If you're a fan of BMWs in general, and the 3-Series in particular, you might want to start reading this review a little further down the page than usual. It's going to be positive, but there is some gloomy news to impart.
First of all, there's the gearchange. BMW has never been much good at manual shifts - surprisingly so considering how close the lever and the gearbox itself are in the front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout it has always preferred. In the latest 320d, things are no better than they were before. The shift is both notchy (there's almost always a suggestion that you're fighting against recalcitrant synchromesh) and so vague that it's difficult to be completely certain of what gear you've selected.
Sixth instead of fourth was common during this test, and on one occasion I found myself in first gear when I could have sworn I was in reverse. Embarrassing.
Another thing: the 320d is fitted, as its name implies, with a two-litre turbo diesel engine whose refinement might have been acceptable in, say, 1998, but is a substandard piece of work from a premium brand nowadays. It's rattly from a cold start, and it stays rattly. The only time you don't notice the rattle is on a motorway cruise, when the engine isn't being worked hard and there's enough noise from other sources to drown it out.
I had the 320d for a week and drove it for over 1500 miles, and these issues were as irritating at the end of the test as they had been at the start. Yet during that period I heard a colleague saying that this precise model was "all the car you'd ever need". And, strange to say, while I didn't entirely agree with him, I could see his point.
To begin with, it's a very satisfying car to have parked outside your house, especially - as the test car was - when it's red and sits on twin five-spoke 18" alloys. Like the other German premium manufacturers, BMW tends to stick with a silhouette for a very long time before changing it, and there hasn't been a radical change in the shape of the 3-Series these twenty years.
Obviously, I'm not saying there have been no differences at all. But you can draw a line from the current car, launched earlier this year, way back to the 1990 E36 model and find a basic similarity of shape, which is fine because, as shapes go, it's rather a satisfying one.
There are also good things to be said about that engine. It may be too noisy, but it has a lot going for it. Its power output - a maximum of 184bhp - is sturdy, and suits the chassis well. And it's impressively economical. In a test which admittedly included a high proportion of constant-speed motorway driving, the 320d averaged (as suggested by the trip computer and confirmed by measurement) 54mpg - some way short of the official 61.4mpg combined but, in my experience, the sort of thing that might be expected of a much more mundane and less sporty diesel car or hybrid.
That figure was achieved largely with the help of the start/stop system, which could be relied on to shut down the engine nearly every time the car came to a halt. An obvious thing to say, you might think, but I've driven several cars with similar systems which could almost equally be relied on not to.
Diesel engines are heavier than petrol ones, and the weight of this one hasn't been compensated for as well as it might have been. I think BMW could have done a better job of that. But the slight excess of insufficiently damped body movement is a minor point. The 320d handles well, and its steering in particular is very precise.
The benefits of this on twisty roads are obvious, but it also makes the car quite relaxing on motorways, since you don't have to persuade it from one lane to another, and you don't have to keep correcting once you get there. It simply goes where you point it.
The 18" wheels I mentioned earlier are clothed with 225/45 run-flat tyres. In days gone by, this would have bespoken abominable ride quality, but BMW has attended to that. Any ride issues with the 320d are down to the not quite correct damping rather than the nature of the rubber.
It's not perfect by any means, but it's very handsome, and for me at least the pros are sufficient to outweigh the cons. This is one test car I would have preferred to keep than to hand back.
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