2019 BMW 320d
The benchmark of saloons finds its crown under threat.
When the E46 BMW launched in 1998 even those at the blue and white roundel may have been surprised by the uptake of its 2.0 Diesel engine. At the time BMW had five variants of 6 cylinder petrols on offer and a frugal four cylinder to boot. The diesels were also offered with a 6 cylinder but nothing shifted in the lease market like a 320d. Fast forward a decade and the E90 generation was going through a midlife refresh and the crown of the all round saloon for everyone from sales reps to junior execs firmly sat atop its kidney grilles. Then another decade on and there was a problem, 2016 had been a bad PR year for diesel and by 2018 the previous generation 3-series was not only struggling from a market shift to crossovers and SUV’s, but an engine problem. The one to buy/lease/finance was still the 320d, but the 330e was putting in strong competition from company car owners and the petrol 320 was now turbo charged and offering good fuel economy without the ‘dirty diesel’ image. Whether or not the 320d was a cheat, a parasite of global warming or a new generation Euro 6 emitter was beside the point. We all buy on image, its why you wont see someone in a Lonsdale tracksuit at the corporate summer work event and why Apple is worth more than some countries.
Now, the new one has a compliant chassis, and of all the current BMW range it would be my pick among a somewhat weakening brand identity of ultimate driving car. The new 1 series has chucked it’s lot in with the rest of the compact car segment and the 4 series has lost many of the known BMW design cues in favour of more sweeping lines and an unrecognisable shoulder line. So what about on the road.
the 320d has stiff competition with company car rates from the 330e
First off lets address the heavy elephant in the room, or under the bonnet, the petrol variant on a short drive felt a touch keener to turn in and although most drivers wont push their family car to such a level, there is a better flow of momentum in the petrol but unless you avoid motorways in favour of back roads religiously, the diesel makes a strong case for itself out the gate. Such development on Diesel engines has taken us to point that agricultural machinery would snub the diesel Beemer. The almost immediate shove with only a blink of pause before it gets going and delivers an urgent swell of torque is up there with sporty hatchbacks of the mid naughties. It runs out of enthusiasm faster but can still give a smile when a quick overtake is in demand. The example with us today has done 8,000 miles and there was a frustrating desire for it to follow imperfections in the road a bit too willingly. On a smooth A road this settled but along some national speed limit single lanes it wasn’t completely planted. This isn’t helped by the slightly dead centre feel of the steering, for the most past the electronic unit gives enough feedback, but for those with a penchant for finer details this will be noticeable. To give it a fair comparison the Audi A4 is no better. Infotainment was good enough, the desire for gestures will leave you trying to master the dark art of becoming a mime whilst driving as you attempt to command one thing or another, the physical controls are bearable but BMW used to lead the way. I get the feeling the wizards that so mastered the position of control surfaces and tactile feel have been binned in favour of a crack team of 11 year olds that believe a beautifully weighted dial is old hat and waving your arms like a maniac without a cause is more fitting for a driver.
None of this though will really persuade buyers as much as the cost and here the 320d has stiff competition with company car rates from the 330e lining up close, and BMW desperate to shift a certain number of plug ins will no doubt keep driving the lease deals down, the 320d feels as though it exists just because it should. Five years ago this was the 3 series to buy, the truth today is little different and so for that reason the 320 petrol is probably the pick of the bunch. Odd, yes, but diesel has just about had its day in this size segment, it will continue in larger vehicles for now but its only a matter of time before councils, desperate to appear that they are doing something for public health, ban diesels in town/city centres. The Euro 6 and stricter may well get a reprieve but the one thing no one wants to worry about when buying a car in a working economy is how a local councillor will flick his pen. Anyone with a les a faire attitude should go for the diesel. The top tip would be drive both and see which the dealer is willing to strike a better deal on. In this segment the 3 series still rules supreme, it’s just a shame that it will be overlooked in favour of a heavier, less aero efficient crossover, because the advert says that people with those cars go skiing and people with 3 series still go ‘driving’.