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BMW 320d SE (2012) review

Published:22 December 2011

BMW 320d SE (2012) review
  • At a glance
  • 5 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
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  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker

A new BMW 3-series is a big deal. The default sports saloon accounts for one third of BMW’s sales so the Munich firm can’t afford to get it wrong. Read on for CAR's first drive review of the new BMW 3-series.

Bar the comedy glasses, the new BMW 3-series looks the same to me. What’s changed?

More than you’d imagine. Built on a new platform, the new 3-series (codenamed F30) is 93mm longer than the old E90, 50mm of which goes into the wheelbase to improve rear legroom by 15mm. Boot space is up by 20 litres and the track is wider too, by 37mm at the front, and 47mm at the rear. But despite this, the F30 is actually lighter than the old car, by up to 45kg depending on engine and spec

What about those engines? Loads of creamy sixes I hope...

Anoraks will know that the original E21 3-series didn’t get its first six until it had been on sale for a couple of years, but given how inextricably linked the 3-series has been to the six-pot over the past three and bit decades, it’s strange to think that the new car will launch with just one engine packing more than four cylinders: the 302bhp 335i.

Other engines will come later, but the initial lineup starts at £24,880 and comprises four diesels (115bhp 316d, 141bhp 318d, 161bhp 320d Efficient Dynamics, 181bhp 320d) and three petrols (181bhp 320i, 242bhp 328i and the 335i). The 320i and 328i are part of a new range of turbocharged 2.0 engines already filtering into the Z4 and 5-series, using direct injection and twin-scroll turbos to give the performance of the old sixes and near-diesel economy. 

Not sure I’d feel happy spending £30k on a four-banger BMW...

Sonically, there’s no comparison. But in every other respect, this is a superb engine. The 328i we drove will hit 62mph in 5.9sec yet returns 44mpg on the combined cycle and emits only 149g/km of CO2. It revs cleanly and exhibits very little lag when you punch the throttle from crusing speeds.

The other car we drove was a 320d. Not the super-frugal Efficient Dynamics version that does 62mph in 8sec and a Prius-like 69mpg, but the regular 320d. Both deliver the same 280lb ft of torque, but the ordinary 20d gets to 62mph 0.5sec quicker at the expense of 7.5mpg and emissions that are only good (120g/km) rather than outstanding (109g/km). At £28,080 each, and that’s before you get into adding one of the new Modern, Sport or Luxury trim packages, they’re not cheap options – you can have a 328i for just a grand more. But with performance to match the 320i, 50% better economy and virtually no handling handicap they’ll be hard to beat for the fleet user.

Cabin still as inviting as a subterranean holiday home in Chile?

Forget the old car’s slabby dash and Eastern Bloc dinginess, the new one is miles better. Bar the splashes of colour on Sport models, it’s fairly conservative, but the materials are far superior and road noise is noticably reduced. And every model gets iDrive and its own colour screen, plus cruise control, keyless start and Bluetooth. But with collision mitigation systems, BMW’s excellent head-up display and handling goodies like a big brake kit, adaptive dampers and variable-rate steering on the options list, it’s going to be easy to add £5-10k to the list price.

Variable rate steering?

It’s a simple mechanical rack with different tooth-spacing at the ends than at the centre to lessen arm twirling on really tight roads, like the rack Porsche introduced with the 997, and replaces the generally unloved optional active steering system. It works well, and after a couple of minutes the gearing shift feels perfectly natural, and switchbacks a joy. But while ultra-precise, it feels disarmingly light after the Herculean forces needed to twist the wheel on an E90. We’d like to have tried the basic rack, but neither it or the mid-range Servotronic option were available. All three are electric.

Same story with the dampers: all the launch cars were fitted with the excellent £750 Adpative M suspension, which gives a great ride in Comfort mode, but appreciably better body control in Sport and still sufficient comfort to warrant leaving it there for most journeys. This is a really well balanced car, one that reveles in its 50:50 weight distribution and rear-drive layout, and one that feels so much more lithe than Audi’s often leaden A4. It’s also one that rides so well – it’s almost a surprise to discover that it’s still fitted with run-flat tyres. This is surely the best-driving car in its class, but we really need to try more chassis configurations to know which works best, and which option boxes are worth ticking.

Verdict

Although it was showing a few wrinkles, the old 3-series was still competitive when the axe fell. But this new car moves the game on with useful gains in refinement while retaining that dynamic edge. Straight to the top of the class.

>> For the full story on the new BMW 3-series, see the January 2012 issue of CAR Magazine, on sale now. Click here for a digital preview

 

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Specs

Price when new: £28,080
On sale in the UK: February 2012
Engine: 1995cc 16v four-cylinder, 181bhp @ 4000rpm, 280lb ft @ 1750-2750rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 7.5sec 0-62mph, 143mph, 61.4mpg, 120g/km CO2
Weight / material: 1420kg/steel and aluminium
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4624/1811/1429mm

Rivals

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  • BMW 320d SE (2012) review
  • BMW 320d SE (2012) review
  • BMW 320d SE (2012) review
  • BMW 320d SE (2012) review
  • BMW 320d SE (2012) review
  • BMW 320d SE (2012) review
  • BMW 320d SE (2012) review
  • BMW 320d SE (2012) review

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker

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