 5 Series, the 5 Series offers another model: the brawny 550i, which uses a 445-hp turbocharged V8.

For shoppers interested in fuel economy, the 3 and 5 Series are both offered with diesel power in the form of a 180-hp 2.0-liter turbodiesel 4-cylinder in the 328d or a 255-hp 3.0-liter turbodiesel 6-cylinder in the 535d. Although the hybrid-powered ActiveHybrid 3 has been discontinued for 2016, the ActiveHybrid 5 -- and its 335-hp turbocharged hybrid 6-cylinder -- remains in the brand's lineup.

Finally, the 3 Series and 5 Series offer range-topping high-performance models. In the 3 Series, it's the M3, which touts an impressive 425-hp turbocharged 6-cylinder. More impressive is the M5, however, with a raucous 560-hp 4.4-liter turbocharged V8.

Features & Technology

BMW does a good job of offering a wide array of features throughout its entire model range, so that shoppers who want a smaller vehicle don't need to compromise on equipment. That's certainly true with the 3 Series and the 5 Series, which offer roughly the same level of features and technology.

For example: The multi-view camera you can get on the 5 Series is also offered in the 3 Series. And so are other advanced features, like an available 16-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, available LED headlights, a long list of safety features and even an automated parking system. While the 5 Series does hold a few advantages -- like an optional Night Vision system borrowed from the larger 7 Series -- these two models are largely similar when it comes to features and technology.

Driving Experience

On the road, both the 3 Series and the 5 Series feel stable, confident and sporty. Both models also feel highly luxurious, with low-effort steering, comfortable seats and excellent acceleration virtually without regard to engine choice.

The difference between the two models is in the details. The 5 Series feels heavier and bulkier than the 3 Series in the tightest corners, which makes sense due to its added heft. The 528i and 535i also feel a little more sluggish than their 3 Series counterparts under full acceleration. And we think the 5 Series offers a slightly more comfortable ride than the 3 Series, either due to its longer wheelbase or suspension tuning.

While you won't notice major driving experience differences between these two models, we suspect you'll spot a few if you really push it. Otherwise, we're impressed with both the ride quality and the sportiness of the 3 Series and the 5 Series.

Safety

Both the 3 Series and the 5 Series earned a perfect 5-star overall rating in crash tests carried out by the federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Interestingly, neither model qualified for a Top Safety Pick rating from the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety after earning a troubling Marginal score in the firm's challenging front small-overlap crash test.

As for safety features, both the 3 Series and the 5 Series offer roughly the same level of standard equipment, including side airbags, side-curtain airbags and anti-lock brakes. The two models also offer a long list of safety options, boasting items like forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, automatic braking, adaptive cruise control and multi-angle rearview cameras. The 5 Series' sole safety benefit over its 3 Series stablemate is the 5's Night Vision system, which offers additional visibility in the darkest driving situations.

Conclusions

The 2016 BMW 3 Series and 2016 BMW 5 Series offer a long list of similarities and only a few differences. Interior design is similar, as are the cars' equipment levels, powertrains, crash-test ratings and safety features. The two BMWs also offer similar driving experiences.

But there are some small differences between the 3 Series and the 5 Series that set the two cars apart. The most obvious is size, as the 5 Series offers more passenger and cargo room than the 3 Series. But the 3 and 5 Series also offer subtle differences in terms of styling, engine choices and driving experience that help separate the two models. If you're trying to decide between the two, we suggest taking a thorough test drive to see which one is right for you. Regardless of your choice, however, we suspect you won't be disappointed with either option.

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2016 BMW 3 Series vs. 2016 BMW 5 Series: What's the Difference? - Autotrader