The term "compact executive sedan" is perhaps synonymous with the BMW 3 Series. Read up on past issues of foreign publications and they have nothing but praises for its sharp dynamics, fun to drive nature and the smiles per hour the car offers. Needless to say, it has become the benchmark of its segment.
Four years ago, the current 3 Series made its debut and it appeared to fall short of expectations when it came to driving pleasure. Our editor-in-chief wasn't exactly blown away by the last model tested back in 2012. Given that the previous-generation model (the E90) set the bar high in terms of dynamics, the F30 aimed for comfort rather than sport.
So here I am with the latest iteration of the 3 Series, in 320d form. Updated two years ago, it received a host of changes that are said to have improved its steering feel and handling. Will the updates do the trick? I sure hope so.
In true BMW fashion, the cosmetic updates are for eagle-eyed observers. At the front, it gets a new pair of headlights, now boasting LED technology. With that, it also gets a different LED light signature, aping those seen in the all-new 7 Series. The bumpers meanwhile have been slightly reshaped while the tail lights now have LEDs as opposed to the bulb-type units in the pre-facelift model.
It's difficult to believe that the shape of the car itself has hit the five year old mark already. Despite that, it still looks sharp. Park it beside its newer contemporaries and the 3 Series can still keep up in terms of looks. Draped in this dashing shade of Melbourne Red, it helps the 320d stand out in the sea of black, silver, gray and white cars. It shows more of the lines too.
Stepping inside however, is where this generation's age is beginning to show. The “floating” infotainment screen may have been kicked off by the 3 Series but with many adapting it, it has fallen a little behind. Still, its integration looks smooth and doesn't appear to have had a tablet tacked on to the dashboard. This being the Sport Line model, it cabin is trimmed in black leather with red stitching.
Moving on to ergonomics, it could be described as typical German. The light switched are on a dial on the dash, rather than on a stalk. There are a lot of buttons at the center of the dash but it is logically and sensibly arranged. Sticking to tradition, the F30 BMW 3 Series has a center stack that tilts towards the driver.
The iDrive may look daunting to use at first, it allows the driver to spend less time looking at the screen as opposed to touchscreens. One can also toy around with its other functions. Two sources of amusement were the EfficientDynamics mode — which tracks your driving with a colorful graph — and Sport Display — which displays how much power and torque you are using at the moment.
BMW also gave the 320d a little more punch under the hood. It is powered by a new 2.0-liter TwinPower Turbo diesel mill which also sees service in various models. It produces 190 PS and 400 Nm of torque, up from 184 PS and 380 Nm of the old block. Power is transferred to the rear wheels (as it should be in a BMW) and shifts via an eight-speed automatic transmission. For the Bimmer fanatics, this new engine is called the B47, replacing the old N47.
Start up the 320d and its sound deadening does a decent job of masking diesel clatter. There's still a fair amount of noise that comes from the car, but only if one were to put their ear closer to the front. Inside, it's quiet too but there are some diesel-powered cars that are quieter inside. Refinement isn't the strongest point of this car, but it more than makes up for it once you're on the move.
Gently step on the throttle and the 320d doesn't pin you to the seat. It's more of a surging sensation as the car effortlessly picks up speed. This level of performance can be felt even in the default Comfort mode. Left in that mode, the steering is light, almost to the point of being overboosted. That said, there is a touch more feel than before, having compared it to the pre-facelift model.
Still in Comfort mode, the 320d Sport Line can still do a bit of luxury. Despite the stiff run-flat tires and the low profile rubber, the 320d's ride is soft enough to glide over bumps and retains a hint of firmness, just to remind you that this is the sport-oriented model. The seats are comfortable too, just as one would expect from a car in this class. The range of adjustability of the seats means one can easily find their ideal driving position.
It's in Sport mode is where the 320d comes alive. In that mode, the throttle becomes more responsive and it shifts higher up the rev range. Should you be braver, there's even a Sport + mode that frees up the stability control. The steering weights up but is still rather light when you're used to driving BMWs of the past. Still, the driving dynamics are pin sharp and athletic. Bring the car to provincial roads and you will be rewarded with precise steering, agile handling and impressive braking. Left as it is though, the 320d is still a fun car to drive. Just keep it in Sport mode if you're in the mood for some spirited driving. The tweaks to the chassis may be small but they're enough to bring back a bit of fun in the 3 Series.
Coupled with the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission and the 320d can cover ground quicker than you expect. It may not be pitched as an outright sport car but if one were to judge it by the engine alone, the 320d is the everyday performance car. It even returns impressive fuel economy. At an average speed of 18 km/h, the 320d does 10.7 km/l and sips fuel at the rate of 22.3 km/l on the highway at an average pace of 93.1 km/h. These figures are based on the car's on-board computer with no assistance from stop-start mode.
If you own a 3 Series from the 1980's to the early 2000's, the F30 might not be your cup of tea. With it being longer, and heavier, than the 3 Series models of the past, it's not quite the touring car for the road which built the foundations of this model line. On the flipside, the 320d accomplishes its mission of being a guiltless sport sedan that also pleases the driving enthusiast. Think of this then as the matured version of the 3 Series. It may be a little softer and more sensible but it can still have fun if the going gets twisty.