Subtlety the name of the game with BMW’s ultimate small sports saloon
Plus ca change? In parts, says Frederic Manby.
EVEN BMW will admit that the mid-life revamp of its uber successful 3-series changes very little on the exterior of the car: to whit, subtle attention to the front and rear lights and lower sections of the bumpers.
Oh, and the bonnet is a nudge longer. Oh, and there are a few changes to the 320d and 325d diesels with power and economy increased, and emissions decreased. The 335i single turbo petrol engine achieves the same improvements.
The changes apply to the convertible, coupé, estate and saloon – with the latter taking most sales. All now have Dakota leather, usually taken as an option, and which on its own cancels out the £900-£1,000 price hikes. The M3 versions are not forgotten, with stop-start ignition on both the manual and DSG automatic, plus a new option of a competition kit which lowers the M3 and revises the electronic damping and stability systems.
Subtle, indeed, taking the latest version of the ultimate small sports saloon towards the next major revision, whenever that will be. It is the class leader, despite some excellent challengers in the A4, C-class and, to be tried, the latest Volvo S60. BMW has been concentrating on fuel efficiency so hard that the competition is trailing. Since 2005, it has got the 3-series average consumption down by 28 per cent. Such things matter for all sorts of reasons and, in particular, for the British company car driver who pays, quite rightly, through the nose for high CO2 emissions.
There is, then, a new best friend for the company man and woman, a 3-series which has been selling out since its launch here last month. BMW GB argued hard for this model, and takes 60 per cent of the production from the factory in Regensburg.
It is not the fastest 3-series by a long way, though it is capable of 0-62mph in eight seconds, thanks to a 163ps engine. Its name is the 320d ED, the ED standing for efficient dynamics. This ED technik is so efficient that the official average for the saloon is 68.9 miles a gallon and its carbon dioxide emissions are just, only, a mere 109g/km. This is staggering, low, almost hard to believe.
In perspective, then, it is much faster and powerful than any of the handful of small economy cars that get near or under 109g/km. It is greener than eco versions of Focus, Astra, Golf etc. It leaves its peers from Germany trailing.
Running a 320d ED means lower daily costs for everyone, no road tax at all this year and just £20 next year, and for the large percentage of business and corporate users huge gains in personal tax and write-down values, which I do not understand. The write-down on this one is 100 per cent in the first year. The benefit in kind tax is 13 per cent, which is 5pc lower than its nearest rival.
It is truly a “wow, want one” factor for the target customer. It is based on the SE model and costs £27,245. The bald power and acceleration figures show it is no slouch, but what is it like to drive? Has it, as BMW claims, escaped the low-revs noise and vibration that are familiar with high-geared economy diesel models?
The answer is “not quite”. There is still a harshness when picking up speed from low engine revs, despite the high torque. The case for the defence could be that these were brand new cars and may improve with some miles. Also, the driver may not care when, as I did, seeing a 50-plus mpg reading on the trip computer in “everyday” motoring exploring its acceleration and not driving in an economical way, during a morning drive last week on the press event.
There is a fuller explanation of how ED works in the fact box but essentially it moves on from existing ED methods, evolving as fast as the engineers come up with new methods. It is also 21ps down on the regular 320d. (I give German ps values here instead of British brake horse power to avoid fractions, in this case 20.7bhp. To do your own, divide ps by 1.014 to get bhp.)
The 3-series per se remains a fine statement of how a mid-size car can be. It has rear-wheel drive (also used by Mercedes and Lexus), very pleasing body shapes, and recent buyers of the “old” model will not feel they have missed out on looks. It is large enough for four adults yet small enough to park easily.
I’d rather have a 5-series but I have always felt that way about the larger model, one of my handful of nearultimate cars.
MAKING A STATEMENT: BMW’s 3-series.