Fleet News

BMW 320d

BMW

Review

I REMEMBER when the gorgeous actress Jennifer Aniston had a nose job. I thought, 'what's the point of that?', but looking back at old episodes of Friends, it has made a definite improvement.

The thought came into my mind because BMW has applied the same 'if it ain't broke, make a few adjustments anyway' attitude to the 3-series, including some reshaping of the bonnet and lights for a more aggressive stance. It has also made dozens of internal changes, including a more direct steering rack, more powerful and efficient engines and a sportier suspension set- up. The improvements make this a formidable champion in the premium upper-medium sector.

And in a stable full of hard hitters, from the 318i to the 330d and M3, comes the 320d, which with next year's CO2- based tax changes seeing diesels becoming the motor of choice, should see the model top many company car drivers' wish lists.

But with every silver lining comes a cloud, as finding a 320d could prove to be rather problematical. BMW GB claims that because the diesel market in the UK is rather green (if you pardon the pun), compared to other more developed European markets, it does not have the influence to get enough models to satisfy demand.

BMW expects that 75 per cent of all 3-series sold will be paid for by company cheque books, with about 20 per cent diesel- powered. This year, the firm reckons the 3-series is heading for its best ever year, at about 55,000 models sold.

Along with a larger fleet of demonstrator cars for business clients, BMW is pushing hard in the fleet sector.

Graeme Grieve, sales director of BMW GB, said: 'We recognise the corporate market as a critical business sector and have increased our resources accordingly. We have doubled our corporate sales staffing and plan to market BMW more aggressively. We have rarely had enough cars to meet demand from companies but we are working hard to secure more.'

Interestingly, because of the 3 per cent company car tax penalty on diesel and the 320d's higher list price, it is cheaper tax-wise, by a few pounds, to run a petrol 318i. Perhaps BMW is trying to cut its waiting list for diesels.

Securing drivers for the 320d will only partly come through the tax argument. In this sector, what the car says about you can be more important than what it takes from your bank account, and unless a car fares ludicrously well or badly, tax is probably not a massive issue.

In fact, compared against its traditional opponents, the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-class, the 320d sits in the middle. A 320d SE has a P11D price of £22,300 and emits 148g/km of CO2. It will sit happily in the 18 per cent tax bracket for the next three years with 40 per cent tax-payers forking out £1,605 a year and those in the 22 per cent band £883. An A4 1.9 Tdi 130 Sport is cheaper at £20,660, and emits 151g/km of CO2. The same 18 per cent bracket for two years sees it cost £1,487 per year at 40 per cent and £818 at 22 per cent. It just sneaks into the 19 per cent band in the third year but the change is small enough to make virtually no difference.

Mercedes-Benz's offering will hit the wallet harder. At £23,520 the C220 CDi Classic emits 163g/km of CO2, which starts it in the 18 per cent band, but rises to 21 per cent in 2004/2005.

The difference? It costs a 40 per cent taxpayer £1,693 a year for the first two years, then £1,976 for the third. Is an extra £20 to £30 a month enough to knock the C-class out of the equation? Probably not in this sector.

There is barely a cigarette paper between the German rivals on residual values. The BMW and Mercedes-Benz retain 43 per cent of their value over three-years/ 60,000-miles, while the Audi keeps 44 per cent. Service intervals for the 320d, BMW claims, could be as far apart as about 19,000 miles for careful drivers, with the BMW Service Interval Indicator calculating intervals for each car.

If I had the choice I would go for the 320d Touring. It is one of the most handsome estates and combines a certain Tatler-goes-to-the-countryside style with immense practicality.

No optional black labrador on the extras list, but as standard the SE versions come without a CD player, but with cruise control, air conditioning, fog lamps, multi-function steering wheel and parking sensors, which are a bit like mobile phones. Once you've had them, you wonder how you managed before without.

Obviously, as with all BMWs, the options list is pages long - apparently there are 11,000 possible combinations - and includes some mean options like door handles that cost £95 for the privilege of being the same colour as the body. The fact BMW can be cheeky enough to make people pay for such things illustrates just what an awesome brand and following it has.

It has a top notch motor, solid image and residual value, and is beautifully put together, making it my choice in this sector. If only there were more of them about.

Star of the revised BMW 3-series line-up is the excellent 2.0-litre diesel engine. It thrums quietly rather than clatters, and although the Touring I tested was noticeably noisier and felt more buzzy through the steering wheel than the saloon, both were a pleasure.

The four cylinder 16-valve motor has a new higher pressure common rail injection system, which delivers 10 per cent more power, 18 per cent more torque and a 4 per cent improvement in fuel consumption over its predecessor. On the combined cycle, the new 320d claims to hit 51.4mpg. On test the car got nowhere near, reaching about 40mpg, because the journeys were conducted on some extremely twisty, hilly roads but on the few straight bits, finally in fifth, the MPG gauge reassuringly swung off the scale, indicating some very parsimonious motoring. BMW claims that driven carefully, a driver could get over 800 miles out of a single tank.

The vast sweeps of torque in the 320d mean it can be driven almost like an automatic, without the need for constant, and thirsty, gear changes. 243lb ft of torque from 2,000rpm means that a rep in a hurry with a full load will not have too many worries about getting to a meeting on time.

Performance is excellent, with a 0 - 60 mph sprint of 8.9 seconds and 7.5 seconds from 50 - 75mph in fourth gear. Stick it in third or fourth, put your foot down when needed, and away it bounds, up steep hills and around sharp bends with disconcerting smoothness from the engine.

It is a shame the long wobbly throw from the gearbox doesn't really fit the idea of BMW mechanical excellence. Cars as well built as this should have a more 'engineered' feel: there is too much play and mushiness.

The steering, the prime piece of evidence for those that felt the last incarnation was getting a bit lardy and losing its sporting dynamic, has also been sharpened up. It has less power assistance and a quicker rack: only three turns lock to lock rather than three and a half as before.

It is sharper, but still retains that slightly indistinct few inches on each turn that separates pin sharp from pin cushion.

The car now sits on firmer springs and dampers to regain some of that sporting appeal. It rides smoothly and comfortably enough without much body roll and is a fun car to drive hard round corners and a great long distance tourer. Even among 3-series BMWs, the 320d is outstanding.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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