BMW 320d review: European challenge

The BMW 3-series is one of the most capable compact saloons you can buy. We put the 320d to the ultimate test in this European challenge.

'Go to Spain,’ they said. ‘Spend a few days touring Europe,’ they said. ‘We’ve lined up the most significant new sports saloon for years,’ they chuckled. Images raced through my gullible little mind of blasting across whole countries in a BMW M5, the relentless V8 glugging down fuel and sucking up tarmac, the sickly sound of insects nobly losing their lives as warm, muggy air meets two tons of metal travelling at a rock-steady two miles a minute. I love a good road trip and this sounded like a doozy.

Right on script, it’s a warm and sunny Monday afternoon when we land in Malaga for the start of our adventure. I’d indulge in a gratuitous high-five with photographer Dean Smith, but this is the first time we’ve worked together and it’s way too early for that sort of behaviour. Even so, I feel pretty chipper. But I’m struck cold to the core when the very nice people at BMW hand me the keys to a new 320d M Sport. I can barely utter the phrase, ‘Surely some mistake…’ before they’re gone and Dean and I are left standing perplexed and crestfallen in southern Spain with the keys to a very nice but very ordinary 320d, a map of Europe (2002 vintage) and about six euros between us. Welcome back to evo.

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After the inevitable tears and hugging (Dean and I bond quickly with the trauma), we evaluate our task and the reasoning behind it: The 320d is the sports saloon of choice in the UK. Over 60 per cent of 3-series sales are of diesel four-pot models and it’s a trend that will continue with this new ‘F30’-generation version. For over 12,500 Brits every year, this car is the very definition of The Ultimate Driving Machine.

Question is, does it hold any appeal for people like us? Can you still find real thrills in a simple mid-range 3-series? We’re driving from Malaga to the UK, via a stage of Rally Spain and an Autobahn (weather permitting), and finally arriving at a trackday back at home to see if the 320d is genuinely entertaining or just a facsimile of a sports saloon for these CO2-obsessed times. We might even check its economy along the way.

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Challenge 1: Get crossed up on a rally stage

Rally Spain is based around the little seaside town of Salou, not far from Barcelona on the country’s north-eastern coast and a drive of about 900km (560 miles) from Malaga on the southern coast. Salou is also our first overnight stop and by the time we wake up there on the Tuesday morning we already know that the 320d is a mighty accomplished car in which to cover miles.

Its 2-litre turbodiesel engine is a thrummy old thing but it pumps out a useful 182bhp and 280lb ft and gives the 320d a respectable turn of speed. And when you offset its 0-62mph time of 7.5 seconds and 146mph top speed with a combined-cycle figure of 61.4mpg, it’s very hard to grumble. Merge that grunt/efficiency ratio with typically brilliant BMW build quality, a superb interior and an excellent ride and the 320d is immediately impressive.

But all that’s for nought if it isn’t fun on a decent squiggle of empty road – balance and tactility are, of course, the very core of the 3-series’ appeal, always have been. The T-704 out of Vilaplana will reveal all. It’s a typically unforgiving, narrow and intimidating Rally Spain stage, lined with Armco near the bottom and then saw-toothed rocks and dense foliage as it begins to climb. Visibility is almost non-existent and the surface is at times beautifully smooth, only to degenerate into bucking, craggy sections where the tarmac appears to have been poured straight over thick tree-roots or whatever rocks and debris stood in the way. What you really need here is the certain knowledge that nothing is coming the other way, a hydraulic handbrake, and an ‘off’ switch for your imagination. In the event, a 320d Sport will have to do.

Our car has the optional Adaptive M suspension and Servotronic steering (though thankfully not the Sports Steering, an aggressively variable rack that brings agility but also inconsistency of response), so by toggling the Drive Performance Control button up to Sport+ the car is primed with the stiffest suspension setting, weighty steering and the more relaxed DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) mode for the stability and traction control system.

Clearly the 320d has an appetite for the T-704, gamely resisting understeer and displaying some of the fine, rear-drive balance that you’d hope for. Even in Sport+ the ride is very supple and soaks up the worst of the ragged frost-scars. It seems that runflat tyres are finally no longer an issue worth discussing in the context of the 3-series’ ride.

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It’s not all rosy, though. The steering has a natural rate and is perfectly accurate, but the heavier weighting in Sport or Sport+ feels artificial and actually dulls the picture of what’s happening down where treadblocks meet special stage. It’s a shame, because in Comfort the steering is impressive – up there with the best electrically assisted set-ups in fact – but you can’t configure the lighter steering with the more controlled damping.

Body control is also found wanting up here, where the road gets tighter and one turn melds to the next until you never stop asking the front wheels to bite from one direction to the other. Body roll is pretty well contained and feels well matched with the grip afforded by the tyres, but the 320d does that nodding-dog trick that many diesels are afflicted with: the weight of the engine seems to gradually upset the damping until the front and rear ends seem to get out of phase with each other and the car feels a bit like an unbalanced dumb-bell. With the 320d rocking from front to rear, you don’t feel fully minded to commit to the next blind corner, never knowing if the car has a wicked sting in its tail.

Of course, this is as extreme a road as you’re likely to find and its narrowness is more suited to a Caterham than an M3 or similar. That the 320d is for the most part trustworthy, communicative and easy to balance, even into a bit of easily held oversteer, is reassuring. Would you sneak out for a dawn raid on your favourite road on a sunny Sunday in the 320d? Probably not. But if you did make the effort it still has the capacity to entertain.

Challenge 2: Drive for 12 hours straight

So day one’s 560-mile trek was a biggie, but with the La Mussara rally stage complete, our Tuesday is only just beginning. Our plan is to head north through Barcelona and Girona, into France to Perpignan, past Béziers and Clermont-Ferrand (taking in the extraordinary Millau Viaduct ), before negotiating the Paris Périphérique so we wake up just a short 150-mile hop from Calais on the Wednesday morning. That’s over 750 miles; the weather forecast says it’ll be below -5 degrees for the entire journey and we’re on summer tyres…

Of course, the 320d is built for this stuff and the freezing temperatures and howling wind hold no fear for a car that lives for the motorway. Again, the suppleness of the ride is a real boon, the satnav is superb and the ordinary-looking seats are actually supremely comfortable on a long haul. The only weak link is surprisingly high wind-noise around the A-pillars. This isn’t the sort of thing I usually notice but it’s amazing what distracts you when you’ve got 1200km to cover as quickly as possible without attracting the long arm (and scary-looking guns) of the French law.

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After more than a dozen hours behind the wheel in a day, it’s another solid performance by the 320d, but it’s still failing to worm its way into my affections. Maybe it’s the always-gruff motor, the rather wallowy ride in Comfort… somehow it just doesn’t feel very BMW to me. More likely it’s the spec sheet we found in the glovebox. The 320d costs from £28,080, but this one – in Sport trim, with that Adaptive suspension, 18-inch wheels, leather and the full media pack amongst plenty more – is a whopping £38,935. How much is a 1M again?

Challenge 3: Do 150mph on an autobahn

Can the 320d do 150mph? This isn’t a question we’ve been inundated with by fellow motorists at fuel stations. In fact people keep asking us for boxes of ‘stylos’ or ‘une agrafeuse’, whatever they are. All the same, we feel obliged to find out. With Germany under snow, we’ll have to make do with a secret test track in the middle of France accessed through a busier-than-expected toll gate.

Conveniently this venue is open 24 hours a day, but under the cover of darkness and with the temperature gauge still refusing to rise above -5, conditions are far from ideal. Nevertheless, the 320d Sport rips up to 120mph with ease and busts 130mph comfortably too. Any incline at all sees the speedo needle sucked back into the 120s but on the level the BMW finally trickles past 140mph.

The final few increments take an age to click by, but slowly 141 becomes 142… and finally the acceleration flatlines at an indicated 146mph. We’d hoped to see the magic ‘150’ but sadly the windy conditions won’t indulge us and the 320d has to be content with matching its official top speed.

Going for V-max is always a bit of fun, but whether the 320d does 130mph, 146mph or more is largely irrelevant. That it will sit at 90mph all day long with the odd easy lunge up to 120mph or so makes it a real natural for crossing Europe. The days of driving flat-out across the Continent are sadly over and this 320d’s quiet exterior, strong economy and ability to easily settle into a three-figure cruise probably make it quicker than an attention-grabbing supercar on the same journey. Which isn’t to say that Dean and I wouldn’t swap for a 458 Italia right about now… OK, an R8 then? M3? What about a Mégane RS?

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Challenge 4: Travel 500 miles on a tank

Air-con off, mirrors folded flat, gaffer-tape sealing the bonnet and door shuts, a steady 65mph behind a recklessly driven Estonian lorry… these are just some of the measures we didn’t take to discover if the 320d Sport would do 500 miles between fill-ups. In fact our flirtation with hypermiling was short-lived. Dean asked if I was going to do a proper economy run, I looked at the jaunty line meandering across Europe towards Calais on the satnav display and replied ‘no’, and we maintained our slighty-higher-than-you’d-dare-in-the-UK pace for hour after hour after hour.

Far from shirking my responsibilities, I think driving the 320d Sport hard and fast reflects what any one of us would do should the BMW be delivered as our new company wheels. Surely that’s the point of these diesels? It isn’t that they’re so efficient that you feel obliged to eke every last metre out of a tank, but rather that you can drive like a man possessed and still smile with satisfaction at every infrequent pit stop.

Despite our hypomiling approach we still squeeze an impressive 436 miles out of one tank. Although I’m almost ashamed to admit that our overall average economy for the trip will work out at 34.8mpg. The official ‘combined’ figure is 61.4mpg, remember. Having said that, Spain passed in a very fast blur and with the added strain of the rally stage, one tank dropped to just 31.5mpg. Our 436-mile best run between pumps actually included the V-max effort, so the resulting 38.2mpg for that tank is pretty mega considering the needle nudged 140mph a few times before everything gelled for that final run.

So although we don’t set any economy records, it’s pretty obvious that the 320d Sport is a highly efficient machine. Sit all day at a steady 70mph and select the goody-two-shoes Eco Pro mode (softening the effect of the accelerator, making the Optimum Shift Indicator more keen and reducing the power consumption of the climate control and heated mirrors and seats) and I’m sure it’d easily nudge up towards 50mpg and something like 600 miles on a tank. If you cover huge mileages then that’s a massive bonus in a car that’s also capable of a thoroughly decent turn of speed and isn’t too shabby on a tarmac WRC stage.

Challenge 5: Take part in a trackday

Hallelujah. The track surface gleams with a cocktail of oil, water, rubber and general winter nastiness when the 3-series rolls out of the pitlane at the Bedford Autodrome for its final challenge. I’d hoped for as much, simply because 182bhp and 1420kg do not great track ingredients make. A low-friction surface will give the 320d a chance to show its ultimate abilities much more freely and tip the power/grip ratio in the favour of the engine and the driver…

I’ve gleaned enough bluffer’s knowledge to realise that the stiffest Sport+ setting might not give the Pirellis the best chance to grip and then slip progressively, so the BMW stays in Sport but with the DSC fully disabled. There’s no limited-slip differential but the electronics try to mimic the effects of one, and the first second-gear corner sees the 320d take and hold a nice angle. Promising.

Through the quicker stuff there’s a fair amount of understeer to combat. Even if you keep on the throttle and wait for that 280lb ft, the 320d remains resolutely led around by its slightly reluctant nose. Try the slow-in/fast-out approach and things improve, the front tyres biting and then the torque swinging the tail in time-honoured 3-series fashion.

If only the Servotronic steering felt more in tune with what the chassis is doing. In the middle of any corner, just as under- and oversteer start to overlap, the rack suddenly weights up so much that you have no idea what’s going to happen next, nor do you feel confident that you’ll be able to deal with whatever comes your way. It’s an odd, intrusive sensation and means you never feel right on top of the 320d. It’s a shame, because if you really lob it in, this 3-series still exhibits a hooligan side and can be recovered from some pretty crazy angles.

The brakes hold up to this behaviour pretty well, the six-speed manual ’box is sweet and intuitive, even the engine feels surprisingly keen to rev when it’s fully let off the leash. Sadly, that steering issue and the big layer of understeer present during steady-state cornering undermine the 320d Sport’s ‘sporty’ credentials. It’s waaaay more fun than an A4 would be here, but I reckon a C-class Merc would be just as much of a giggle.Verdict: Is it any good?

Fuelled by Haribo, mysterious meat in slimy sandwiches, super-strength coffee and the various energy drinks that Dean ingests every few minutes, we reach the end of our journey full of respect for the 320d Sport. It’s covered over 3000km (1850 miles) in just three days, shrugged off freezing temperatures, dispatched an incredibly challenging rally stage and pushed past 145mph in the dead of night, and not once has it been wrongfooted. If this is the fate of the company car keeper then it’s not so bad after all.

The 3-series still has the essential qualities that made it the car that everybody wanted back in the ’80s and ’90s, still an innate understanding of how a front-engine/rear-drive sports saloon should feel. But while the 3-series has become more refined over the years its absolute handling abilities haven’t quite kept pace. Is this 320d Sport a better all-round car than its E46 or E90 predecessors? Indubitably. Is it more fun? I don’t think so. Can a diesel 3-series put you under its spell like a honey-smooth straight-six petrol? Sadly, not quite.

This is a good car, a great car perhaps when compared with its direct rivals. But this journey never revealed a moment of absolute chassis brilliance to make up for the efficient but monotonous motorway slog. However, there’s a germ of excitement and agility about the new 3-series – something that suggests the next M3 will be very special indeed.

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