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Is the BMW 3-Series still the car to beat?

  1. There’s no such thing as perfection, but the new BMW 320d (now in the sixth incarnation of Three, and known as the ‘F30’) looks suspiciously like a magic bullet when it comes to recommending a mid-sized executive diesel. No matter what the question, BMW’s scrupulous box-ticking for this particular car sticks it near the top of any league table you care to mention, with chinks in the 320d’s armour remaining impressively elusive. In fact, the four-cylinder turbodiesel’s roster of good news comes dangerously close to the irritating. Good-looking? 320d. Tax-friendly? 320d. Economical? 320d. Fun to drive? 320d. Spacious? 320d. Comfy? 320d. Actually, there’s only one question fumbled by the small-saloon Answer to Everything, and that’s when people say: “But I just don’t want a BMW.”

    Words: Tom Ford

    Pictures: John Wycherley

    This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine  

  2. Ah. Even given armour-piercing statistical ammunition, you can’t get away from the fact that some people just can’t bear to lend personal weight to an accepted cliché. And thank goodness. But not wanting a small exec four-cylinder BMW doesn’t necessarily open up the whole gamut of wider car-buying. People still have company-car schemes to comply with, and while they might want to step lightly away from the herd, dropping themselves into a third-hand VW Phaeton V10 diesel - no matter how hard you argue the Top Gear maths - simply isn’t on the cards. Luckily, options exist. And they’re not as wacky - or compromised - as you might expect.

    Let’s start with a light smattering of ground rules. The BMW costs, in the Sport variant we have here, £29,080, with the base 320d ES costing a grand less. So we’re arbitrarily looking to strike around the £30k mark, though this is more about concept than terribly model-specific comparison. Cars must seat four comfortably and five at a push, have decently comparable bootspace, economy, insurance and running costs. And - most importantly - be worthy of more conversational start-up than the default German competition from Mercedes and Audi, for which the following page might be of interest.

  3. We’ll start gently with something in the same vein as the BMW, though with a slight coupe-ish twist: the VW CC. Now in its second generation - with new VW-generic headlamps and tail lights grafted on - VW’s four-door Comfort Coupe offers a more luxurious take on the Passat engineering staple, gently lifting the Vee-dub’s aesthetic score while retaining all the heartwarming perceived reliability and parts-bin fixability. Think saloon version of the Scirocco/Golf equation. The GT Bluemotion 2.0TDI 170 we have here weighs in at £105 over our £30k budget, but comes loaded with kit, and represents the shallow end of avoiding the Big Three gene pool.

  4. Next comes the Range Rover Evoque. Currently the UK’s Most Wanted, the waiting list stretches for a year, and the general perception seems to be that you have to mortgage less favoured children for any realistic chance of ownership. But the front-wheel-drive eD4 in Pure spec with its 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel rolls in at £27,960 - the cheapest car here by 40 quid. And, for that, you get to sample the high-riding, baby Range Rover fashion zeitgeist without looking like you’ve bought into the base end of the range. Truth is, nobody knows it’s a two-wheel drive, and even fewer really care.

  5. Last, but not least, there’s the Citroen DS5. And if you really want the anti-320d, here it is. With an almost MPV monobox profile, Citroen’s newest saloon/hatch takes familiar ingredients - a 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel with 163bhp and front-wheel drive, derived from rather humdrum C4/Peugeot 308/3008 underpinnings - and cooks up something completely bonkers. The DSport HDi 160 we have here may have a few extra options, but as a basic thing you can buy it for £28k on the nose. Which punts it directly into the 320d’s line of sight.

    Which is where it stays, mainly because visually it’s impossible not to be constantly drawn back to the DS5. This is a car that is genuinely exciting to look at. The new BMW 3-Series saloon is a familiar theme expanded to incorporate more space, a squashed nose and slightly more angular features, an all-new car deeply rooted to the values of the previous generation, while the Citroen feels like it was created by men who shout a lot and wave their arms about. A clean-sheet design by Frédéric Soubirou that boiled up from a maelstrom of ideas surrounding the C-SportLounge concept of 2005. There are slashes and lines and chrome sabres on the front three-quarter, deep, strong feature lines, cartoonish strakes and mighty chrome exhaust finishers which don’t have anything at all to do with the actual exhaust. It’s an absolute joy. Or just a bit fussy, depending on your point of view.

  6. The Evoque also comes across as fresh-faced, despite it having become an increasingly familiar sight on UK roads. Surprisingly compact - with a road footprint not unlike that of a large hatch - the little Range Rover manages visual aggression without belligerence. And the grey plastic bumpers and tall tyre profile on the eD4 look perfectly acceptable on a car that rides higher than a conventional saloon, so you get a neat compromise between ruggedness and a manageable size. Parked up with the DS5, it’s these two that give you the feeling that there are genuine ways to avoid the German three-box saloon archetype without sacrificing real-life usability.

  7. The CC, on the other hand, is notably more Germanic in philosophy. A conglomeration of things that happen when men in crisp, starched white coats take many, many small measurements and gently coax quiet brilliance from the nooks and crannies of the normal. It’s cool white minimalism, cold design air sucked over a Polo mint of restraint. It’s quietly handsome, not showy like the Evoque or DS5, or as aggressive as the BMW. And the sweep of the roofline really does make a big difference - it’s not exactly head-turning, but by no means outshone in this company.

    The interiors reflect the exteriors to a large extent, the CC being a lesson in sombre symmetry, with a monochrome theme. It’s nicely put together, but, when compared with the three other cars here, it feels a little bit po-faced and last-generation. There’s nothing actively wrong with it, but friends are unlikely to settle back and roll out the appreciative superlatives. The BMW works, and manages to make most people feel instantly at home, while being nicely technical. Some of the wood trim options might make you wince, but spec it right, and it feels superb. This is the subtle art of ergonomic design at its best; you don’t necessarily notice that everything falls to hand, but it does, and you get the feeling that, long-term, this would be an interior that wouldn’t eventually niggle.

  8. Similarly, the Evoque has an interior that feels designed rather than simply put together, a hefty spar running between the front seats flares into the touchscreen at the top. It works exceptionally well in practice, and makes use of the Evoque’s deep sides and relatively shallow windowline to make the Rangie feel big, chunky and wholesome. It’s not a fiddly car like the CC. But, again, if you really want to feel the difference, you need the DS5. Asymmetrical dash, roof-mounted console and extra buttons, a thorough bedlam of shapes and textures. Yet it also works. It requires a bit of getting used to, but, once you do, there’s a quality of execution that we’ve not seen from Citroen before. This isn’t a copy, translation or refinement of something else - it’s a defiant and exuberant explosion of French.

    Lots of smiling faces so far, the options looking rosy. But then you drive, and the benevolent grin falters. The VW CC is purely inoffensive, with balanced and tidy handling. It rides reasonably well, maintains body control and schleps along at a perfectly acceptable rate, surfing 258lb ft of torque to hit 62mph in 8.6 seconds. But that’s all. There’s a distinct lack of character, a car that numbs the journey rather than enlivens it. In some situations that might well be a boon, but not here.

  9. The Evoque, bluntly, is just too slow. It’s fine in town, where you can mooch around with the surprisingly punchy manual six-speed, delving into a BMW-matching 280lb ft, but try to hoof it, and the Evoque’s 1625kg and bluff aerodynamics drag it down in a lazy conspiracy. Don’t get into any traffic-light drags: with a 0-62mph time of 11.2 seconds, you’ll get destroyed by brisk tortoises. The ride is excellent on the standard dampers (higher-spec Evoques get adaptive items), the resistance to lean surprising and the lack of 4WD all but unnoticeable. But 148bhp really isn’t enough to provide the kind of urge to keep you sane, let alone amused. You’d get annoyed with this after a bit, and although the £29,710 189bhp version is better, it only comes in mostly unnecessary 4WD format. It’s a quandary not easily answered here.

    Meanwhile, the DS5 is again a surprise, but this time for the wrong reasons. The engine and transmission are innocuous enough to go unnoticed - punchy, but not fast, slick, but not involving - arguably a good thing in a car like this. But where I was expecting something soft and graceful, the antithesis of the 3-Series’s perceived thrusting dynamics, the DS5’s ride is actually annoyingly harsh. On a smooth road, the Citroen almost gets away with it, translating the stiffness transmitted through the good-looking but ride-exploding 19-inch wheels into a flat and grippy attitude, but it feels like a vortex of mixed messages. You’re sat in a lovely escapist pod, expecting beautiful isolation, and you find yourself shoved back into a world filled with potholes, speedbumps and expansion joints. Because, believe me, you feel every one. It’s better on the smaller wheels, but you can’t help but feel that if Citroen were keen to offer something genuinely different, then it needed to go the whole hog and embrace the waft.

  10. It almost pains me to say this, but the Three Twenty Dee is imperious and annoyingly good. Even on the optional Sport 19-inch wheels and run-flat tyres, it rides with an easy slickness that must turn the other manufacturers green. The body control is a wonder, the way the engine thrums through the rev-range as lag-free as it gets for a turbodiesel. It feels more like a broad-shouldered, low-revving GTI. In fact, it feels so together, so jigsaw-tight, that you forget it’s an ‘average’ diesel saloon and just enjoy driving it. And that’s enjoyment wafting down the motorway or having a bit of fun down a lane. It’s also fast: 62mph in 7.5 seconds - roughly a second quicker than the CC, two seconds quicker than the DS5 and three-and-a-bit vs the Evoque, helped by a trim kerbweight of 1,505kg; 52kg fewer than the CC, 120 fewer than the Evoque and an enormous couple of hundred fewer than the DS5.

    And there are other nails for the group coffin. Trawl the figures, and the 320d is the cleanest car here in terms of CO2, kicking it into the lowest VED band (120g/km means band C - free year one, £30 thereafter). It has the highest quoted combined mpg (61.4 - we got early 50s on test) and isn’t even the hardest to insure at Group 31 - the Range Rover being one group higher at 32. There are other model variants for each of the cars here that can beat the BMW in specific areas, but no one model runs it close on every parameter.

  11. Which means that the choices become stark. The CC is fairly easy to ignore. If you want a German saloon that’s not a BMW, then you’re better off just going for one of the usual suspects from Audi or Merc. The Evoque is just too slow in 148bhp format, even though the 2WD chassis is perfectly capable and the styling supermodel-worthy. And, although I’d love to be brave and go for the really quite fabulous DS5, the ride quality means it gets relegated to joint second with the Evoque. Which leaves the mighty BMW 320d. A car whose overarching spread of talents hands it the win, no matter how far you cast the net. There are viable alternatives out there, but when it comes down to it, BMW still has the bases covered.

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    Audi and Mercedes are the obvious
    competitors to the BMW 320d, in the shape of the A4 and C-Class. Just so’s you

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    It’s a bit obvious, isn’t it? New BMW must
    face the competition from perennial analogues Mercedes-Benz and Audi. In this
    case, the C220 CDi and the A4 2.0 TDi. And that makes perfect sense. In fact,
    the comparative figures are eerie, to the point where it would be impossible to
    choose one from the bald stats unless you have an incredibly specific set of
    needs. All three are well-built, wear desirable badges, cover off the size/pace/price
    wish list, while keeping the predatory smile off the taxman’s face. But neither
    the Audi nor the Merc offer anything significantly different from the 320d, and
    they fall behind it in more subjective areas. The new Audi A4, for instance, is
    a very capable car, but manages somehow to scrape away any pretence of
    character, leaving it feeling hollow. There are no gaping holes in its armoury,
    but it doesn’t encourage like the BMW. Similarly, even though the Mercedes is
    softer and more relaxed than the Audi, the latest generation of 320d has
    managed to combine both ride quality and B-road encouragement, eclipsing part
    of the C-Class’s appeal. And while the Audi and the Merc both have serviceable
    and neat cabins, the 3-Series has subtly moved the game on once again – leaving
    the other two just that bit behind.

    Bluntly, neither is also as much fun as the
    320d to use. The A4’s front-wheel drive means that it never quite manages what
    might be regarded as dynamic fun, and the Mercedes lopes along briskly rather than
    encourages. It’s not all about attack modes and sport buttons, either – you can
    feel the difference throughout the driving experience; the 320d has an edge all
    the way through. A thin edge, admittedly, but in a class so keenly contested,
    that’s all it needs to remain the best – just – of the Big Three. 

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