Driven: BMW 3 Series

Utterly predictable, but utterly superb.

Who knew, seven generations ago, that the BMW 3 Series would become one of the most common cars on UK roads. The range has expanded to include ferociously fast coupes, practical estates and stylish faux-SUVs, but the core model is, and pretty much always has been, the humble 320.

Which is what we’ve got here. It’s the 320d, rather than the 320i, which means it’s got a two-litre turbo diesel engine behind the huge kidney grille. Diesel may not be the fuel of choice right now, but a modern oil-burning engine is on a par with petrol engines for harmful emissions and particulates. Yes, dinosaurs are still being turned into forward motion, but the penalties for doing that are much reduced these days.

Not that you’d notice much of a penalty for choosing the diesel model. The essential 0-62mph sprint takes a hot-hatch-like 6.8 seconds, and it’ll continue on to very illegal speeds. It’s how it does it that is so pleasing, though. Try hard and you can find a little bit of turbo lag, but even here BMW has played a trick – there are two turbos, with one small one filling in the power blanks while the big one gets itself up to speed.

The result is a linear power delivery through an eight-speed automatic gearbox that makes progress smooth and predictable. It’s rapid, refined, seamless and frugal.

Seriously frugal. A motorway run back from Birmingham airport – which means queueing on the M42, trundling slowly along the M6, and then cruising along the A14 – had the on-board computer reporting almost 70mpg. Yes, these things are often optimistic, but even allowing for a 10% margin of error, that’s mighty impressive.

There’s no fuss while this is all going on. Acoustically tuned windows block out all of the wind noise, while the engine is barely audible up front. Even tyre roar is kept well checked, but it can get a tad noisy on a wet motorway. That might be thanks to wide run-flat tyres fitted to this M Sport specification car. That comes with lowered, stiffer suspension and larger wheels, which impacts the ride quality a little. Still, it’s by no means bad – there’s a compliance over most surfaces that pleases, especially on the motorway, but it can pick out potholes on urban roads and send the imperfections through to the cabin.

The flip side is engaging handling, with a body that stays almost perfectly flat through corners. Precise steering that’s perfectly weighted allows accurate placing of the car in a corner, while the rear-drive setup creates a balance after the apex that encourages endless confidence.

Which you prefer depends on the type of driving you’re really going to do. SE models have smaller wheels and taller tyres that, along with longer suspension, will create an even finer ride, but this M Sport is slightly more engaging and looks sportier. Adaptive suspension is available if you really want to get into the minutia of suspension adjustments for your trip along the M1.

Inside it’s the same as most recent BMWs, but better. The designers have followed an evolutionary rather than revolutionary path, although an all-digital instrument panel is a large step forward – assuming you’d not prefer traditional dials. The 12.3-inch screen complements the 10.3-inch infotainment screen that sits atop the centre console, which allows access to the latest BMW operating system. It’s neat, easy to use, and includes BMW Personal Assistant. This is a digital assistant along the lines of Google Assistant or Alexa, responding to instructions or questions shouted into thin air. It mostly works well, setting navigation automatically, adjusting the temperature settings of the car (which wasn’t really necessary when there’s a button to press) and alerting me to the fact that there was no maintenance required on the car. It’ll do far more too. Clever, but perhaps not entirely necessary. That said, Android Auto is notable by its complete absence, while Apple CarPlay is only available for an annual subscription fee collected by BMW.

Despite that, there’s plenty of equipment included as standard, from adaptive cruise control and LED headlights to triple-zone air conditioning and automatic lights and wipers, and it’s all in a cabin that’s made up of top notch materials that have been bolted together well. Space is plentiful for all passengers, even in the rear, and the boot’s a good size too. An estate model will follow to increase practicality, while company car drivers will find the petrol-hybrid model interesting. For now though, the 320d is the most sensible model to buy, and it’s a remarkably strong starting point.

Model Tested: BMW 320d M Sport
Price: £36,515
Range: £32,445 – £41,445
Top speed: 149 mph
0-62 mph: 6.8 seconds
Power: 178 PS (176 bhp)
Torque: 400 Nm (295 lb ft)
Monthly PCP*: £499
Official fuel economy: 55.4 mpg
Road test economy: 52.1 mpg
CO2 Emissions: 110 g/km
Car Tax: £145
Insurance group: 29E
* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 40%.

Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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