The BMW 3 Series is the motoring journalists’ default car, the benchmark by which all others in its class are judged. As a result it gets a hugely impressive carwow score, winning our coveted in addition to being named our Best New Car of 2012.
This is heady stuff, so we thought it was time to remind ourselves what its like to drive. BMW kindly lent us a 320d Sport for a week and we subjected it to a variety of journeys to enable us to find out whether it can live up to the hype.
There is no doubt that the 320d is a handsome car, oozing fast-lane aggression with that shark-like nose and wide stance.
A saloon cars three-box silhouette can easily descend into boring and unremarkable, so full credit to BMWs designers for coming up with a model that dodges dull. The long bonnet, short overhangs and roof-mounted aerial fin all conspire to produce a sporting shape that is more sports car than reps express.
The shut lines are close and accurate and the paintwork free of blemishes; no one will be in any doubt that you are driving a premium car when they see a 3 Series on your driveway.
The interior is beautifully fitted, using high-quality materials and robust finishes. However, it looks a bit fussy in places, with none of the minimalist chic of an Audi. The anodised red dashboard trim (a 155 option), for example, isnt to my taste and some of the switches look like an afterthought.
The biggest problem, though, is with the driving position, which didnt suit me at all. The range of seat height adjustment is quite coarse and I found myself either too high or too low – and when I finally managed to get comfortable the seat occasionally dropped of its own accord, forcing me to readjust it again, which isnt very helpful when youre doing seventy on the motorway…
I also found the controls for the sat-nav, stereo, and chassis settings unintuitive, forcing me to take my eyes away from the road for far longer than I would have liked. Familiarity would make the job easier Im sure, but others do the same job much better than BMW in this instance.
The reason so many people buy a BMW is for the driving experience and the 3 Series lives up to its reputation. The handling is very good indeed with poise and agility under pretty much all circumstances, aided and abetted by powerful and progressive brakes and accurate steering. Mind you, my test car was fitted with 750-worth of Adaptive M Sport suspension and bigger 18 alloy wheels costing 540, so it should have been good! At motorway speeds it is quiet, refined, and has a surprisingly supple ride given the performance-oriented suspension.
Its not perfect, though. I kept stalling it when manoeuvring, something that I last experienced when I was seventeen years old. (Im not alone as another reviewer told me she had the same issue with the 320d.) Oh, and the stop/start wasnt consistent either, sometimes working and sometimes not.
While Im whinging I would like to add that the rims of the alloy wheels protrude past the tyre wall, making them very easy to curb. I was forced to pull into the side of the road by another driver and brushed against a stone hidden in the verge, causing a very nasty scratch on the nearside front wheel; wide wheels might look great but when they can be damaged so easily one must question how practical they are. This isnt an issue that is unique to BMW by any stretch of the imagination but it is something to consider when youre speccing your new car
The 2.0-litre diesel engine develops 184bhp and, more importantly, 280lb/ft of torque, so it is, by anyones reckoning, a muscular engine. The trouble is that it just doesnt feel that quick and it also sounds a bit coarse when you are revving it hard, something you need to do to wring the best performance out of it. A 0-62mph time of 7.5 seconds sounds much quicker than it actually is in the cutnthrust of daily driving.
It is reasonably economical, though. BMW claims that itll return up to 61.4mpg and while I only managed 47.1 my mileage included very few long runs so the average owner should be able to crack 50mpg with ease.