It seems almost perverse that a near-£26,000 small saloon car has become synonymous with the company car market.
While models from the volume brands still dominate the fleet market, the BMW 3 Series has continued its assault on user-choosers and makes regular appearances in the top 10 chart of best-selling fleet models.
And it seems this trend is set to continue because there is now an improved version of the biggest seller in the 3 Series line-up – the 320d.
In September a revised model was launched, boosting power from 163 to 177bhp.
All very nice, but the real changes will make much more of a difference to the balance sheets of fleet managers and the pockets of company car drivers.
Despite gaining a useful power upgrade, the 320d is now even more fuel efficient than before and also emits much less CO2.
By adopting the Efficient-Dynamics technology pioneered on the smaller 1 Series, the 320d is now streets ahead of its rivals.
Brake energy regeneration, automatic stop-start, a gearshift indicator, new electric power steering system and active aerodynamics (flaps behind the grille which open and close depending on engine load to smooth the airflow) contribute to some startling figures – combined fuel economy of 58.9mpg and CO2 emissions of 128g/km.
Remember, this is a sports saloon delivering nearly 180bhp!
To put those figures into context, a Peugeot 207 1.6 HDi 110 emits 126g/km and returns 58.8mpg.
This puts the 320d in the lowest possible benefit-in-kind tax band for a diesel vehicle.
But all of these gains have not been made at the expense of driver appeal – a key selling point for the 3 Series.
With rear-wheel drive and near-50/50 weight distribution, the 320d remains a great car to drive.
The whole package feels so balanced that driving is not a chore, especially when you’re away from the main roads and enjoying cross-country trips.
There’s a nicely weighted steering rack which offers very direct inputs. It remains flat and composed during cornering and the ride quality, although on the firm side, is not uncomfortable.
After all, this is a sports saloon.
The extra power on offer from the turbocharged 2.0-litre diesel engine is apparent, with a surge of overtaking power on tap from very low down the rev range.
Once up to motorway speed, the 320d cruises with little noise intrusion into the cabin.
The engine is mated to a six-speed manual gearbox which has a short throw and a very positive feel to the shift.
With the benefits of a recent company-wide improvement in the quality of fixtures and materials, room for a family of four and the ever-increasing appeal of the BMW badge, the 320d as a package is incredibly hard to fault.
It could be a little roomier in the back for adult passengers, and SE-spec versions don’t have the visual clout of the M Sport models thanks to their bodykit and bigger wheels, but the 320d overcomes these with a performance on the balance sheet which is little short of staggering.
P11D value: £25,775
CO2 emissions (g/km): 128
BIK % of P11D in 2007: 18%
Graduated VED rate: £115
Insurance group: 14
Combined mpg: 58.9
CAP RV (3yr/60k): £10,525/41%
Monthly lease (3yr/60k): £482
THREE RIVALS TO CONSIDER
All four models offer between 170 and 177bhp and all come with the basics such as air-conditioning and alloy wheels. However, the Lexus trumps the rest with leather upholstery, electrically-adjustable seats, CD multi-changer, climate and cruise control as standard.
EMISSIONS AND TAX RATES
Despite having the highest front-end price, the BMW is the cheapest in benefit-in-kind tax thanks to having much lower CO2 emissions than the rest. It will cost a 40% taxpayer £154 a month, compared with £156 for the Audi, £174 for the Mercedes-Benz and £196 for the Lexus.
The Lexus is the only car here with fixed service intervals and needs attention every 10,000 miles. The rest have variable intervals and could go twice as long without a garage visit. The Lexus also runs on 17-inch alloy wheels (the rest have 16-inchers) meaning more expensive tyre replacement costs.
320d: 3.53 (pence per mile)/£2,118 (60,000 miles total)
BMW claims the 320d will return an average of 58.9mpg. That’s an awesome figure. The rest are miles (per gallon) behind – the A4 returns 48.7mpg, the C220 CDI 47.9 and the IS220d 44.8. The BMW will cost £1,000 less in diesel than the Audi over 60,000 miles.
320d: 7.48 (pence per mile) / £4,488 (60,000 miles total)
The Audi loses the least money, with CAP estimating it will retain 40% of its cost new after three years/60,000 miles. The Lexus has the highest RV at 44% thanks to its more limited supply. The C-Class will retain 42% and the BMW, which is the most expensive car to buy, 41%.
A4: 23.47 (pence per mile) / £14,082 (60,000 miles total)
It is unusual for a car which comes last in the depreciation part to win the wholelife costs section, but such is the 320d’s dominance of the fuel and SMR sections that it is slightly ahead of the C-Class. The Audi runs them close, but high fuel and SMR costs dent the Lexus’ challenge.
320d: 36.42 (pence per mile) /£21,852 (60,000 miles total)
Despite being loaded with equipment, the Lexus simply costs too much to run and will hit drivers the most in their pockets for tax bills. The Audi is a great car but a new one is just around the corner so this puts it out of the reckoning.
Both the BMW and Mercedes-Benz are fantastic cars but the 320d just sneaks the win thanks to its cheaper fuel and benefit-in-kind tax bills.