Space is limited on these pages, which is why mid-life updates of even quite important cars sometimes fail to make the grade. But when that update is as extensive as this, the car to which it’s being applied is the best-selling BMW of all and it’s entering a market where it’s in danger of being swamped by new metal from Mercedes, Jaguar and Audi? That’s harder to ignore.
The visual tweaks to the BMW 3-series are predictably mild, but while the stylists may have enjoyed union hours and weekends off, the technicians have been working overtime. All engines for petrol and diesel models are either new or so comprehensively redesigned as to justly be considered new. There’s also a significant update to the ZF eight-speed auto gearbox, plus changes to suspension and steering too. Make no mistake, this is a radically revised car.
I drove the 320d M Sport, the European staple whose power has risen from 181 to 187bhp, while CO2 has fallen from 118 to 111g/km and the 0-62mph time is reduced by a tenth to 7.3sec. Modest improvements for so much apparent change? Maybe so, but to figures that until very recently were still the best in the class.
I hope those hundreds of thousands who will get to drive these every day appreciate the excellence of the engineering beneath them. For me, the 320d has for some years been the best car BMW builds, and this one is better still in every area that matters.
The engine is smoother and quicker to respond, and the automatic gearbox is now so good it’s as responsive as a DSG in manual mode and even silkier when shifting itself. In this form, today’s 2-litre 320d not only produces more power than did the 3-litre 330d at the turn of the century but (using the same admittedly flawed method of calculation) does so while using barely half the fuel.
I think the chassis has moved on a similar amount, too: in the past I’d tell people to avoid the M Sport model or at least specify standard suspension, because the ride was too harsh. No longer: the M Sport 320d is wonderfully fluid over undulating roads, flashingly fast point to point, unflustered by bad weather and beautifully balanced on the limit. Only the steering disappoints: the M Sport wheel is still too thick and spongy, its feel more limited than I recall.
If the Mercedes C-class was even briefly a better car to drive, I’d say the 3-series in this form is back ahead and at least on a par with the Jaguar XE. I’ll report soon on where the new Audi A4 stands in this overachieving marketplace. For now, though, I’d say the 3-series is held back only by its still-too-austere interior: its rivals have made huge leaps in this area of late and BMW has not kept up. But if what you need is a compact saloon and what you care about most of all is driving, the 320d deserves to be back on your list… and at the top, too.