Only a few short years ago, it seemed like BMW’s single focus was on hairy chested performance and handling characteristics.
Beyond the obvious attributes required to succeed in the premium-car market (like build quality and luxury equipment), everything else about a BMW was tailored towards living up to that Ultimate Driving Machine advertising pitch: powerful engines, pin-sharp steering, agile rear-drive underpinnings.
Times have changed. BMW now prides itself on being one of the most sustainable carmakers in the world. All of its models come as standard with bragging rights about efficiency and fuel economy.
BMW people say that was always the company’s intention – efficiency is essential for high performance, after all - and perhaps they’re right. The rest of us just couldn’t see it the haze of tyre smoke. But there’s no doubt that environmental issues have really come to the fore for the blue-and-white-propellor brand.
The remarkable thing is that this renewed focus on environmental responsibility has not come at the expense of machines that still aspire to be the ultimate in driving.
The new-generation BMW 320d is the perfect example. This 2.0-litre turbo diesel sedan, with an eight-speed automatic transmission, is capable of 4.4 litres per 100km in the official Combined economy cycle, which is dangerously close to hybrid territory. At $74,700 it’s at the lower end of the 3-series range, sitting just above the 320i petrol.
Yet the 320d is also unashamedly a driver’s delight. It’s not an overtly sporting model, yet it completely fulfills the expectations reactionaries like me have of BMW vehicles. It’s appropriately brisk (0-100km/h 7.6 seconds), very responsive and still designed around that old BMW ethos of rear-drive and perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Which never gets old, by the way.
The only question mark hanging over the 320d’s dynamic package is the steering. The new 3-series has a fuel-saving power steering system, but our car was fitted with the optional Variable Sport Steering, which alters the ratio depending on the driving situation. I didn’t care for the artificial feel of the tiller, and I don’t know whether the basic hardware or the trick variable-ratio option are to blame.
There are other eco-annoyances in the 320d. There’s an Eco Pro mode available through the Driving Experience Control system (actually, it’s just a button) for the engine and gearbox which makes the car feel like it’s towing a trailer, but you have to manually select that so it’s acceptable. I managed 4.7 litres per 100km/h on a trip (average speed 92km/h) in Sport mode, so I wouldn’t bother with the Eco-nonsense.
There’s also stop-start, which has its merits in saving fuel around town, but can become intrusive in certain urban situations. You can turn it off. Good.
The 320d has plenty of other tricks to save the planet, like brake energy regeneration and that very slick eight-speed gearbox.
Despite all of that, driving the very green 320d (and green it is, make no mistake) is still a joyful experience. Joy, that was another BMW advertising catchphrase; although it didn’t last long. Can’t imagine why.
No such thing as a basic BMW of course. Our test car might start at $74,700 but you’d be mad not to spend $2000 on the Sport Line package, which brings no fewer than 14 pieces of upgraded equipment (including wheels, special leather upholstery and a colour-keyed, er, key.
Even once you’ve got a 320d Sport, it would not be hard to add another $10,000 to the price by thoughtfully ticking a few boxes on the incredibly long options list.
Creating a car that combines extreme thrift with extreme driving pleasure is something BMW is very good at. Extracting every last dollar out of your wallet without you really noticing is another.
But we’ll let them away with it this time, because the 320d is a stunning vehicle.