Vince Pornelos / Vince Pornelos | September 10, 2012 16:00
Many of us are eager to try out the next generation of any car, SUV or even van; finding out what's changed, what has improved or -gasp- if the engineers or designers dropped the ball.
The stakes couldn't be higher for the all new BMW 3-Series then, especially since it has such esteemed and incredible predecessors to live up to. I've driven the previous E90 3-Series on several occasions, and while I liked the sharp handling and driving dynamics of it, the harsh ride on those run flats they had before was too much of a compromise... even for me.
Let's find out how this new sixth generation (codenamed F30) 3-Series stacks up then.
First off, the new generation model, much like the 1-Series a few months ago, was launched under the brand's 'Lines' concept, wherein you have one base car (i.e. 118d) but with multiple targeted audiences (i.e. 118d Sport Line, 118d Urban Line). As a result, the new 3er gets three distinct lines: the Sport, the Modern and this one, the Luxury. Sounds straightforward enough, but it's really not a new concept, as another German automaker has been doing the Avantgarde (Sport), Elegance and Classic versions on their models for years now.
This 320d Luxury model is the more 'classically' themed of the three lines, applying less of the sportier design cues reserved for the other two lines. It's still a sleek looking machine, the first 3-series in the post-Bangle era of BMW. Designers gave the 3-series a more muscular look than the previous E90, utilizing many feature lines that do make it look rather good. A new design detail on the 3-Series is the fact that the headlamps actually extend all the way to the kidney grilles, exposing the sides. Being the Luxury model, this 320d gets the classier-looking 17 inch wheels and 225/50/R17 Continental run flat tires.
Inside, the Luxury theme continues as this particular unit uses a predominantly beige/tan interior with dark colors for the dashboard. I have to say it looks pretty luxurious inside, with the concessions to BMW's new technologies such as the iDrive shifter, the control knob and buttons for the integrated entertainment/information system with the large LCD on the console. The gauges are similar to the one on the new 1-Series, with the LCD display at the bottom that alternates between the various modes of the car (EfficientDynamics, standard, etc.)
The seats are properly supple, far better than the ones on the old E90 (and the E92) as well as the Mercedes C-Class variants I've tried out. Somehow. I prefer the feel of the E90's steering wheel, though this one does offer a good grip. The iDrive shifter seems a little strange at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's much simpler than the previous T-bar.
Firing up the engine for the first time, there's the familiar muffled clatter of the BMW diesel. The engine is a 2.0 liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4 with a twinscroll turbo. As a result, the engine produces 184 metric hp and a whopping 380 Newton meters of torque. The new BMW 3-Series is also the first one in the class to have an 8-speed automatic transmission as standard, with a manual mode to boot.
Driving it around, the most noticeable difference over the old model is the ride. It may still be on run flats, but they seem to have really softened the suspension for the Luxury line to cope with it. As a result, the new 320d feels much more comfortable around our metro's coarse streets than the previous generation.
The engine certainly has thrust worthy of its predecessor, able to sprint to 100 km/h from a standstill in just 7.6 seconds and on to a top speed of 230 km/h. The real kicker for the 320d is the fuel economy. BMW's diesels are already very, very economical on fuel, but throw in technologies like the ECO PRO drive mode, EfficientDynamics technology like the auto start/stop as well as the 8-speed auto and you get a truly efficient driving machine. On the highway, without really trying and maintaining a 100 km/h average speed, the 320d will do 24.3 kilometers per liter with 2 passengers and moderate traffic. Realistic driving. In the city, 15.4 km/l is easy to achieve with moderate traffic.
However, there's something missing. BMWs have always been exciting machines to drive, and thus I'm wondering why this one isn't hitting the levels of driving thrills they've set so high for the previous models. This 320d, I'm sorry to say, misses that mark a bit in terms of handling... even after I've factored in to my head the fact that it's the Luxury line.
And then there are other things like the auto start/stop for the engine that is rather unnerving when you stop at a set of lights. It's great for fuel economy, but the judder of the diesel engine starting and stopping at will feels strange. Perhaps the gas version will feel more, uh, natural.
There's also a problem with the ride. The suspension may have been softened, but I drove over a few road cuts and potholes and the car felt like it slammed on something hard. At first I thought the suspension had bottomed out because of the softened nature of the shocks and springs, and then I realized it was the run flats after a conversation with the guys at ACC-BMW.
They certainly focused on the priorities with the new BMW 3-Series like improving fuel economy, looks, seat comfort, features and technology, but the engaging drive was something that shouldn't have been compromised. Reading other stories about the new BMW 320d (and the 328i) led to some rave reviews about it, but they are mostly about the Sport line with the stiffer suspension... and better roads.
Maybe it's just me, but while the 320d Luxury certainly made many improvements over the E90, somehow it leaves quite a bit to be desired.