But if BMW has any say in the matter, the advent of the new 320d should finally turn things around. BMW has been without an oil-burning variant of its latest 3-series since launch and although the 318td was a respectable beast, it was hampered by an era that favoured gas-guzzling luxury execs or hot-shot hatchbacks. Diesel technology wasn't given a chance.
So can the new 320d make a difference? On paper performance, the answer is yes. A 1.9-litre four-cylinder high-pressure direct-injection turbodiesel lays claim to the highest specific power and torque figures of the class at 136bhp and a useful 206lb-ft of torque at just 1750rpm - pulling power to equal the potent six-cylinder 328i petrol, no less. Performance is no less impressive, hitting 60mph in 9.9secs and a maximum of 129mph. But unlike the 318td/tds before it, the 320d will compete in the flourishing performance diesel sector now occupied by the might of Audi's A4 and A6, Alfa Romeo 156, Rover 75, VW Passat and Mercedes when its all-new C-class arrives next year. And it's against such exulted com-pany where the 320d must perform. The Audi A4 2.5 TDI and Volks-wagen Passat V6 TDI might be quicker all-round but both have bigger capacity 2.5-litre engines and as a result suffer on economy and emissions. At a claimed 49.6mpg average and 151g/km it betters both by nearly 10mpg and over 33g/km respectively.
On the road, the transformation from silky petrol to diesel is favourable. Start-up even from freezing conditions is instant and smoke-free and even the traditional clatter is well muted. In this class there's a distinct band of performance-first and economy second diesels (A4, Passat and 156) and cars like the Rover 75 which opt for refinement and long-legged cruising ability.
The 320d falls between two camps: it has the economy to match the best but by using direct-injection to boost power (the Rover 75 uses BMW's 1.9 but with common-rail technology) its engine note is not as sporty as Alfa's, nor as silky as its bigger brother the 530d. Such minor gripes, though, will pale into insignificance when the mouth-watering 330d saloon/Touring arrives next year. Acceleration to 60mph takes 7.8secs and yet it still ekes out 41.5mpg.
But I suspect, the 320d's trade-off between noise and performance is one most drivers will welcome. Through a combination of variable intake geometry and a high pressure turbo designed to build up just the right amount of pressure at the right time, the 320d's trump card is its prodigious torque figure which makes for effortless overtaking thrust. The crucial 50-75mph burst is dispatched in 8.7secs - more than four seconds faster than the 318tds and more importantly, only a second off the 328i's pace.
Criticism has been levelled at the current 3-series due to its more mature driving characteristics, but the latest 3 is still head-and-shoulders above all but the most sporting of sports saloons. The relationship between the stiff chassis, positive steering and the slick gearshift is near perfect making the '3' safe and yet so much fun to throw through the twists and in the diesel you also get a deliciously responsive throttle.
The 320d saloon in standard or SE guise is on sale now and the new Touring model arrives in January. Prices start at £21,345 for the 320d rising to £22,645 for the 320d SE which is on a par with the A4 2.5 TDI SE at £24,180 and the Passat V6 TDI at £23,880; but it loses ground to the value-packed Alfa 156 JTD at £20,265 (and only £21,924 for the top-spec Sport Pack 3). The 320d offers a standard equipment list including six airbags, ABS, stability and traction control, electric mirrors and front windows plus alloy wheels and heated mirrors on the SE. Both have BMW's reputation for sky-high residual values and brilliant build quality.
So the 320d makes BMW's compact executive range complete. It's fast, responsive, frugal and fun to drive and is just another reason why drivers should drive not deride diesel.