BMW 320d SE

Class leader puts up a strong fight to keep its crown.

If the S60 wants to take the coveted compact executive crown, this is the car it must beat. The BMW 3-Series has dominated the sector in recent years, humbling rivals and becoming a firm fixture in the UK’s top 10 best sellers list.

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However, bosses aren’t resting on their laurels, and have treated the saloon to some minor mechanical tweaks. On the popular 320d, this means the punchy 2.0-litre diesel engine has benefited from a power boost to 181bhp, while torque is up to 380Nm – increases of 7bhp and 30Nm respectively.

Externally, the 3-Series is unchanged, which is no bad thing. The car is handsome and well proportioned, and the most sporty-looking model in our trio. Inside, you’ll find the 320d’s cabin has been left largely untouched, too. While the design doesn’t have the cool simplicity of the Volvo or the sharp style of the Audi, it is logically laid-out and solidly put together from high-quality materials.

Our Business Edition test car comes surprisingly well equipped, too. Sat-nav, climate control, a Bluetooth connection and leather trim are all included as standard. Better still, the low-slung driving position helps make the BMW feel as racy from behind the wheel as it is to look at.

Passengers are equally well catered for, and the 320d matches the roomy A4 for space in the rear, although the high transmission tunnel eats into legroom. Lift the tailgate, and you’re confronted by a generous but awkwardly shaped 460-litre load bay – that’s a healthy 121 litres more than the new Volvo can muster.

It’s surprising that the back bench doesn’t fold, though. BMW charges a hefty £335 extra for this must-have family feature. All thoughts of practicality will be forgotten once you fire up the 320d’s free-revving diesel engine. The revised oil-burner is the most powerful unit on test, which helped the saloon cover 0-60mph in only 7.9 seconds – that’s 1.9 seconds up on the Volvo.

In-gear acceleration was similarly strong, while the brakes proved to be the best for feel and power. On the road, the rear-wheel-drive 320d impresses with its excellent body control and agility through corners. Better still, the meaty steering is simply bursting with feedback, while the six-speed manual gearbox’s stubby lever serves up slick, short-throw shifts.

The trade-off for these sporting responses is a firm ride, although this only becomes an issue on really rough surfaces. Low road and wind noise help boost the 3-Series’ credentials as a refined long-distance cruiser. In fact, the only thing breaking the calm of the BMW’s cabin is the gruff note of the engine when it’s at high revs.

The 320d’s dynamic masterclass doesn’t come at the expense of fuel economy – thanks to the company’s eco-friendly EfficientDynamics technology. A superb stop/start system, low-rolling-resistance tyres, energy-saving engine ancillaries and a gearshift indicator all helped deliver fuel returns of 46.1mpg. That’s over 15mpg higher than the Volvo and 6.8mpg better than the Audi.

Add superb CO2 emissions of 125g/km, and the BMW appears a hugely tempting company car choice. On this showing, it’s not hard to see why the 3-Series has stood on the top step of the podium for so long. It’s desirable, fun to drive and cheap to run, and has virtually no chinks in its armour.

Our sole cause for concern is the high £28,245 price tag. Will this be enough to bring the BMW’s long winning streak to an end?

Details

Chart position: 1WHY: The 3-Series is the car to beat in the compact executive sector. Great to drive, desirable and overflowing with eco-credentials, it provides a stern test for any competitor.

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