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If you write for Top Gear, you will get asked two questions a hundred times a week.
One: ‘What’s Jeremy Clarkson really like when he’s not on telly’. That one’s easily answered. He’s really like he is on telly.
Two: ‘What’s the best car in the world?’ That’s easy too. And while your questioner might be wanting you to say Rolls-Royce Phantom or Ferrari 458 or Ariel Atom, the true answer is a bit duller.
It’s the BMW 320d Touring. For the past dozen years, as it has morphed over two generations, what else could you have wanted? It’s well-made, useful, economical, and fast enough. And a delight to drive because it’s engineered by skilled and thorough people who know what they want.
Now we’ve driven the new 3 Touring. Which must therefore be Important News.
OK, we haven’t driven the new 320d Touring, because BMW hasn’t quite got them out of the factory yet. We’ve driven the 328i Touring.
It’s a bigger car than before, and that shows up in ways that are helpful to its Touring-ness. The boot’s bigger, and there’s usefully more knee-room and head-room in the back seats. Four grown-ups could travel in this car here without injury or dispute.
OK, let’s have a poke around that boot, shall we? Open wide. The tailgate is electrically powered as standard. Some people love this as a convenience. I think it’s a pointless and slow over-complication. Better, the tailgate’s glass opens independently if you’ve just got something small to drop in. The back seat splits 40:20:40 and folds without any fuss. Because the boot floor is high (to clear the fancy RWD axle), the boot isn’t very deep, but there is a useful hidden under-floor bin.
There’s a blind and a vertical roller safety net, but the quality and ease of use is only good, not excellent. Non-premium cars like the Peugeot 508 do this just as well, and of course they’re bigger than the BMW.
But the 3 Touring was always just about big enough for most purposes, and now it’s bigger than it was. Yet because it’s 40kg lighter than before, and because the engineers decided to give the new 3-series a decidedly more sporty character than the previous one, it drives like a small car. The steering is very direct, and it dives into corners like it wants to be a Mini. There’s all the balance and feedback you could wish for.
The consequence of this is you need to keep fairly busy making small corrections on the motorway, where other German estates just arrow along like they’re on a railway. But for us the compromise is worth it. Besides, there’s nothing small-car about the ride: it’s pliant and level.
We’ve driven the 320d engine before in the saloon, and it’s better than it’s ever been. It’s both quicker and even more amazingly economical.
This time out in the Touring, I tried the 328i, a petrol, but sadly only a turbo four-cylinder. Driving it on the same day as the wonderful turbo six in the M135i, I’m reminded how much I miss the extra pair of cylinders. The 328i goes well enough and the economy is impressive for the performance and size of car, but most of the time the engine is a bit of a drone. It only starts to sound enthusiastic when you really chase the red-line.
So the 328i Touring has issues. Which brings us back to the question: what’s the best car in the world? It must be the BMW 320d Touring. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.