DO YOU remember “the ultimate driving machine”?
It was one of those timeless phrases that ad execs drool over and, for three decades, it summed up BMW’s cars in four well chosen words.
After all, when the slogan was dropped in North America in 2006 it was replaced with the distinctly uninspired “a company of ideas”.
The basic formula hasn’t changed much. Front engine, rear wheel drive and a near perfect handling balance defines what is good about BMWs. There have been a few four-wheel drive models (you can buy an xDrive 3-Series, in fact) and soon there will be hybrids but the basic concept has always been the best.
The latest 3-Series, which is the sixth generation, is available in a bewildering array of trims and specifications but it’s the 320d that will be the big seller over here. The test car rolled up on optional 18-inch twin spoke alloy wheels resplendent in Melbourne red paintwork.
BMW always resisted the temptation to go all wacky on the 3-Series as it did with the 5-Series and 7-Series cars and their "soggy bag of cement" boot lids. There’s nothing radical about the new 3, either, but it the tweaks mean it still looks sensational. The double kidney grille is smaller than ever and the front headlights are bigger. The curve of the bonnet/front grille across the top of the light units lends the car a pronounced scowl that gives real on-the-road presence.
Inside the jury’s out on the red metallic trim strip that bisects the dashboard - I liked it but some passengers felt it cheapened the interior - and the colour LCD that’s planted on top of the fascia. My wife thought it was a touch screen and became quite frustrated when she couldn’t get it to switch radio stations until I pointed out the i-Drive “infotainment” controller to the left of the gearstick. Owners of the last generation 3-Series won’t be flummoxed, though, as everything is in the same place as before.BMW sent us the efficient dynamics 320d. What’s this mean? Principally 20bhp less (160bhp plays 181bhp), longer gearing, lower emissions and better fuel consumption. It’s still a hoot to drive, particularly if you select the sport or sport+ setting (provided you pay extra for electronic adaptive suspension) which sharpens up the throttle and steering responses. You can feel the difference, too, because the stiffer suspension transmits more bumps but I was happy to trade this for markedly flatter cornering on a spirited gallop across the north Pennines.
In town, the 320d’s comfort mode dulls the throttle response and softens the suspension but it always feels supremely accomplished. The new 3-Series’ ride is decisively better than its predecessor.
The six-speed manual gearbox is said to be slicker shifting but it still feels like it did before: well engineered but lacking that certain lightness of touch that make Japanese cars so easy to drive. And it’s still a fair old stretch to select reverse.
BMW pioneered head-up displays — which project information onto the windscreen just below your eye line — and the optional colour system on the 3-Series is state-of-the-art. As well as your speed it also displays other crucial information such as navigation instructions. It sounds like a gimmick but I’m convinced it’s a major step forward and, because you never have to take your eyes off the road, a major safety innovation.
SPEC CHECK: Engine: 4-cylinder, 1995cc, turbodiesel.
Max power: 161 bhp.
Top speed: 143mph.
0-62mph: 8 seconds.
Combined fuel consumption: 68.9mpg.
Exhaust emissions: 109 g/km.
Equipment: Electric windows, climate control, alloy wheels (16 inch rims with 18 inchers extra), power steering, central locking, premium hi-fi.