The improved BMW 320d shows the rest the way home. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The BMW 320d demonstrates the discreet genius in building a modern compact executive car. This improved sixth-generation of the astonishingly successful 3 Series offers low emissions and almost unfeasible fuel economy. The opposition had closed the gap on the 3 Series in recent years. The 320d shows how far it has widened again.
BMW is a company that knows how to perform under pressure. Dropping a clanger with a clean-sheet design 3 Series would bring it to its knees. If the Three didn't prove manifestly superior to the Audi A4 or the Mercedes C-Class, it would be a major shock. This product line is the bedrock of BMW's profitability and after five consecutive generations of success, it would almost be understandable were there to be a little wobble. Apologies for killing any semblance of suspense right at the start but it hasn't happened. If anything the latest 3 Series has levered asunder the distance between itself and the chasing pack still further and no model better exemplifies this than the 320d saloon. This is after all, the car that most 3 Series buyers will make a beeline for and no other car in the range offers a sweeter compromise between economy, performance and affordability. The most important car BMW makes shows how well the Munich company finds another gear when required.
There are no huge surprises under the bonnet as the twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel engine has been continued from the E90 3 Series but has been tweaked for better economy and efficiency. The two-litre 190bhp unit still sounds the same at idle and you'll need to carry a few more revs than you'd at first expect to get the car up on its toes. 62mph from rest takes 7.3s and as the needle approaches 2,000rpm, the 320d feels genuinely brisk, but the power band is fairly narrow and it's done its best work by 3,000rpm. It never gets harsh and thrashy at any point in this midrange, and the manual gearbox is slick and wristy so changing gears to keep it on the boil is no great hardship. Most cars will see the majority of their miles plugged into sixth gear on a motorway, for which it's perfectly happy, with the engine nudging around 2,000rpm at typical British motorway cruising speeds. It's worth noting at this point that there's also a 163bhp 320d EfficientDynamics Plus model, which is quite different, with lower power and an eco focus. The driving position is excellent and it's good to see car manufacturers starting to get windscreen pillar widths under control again. The 320d gets the Drive Performance Control function as standard, allowing the driver to switch between up to four driving modes, varying from sporty to extremely economical. The four modes are ECO PRO, Comfort, Sport, and Sport + (Sport + is included only on Sport models or with selected optional equipment). Straight away you notice how well the car rides, even on run-flat tyres, although I will add the caveat that the demonstrator car I drove was fitted with the optional BMW M Suspension pack. I'd need to try a standard car on passive dampers to report on how the cooking 320d will feel. Nevertheless, even when hustled along in Comfort mode it resists flat and wallow admirably. The steering feels slick and accurate, but not laden with detailed surface feedback. You'll emerge from the 320d full of admiration at how BMW's chassis engineers have managed the compromise between ride and handling. In other words, the bar's just been raised.
Design and Build
One thing that hasn't changed all that much is BMW's low-key approach to mid-life styling updates. Blink and you'll miss them. Stand looking at the car for fifteen minutes and you might still miss them. The key design theme seems to be to make the car look wider and lower than before, so BMW has revised the front and rear bumper assemblies with broader horizontal elements. The headlights have also been tinkered with, LED indicators now acting as eyebrows across the top of the light units. At the rear, the tail lamps are full-LED units with more heavily curved light bars. There is also a revised range of wheels, with rims up to 19 inches in diameter available as an option - and 20-inch wheels can be selected from the BMW accessories range. The cabins have had a similarly light touch applied to them, with a splash of chrome here and a high-gloss surface there. Other updates include cup holders in the centre console with a sliding cover and an additional practical storage area for items such as a smartphone, positioned forward of the cup holders. There's a respectable amount of rear legroom for what remains a manageably-sized car. The saloon's luggage bay still measures 480-litres - or there's the Touring estate version with 495-litres.
Market and Model
This improved 3 Series range certainly boasts premium pricing. Or at least it does in 320d guise where the figures start at around 30,000 for the saloon version, with a premium of around £1,500 for the Touring estate version. There's a choice of SE, Sport, Luxury or M Sport trim designations and all can be ordered in either rear wheel drive or 'xDrive' 4WD guises. All of the standard models get a 190bhp version of the 2.0-litre diesel engine, but if you opt for the super-frugal 'EfficientDynamics Plus' model (prices from around £30,500), then you get this unit in 163bhp form. There's plenty of kit offered, even in SE trim. You'll find automatic air-conditioning, Bluetooth, satellite navigation, a BMW Professional radio with 6.5-inch colour screen and iDrive, keyless starting, USB, a multi-function leather steering wheel, cruise control and automatic boot opening.
Cost of Ownership
The 320d is a vehicle that's carved out a reputation as one of the most affordable ways to put a BMW on your drive. The latest car looks a very strong contender with ultra-competitive economy and emissions figures right across the board. Any vehicle that can accelerate to 62mph in 7.3 seconds and still return 67.3mpg on the combined cycle and 111g/km has to be taken seriously, particularly given this car's wonderfully usable real world overtaking ability. The real standout efficiency performer in the range at present, though, is the 320d Efficient Dynamics Plus variant, which manages to wring 72.4 miles from a gallon of diesel on the combined cycle and emits a mere 102g/km. That's about what Peugeot's diesel electric hybrid 508 RXH can deliver. It's just that the BMW isn't carrying any batteries about with it. Expect strong residuals which will continue to give mainstream car manufacturers something to fret over. Insurance ratings are also said to have been driven down by better repairability and improved security.
It's always enjoyable when a car turns out to be better than expected. The price of this improved 3 Series may have gone up a bit but what's not up for debate is how far the 3 Series in general and this 320d in particular has kicked on and placed genuine distance between itself and the best of its rivals. Both business and private users will be drawn to a vehicle that can achieve nearly 70mpg and emit just 111g/km, or do even better if you opt for the slightly less powerful EfficientDynamics Plus model. As impressive as that ED Plus variant is, unless you're really intent on carving a few quid off your annual running costs, the standard 320d in entry level SE trim makes the most sense. It's quick, composed, and classily constructed. Right now I'd hate to be a product designer at Audi or Mercedes. BMW has produced what might just be the most impressive 'real world' car on the market.