Driven: 2013 BMW 320d

Small executive sedan is the pinnacle of the automobile market.  There is no other automobile that kills that many birds with one stone, it is just right for so many purposes, no other car type can achieve this. It's spacious, but it's small, it's rigid, but it's comfortable, it's sporty, but it's also subtle. They are quick around town and they are pleasant on the highway.  A lot of people may say that wagons share these features and offer a lot more practicality, but sedans are just so much more elegant, and so much more proportionally better looking; there is a reason why all luxury VIP carriers are sedans.

For many years BMW has dominated the small sedan market with their glorious 3 series, but times are changing. Mercedes Benz C class is now sporty and aggressive, Audi, has lots of toys and stunning design, while Lexus, is not just no longer made of cheap plastic, it actually looks like a luxurious space ship from a science fiction novel.  And then there are Americans waiving their fist in the air with the brilliant ATS!

As customers becoming more demanding, the small sedan market is getting more cut throat than ever. Can BMW retain its crown as the ultimate small sedan crowd-pleaser?

When I first looked at it I thought it was a no-brainer; BMW design of the new 3 series is absolutely superb. 

It successfully maintains classic BMW features while achieving all modern highlights such as aggressive lines connecting edges of head and tail lights, short trunk that transforms into C pillar and goes onto the curvy roof design giving the 3 series this elegant look.

Front is equally modern and aggressive with trademark kidney grille grown in size and elegantly connected with the headlights that also carry the tradition by incorporating led rings around HID projectors.

In the back the 3 series BMW looks incredibly modern as the manufacturer carries this design over several models.  It resembles its larger, more luxurious siblings, which is definitely good for the smaller 3 series.

The blend of tradition with modern features continues on the inside as well.
The cabin is ergonomic while the seating position is virtually perfect.  There are lots of storage pockets that are easily reachable by driver and all controls are incredibly intuitive and straight forward.  There are no touch screens or blinding LCD dials (there is HUD option however), everything just seems right where it should be. 
The I-drive is absolutely brilliant and high resolution 8.8 inch screen is the largest screen for this class.  What I don't like about it, however, is that it seems like a cheap pop-up rather than integrated into dash like Audi or Mercedes Benz, or even the E90 3 series.

I also found the materials in used in cabin construction a bit disappointing.  There are lots of hard plastics disguised as something else on the central console and dash.  There is also lots of empty space that makes the interior feel a bit incomplete. 

Finally, I was most disappointed with materials used to wrap the steering wheel and seats.  Leather on the wheel felt like cheap plastic with grippy bumpy surface used in place of the smoother type I saw in other, even slightly older models..  When compared to even base class Mercedes Benz steering wheel on the BMW 320d fails to impress. M Sport model, however gets its signature soft leather sports wheel, which is a giant step forward.  The seats also were a grade lower than I expected as they are made from cheap and hard fabric.  The situation slightly improves in the M Sport model, but to take full advantage of the 3 series, a leather package is an absolute must.

These setbacks however, do not impact this car's practicality as there is plenty of room in the back;
and a very large for its class 480 liter trunk.

Overall, while not perfect the interior is very well put together, it is extremely ergonomic and as expected with any BMW it makes the driving experience very engaging.

BMW always has been known to make driver's cars, however at current times customers demand more; and with four driving modes the 3 series achieves just that. Comfort, Eco Pro, Sport and Sport Plus are there to adjust car's performance for every occasion.  Eco-Pro mode does wonders with fuel economy as it limits the rpm, engine response and if configured can even limit air-conditioner power and screen brightness.  The Sport and Comfort modes in standard package affects steering response, shifting speed and swithcng between coasting and engine braking (sport plus is same as sport, with disengaged traction control). However to truly enjoy the sport modes you need the M sport package, in which the settings affect suspension stiffness and ride height, as well as the ZF "Sport Transmission" shifts even quicker and more aggressive.

This is the first model that BMW brought to Japan with diesel engine.  Understandingly they were very cautious as diesel car market is very small and smeared by image of ugly loud trucks emitting clouds of black smoke contaminating the peaceful countryside.  Clean diesel is the sales pitch used to describe modern vehicles that utilize forced induction, high compression ration with perfect ignition timing and catalytic converters to minimize emissions.  The 320d model comes with a small 4 cylinder 2.0 turbo diesel engine producing modest 184 horse power and impressive 380Nm of torque.

This torque is actually a lot of fun as the car effortlessly accelerates from 0 to 100 kph in respectable 7.1 seconds and can go 235 kph.  Having driven it on streets I cannot really verify these numbers but it seemed very capable as it was very quick off the line and overtaking on a highway was a breeze.  I also should mention the 8 speed ZF transmission used in this car as it is absolutely incredible.  Gear shifts are lightning fast and it always seem to find the right gear making diesel engine a lot more pleasant to drive despite its short rpm range.

However, for anyone enjoying hearing the sound track from engine and exhaust, this car is a disappointment.  When idling it sounds like a tractor, and at acceleration the sound does not provide enough sense of speed.  The car does the job performance-wise and is silky smooth at speeds, but the sounds leaves a bit of an after taste.

So after 2 days of driving around, and getting a feeling of what it would be like to own a BMW 320d, I have a bit of mixed feeling.  On one hand, it is a superb daily driver with exceptional practicality, good handling, and unrivaled fuel economy, but on the other hand its entertainment value is shattered by a horrible sound track and lack of cabin comfort.  A worthy sacrifice to many, but to me a small sedan should be perfect, and frankly when looking at the car it replaces, it is a bit hard to grasp any advantages of getting this car over the brilliant E90 335i M Sport with leather package from a used car dealer.

No, by no means I imply that the 320d is a bad car, my observation on this matter is that the F30 has some very big shoes to fill, and while it manages some aspects very well, there is still room for improvement. 


Cost of Ownership:
5/5 Diesel engine is robust and efficient while fuel is cheap.  The car is fairly simple so should be hassle free.
Practicality
4/5 Very good all around car but impacted negatively by cabin comfort in base model. Things do improve with options and as with any BMW every component of the interior can be custom made.
Appeal
4/5 The car looks great, especially the M Sport package. Just don't let anyone hear it.
Fun Factor
3/5
While maintaining handling and dynamics of the finest BMW traditions, the small diesel engine just does not entertain.  Even when it pulls, it sounds and vibrates and then tops out very quickly.


BMW 320d is available from BMW Japan starting at 4.7 million yen. MSport package is additional 440000 yen and leather seats are 199000 and above depending on model trim.  I recommend both.
A very big thanks to ORIX Rent A Car for making this car available during such busy season.


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