In terms of the UK market, this is the most important car BMW makes. It hopes to shift 21,000 3 Series saloons to British buyers every year, and the 320d will be the biggest seller. It’s only right then that the first RHD UK-spec car we’ve driven is a 320d, in Sport trim and with a manual gearbox.
With 181bhp from its four-cylinder diesel engine, 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds and CO2 emissions of just 120g/km (118g/km if you go for the optional eight-speed auto) the 320d is a remarkable achievement on paper – only the 161bhp 320d EfficientDynamics, with emissions of 109g/km, trumps it. The worry is that with such a strong focus on fuel efficiency, some of the handling sparkle may have been sacrificed - but it doesn’t take long to dismiss any doubts.
Video: Watch CarBuyer's video review of the new 3 Series
On start up, at idle and if you accelerate hard through the lower gears there’s a definite diesel rattle from under the bonnet, but there’s certainly no lack of power. It rips though the ratios and feels eager to rev, for a diesel. The short-throw, stubby gearlever is precise with a lovely mechanical feel, and as the revs rise so does the refinement. By the time you reach motorway speeds the engine noise is little more than a distant hum, while a light rustle of wind coming from the A-pillars is the only discernible sound.
Electromechanical steering, which doesn’t sap any power when the wheel isn’t turning, has been criticised in other cars for lacking in feel – but not here. Every millimetre of movement results in an instant reaction from the front of the car. Combine that with rear-wheel drive, and a wonderfully balanced chassis and this car flows down a twisting B-road better than anything in its class.
There’s no penalty in terms of ride comfort either, especially if you pay £750 for the adaptive M Sport suspension. This integrates seamlessly with the five driving modes – Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ - and even in its firmest setting cushions you from bad surfaces. In Comfort there’s a suppleness that the old car could never match.
Partly responsible for the improved ride and extra grip in the bends is the larger chassis, with a 50mm longer wheelbase and wider front and rear tracks. The other benefit is a more spacious interior – especially for rear passengers who get an extra 15mm of leg room and 8mm of headroom. The 480-litre boot is 20-litres up on the old model, too.
Don’t get the Sport trim on our test car confused with M-Sport. M-Sport models don’t arrive in the UK until later this year, and will include lower and stiffer suspension, beefed-up bodywork and 18-inch wheels, while the Sport model driven here is a milder makeover with a black chrome exhaust pipe, a unique front bumper and red trim and stitching on the inside. It’s a look that might be too garish for some, but the quality of the interior materials keeps things just this side of tacky.
ES and SE trim levels still kick off the range, and for a more sophisticated alternative to Sport, there’s Modern trim level which adds a more sombre colour palette and part-leather upholstery. Above that are Luxury models, which get 18-inch wheels and full leather thrown in as standard.
* Price: £29,080
* Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
* Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
* Power: 181bhp
* Torque: 380Nm
* 0-62mph: 7.5 seconds
* Top speed: 146mph
* Economy: 61.4mpg
* CO2: 120g/km
* Equipment: Dual-zone air-conditioning, 17-inch alloys, leather steering wheel, 6.5-inch colour screen, USB socket, cruise control
* On sale: Now