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BMW 320d review (2005-2009)
When the last generation, E46 3 Series was launched, in 1999, it became the biggest selling BMW ever in the UK – with a reputation for great looks, decent quality, benchmark chassis dynamics and a badge image that other manufacturers would kill for. It also had a superb range of engines, and that included the ever improving diesel alternatives – on offer in the BMW range since 1983, but now coming on by leaps and bounds. - More at bottom
So the four-cylinder 320d was a good, economical workhorse option, and the powerful and hugely flexible 330d would emerge as one of the best 3 Series of its generation. Right back at the beginning, though, while diesel cars had their admirers, in the big scheme of things, in the UK at least, they were far from the sharp end of the 3 Series model mix. With the coming of this new, fifth generation 3 Series family, all that has changed.
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Rise of the diesel
In a way, that’s even more impressive because it’s done so against the odds. Through the dark ages when diesel power was best confined to tractors, trucks and taxis, and when diesels were noisy, smoky and puny, the UK used to be like most other countries and offer substantial diesel tax advantages (for which read overall price advantages) – and that offset the downsides enough to make diesels at least bearable. Now that diesel power is a different kettle of fish, however, with power and refinement that were undreamed of a couple of generations ago, that’s all changed, too. Because while most other countries still encourage the take-up of diesel with favourable tax rates, the UK now has the highest at-the-pump diesel prices (for which read diesel taxes) in Europe.
But it says everything about how far diesels have come in the past few years that nowadays we love our oilers in spite of no longer having that one-time tax advantage – for the simple reason that the best of diesel power now has enough going for it to ease the sting of the ludicrous UK tax penalty. And it’s that rise of diesel as not only acceptable but now in many cases very highly desirable that has changed things. Changed to the extent that last year, even in the premium sector where the 3 Series goes head to head with the likes of the Audi A4, the Jaguar X-Type and the Mercedes C Class, diesel cars actually outsold petrol. And that makes this 320d a very important part of the 3 Series mix indeed.
It’s the first, and for the moment only, diesel model in the new 3 Series range – alongside the 320i, soon-to-be-added 325i and 330i petrol models. It is also a brilliant example of why we’ve come to consider the diesel option as not just bearable but now genuinely desirable.
On the road
Significantly, BMW now openly use the phrase ‘Sports Diesel’, which is something they’d have hardly dare do a generation ago. And just as significantly, it’s not as ridiculous as it would once have sounded. The new 2-litre four-cylinder 320d is BMW’s most efficient and most refined smaller diesel to date, and one of the nicest in the industry. It uses ‘second generation’ super-high-pressure common-rail injection technology, multiple-phase injection, an electronically controlled variable geometry turbocharger layout, and both mechanical balancer shafts and ‘electronic smoothness control’ in the engine management system to reduce mechanical vibrations and combustion noise to a minimum.
It works – the engine has a fast warm-up start system that, in the cold weather that used to give old-school diesels all manner of starting problems, starts the pre-heat sequence as the driver opens the door, even before the ignition key is turned. and not only does it start quickly, it starts impressively quietly and smoothly – not quite so perfectly that you don’t get just a hint of gruffness at tickover, but for almost all practical purposes so close to a four-cylinder petrol engine for unwanted noise and vibration as to be almost indistinguishable. That newfound civility is one of the biggest reasons for the general rise of diesel of late, but the other bit is the new-generation driveability, of which the 320d has mountains.
It pulls from nowhere, and pulls almost seamlessly, with very little of the old turbo-rush in mid-range – just a long, solid push everywhere. In numbers, it has 163bhp at 4000rpm (13bhp more than the old 320d) and a whopping 251lb ft of torque (the bit that really counts for lively performance) at just 2000rpm. To put it into perspective, that’s even more peak torque than the petrol range-topper, the 330i, so the 320d could certainly be described, if nothing else, as flexible and undemanding. It even sounds quite sporty when revved, and in fact the only real reason you’ll know this isn’t a petrol engine most of the time is that the rev range is still typically diesel-short, tailing off markedly above 4500rpm.
That, of course, puts a premium on decent gearing, but the 320d has that too. The new six-speed manual ’box has a slightly ponderous shift, especially at low speeds, but it’s smooth and positive, and its ratios are just about ideal, both for strong acceleration virtually anywhere, and for relaxed cruising at motorway speeds. And, of course, for impressive economy. So the manual-320d headline figures are a maximum of 140mph, 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds, and the often vital 50-75mph in fourth gear in a punchy 6.5 seconds – which last figure exactly matches the same trick in the petrol-powered 330i and comfortably eclipses the same range in any of the smaller petrol engines. And that, of course, is one of the main reasons why modern turbo-diesels feel so sporty – stump-pulling torque matched by well-chosen gearing equals real performance.
The optional six-speed Steptronic auto version is strong, smooth and lazy, too, and offers 137mph, and 62mph in 8.6 seconds with no effort at all. As for economy and emissions, the manual version delivers a combined 49.6mpg (5.7l/100km) and 153g/km CO2 (meaning a 16 per cent tax band) while the auto gives a slightly less convincing (but still petrol-thrashing) 42.2mpg (6.7l/100km) and 179g/km CO2 rating.
Increasingly what this means with diesels, and certainly with this one, is that diesels are still different, but they’re no longer inferior. The difference in numbers is shrinking all the time, the difference in refinement ditto, the only modest gap that remains is in character, which is mostly about the way a petrol engine loves revs and a diesel doesn’t. But with cars like this, diesels really are getting better all the time.
As for the rest of the equation, well, the 320d is every bit the new generation 3 Series as described in our 330i first drive, but with subtle differences in the chassis dynamics just as in the engine performance. The principal thing, in fact, is that the 320d in standard guise is a bit softer and less driver-focussed than the sport-suspension specced petrol alternatives – because BMW finally decided that there’s a big enough market for a 3 Series that errs slightly more towards comfort than towards the ultimate handling edge.
So you can choose a base version with ever so slightly more supple springs, damping and anti-roll bars, and feel very little trade off until you really start to push very hard on the twistiest of roads, when this more compliant set-up ultimately gets a bit more roly-poly and less sporty – but again, the choice is now yours.
Finally, you’ll make your own mind up about the looks, but to be honest they don’t do much for me. The added size doesn’t add up to convincingly more room inside, especially in the back, which is mean on both head and shoulder room, and both i-Drive and Active steering (which is more of an issue on the petrol models) are acquired tastes. Aside from that, it’s probably fair to say they’ve done it again – diesels included.
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