You light up my life LEDs are subtle—the opposite of Audi, which has gone jewel-like
Each time there’s a new BMW Dreier, Semir Gerkhan, the fictional Turkish-German hero in the long-running cop show Alarm für Cobra 11: die Autobahnpolizei, gets an upgrade. This season was no exception, with the first sign that a new year had come on Gerkhan’s desk: a tidy, scale model of the F30 BMW 3-series before his new car was cleverly written in to the script at the end.
There’s a lot of cred to being featured as the choice of a TV detective: who could divorce Starsky and Hutch from their Ford Gran Torino? That model was so popular that Ford had to offer a Starsky and Hutch facsimile on the US market. Likewise, you can’t picture Morse without his Jaguar Mk II, or Bodie from The Professionals without his Ford Capri (even if he had a Triumph and Rover in earlier episodes).
Not that BMW has too much trouble shifting its volume seller. The Dreier has got to the point where it outsells the Ford Mondeo, and thanks to competition from its German rivals, the basic spec of earlier generations has disappeared. Even without many optional extras, the cabin of the latest F30 Dreier is a nice place to be.
In fact, the Dreier has always been a driver-focused car, something that Cobra 11 plays on. We’ve always loved it because the cabin is well suited to those who love driving: the seats are comfortable, the steering wheel can be adjusted to suit, and the instrumentation is clear. Everything is where you expect it to be, and the latest generation is no exception to those who have become familiar with BMW offerings over the years.
But is it that much better? Colleagues abroad had already spoken highly of the F30, talking about how it raises the bar—but considering just how good the old E90 was, it was hard to imagine how BMW could improve on things. The E90, we might add, was a better driver’s car than its closest domestic rivals—the Mercedes-Benz C-Klasse and the Audi A4—so for driver engagement, it always received top marks from us, regardless of whether it was a small-engined diesel or a performance 335d.
Our test car, the diesel four-cylinder 320d, might not be Semir Gerkhan’s 335i, with a petrol six-cylinder engine, but it is the mid-ranger expected to take a good bulk of the Bavarian company’s sales. It has to be good, blending performance with economy. It gets off to a good start: the diesel unit is turbocharged and has plenty of torque, while stop–start and BMW’s Efficient Dynamics set-up, capturing braking energy, help with getting our test car to a very respectable 43·9 mpg (6·4 l/100 km). Claimed carbon dioxide emissions are 109 g/km.
What we did love was the 320d’s Eco Pro mode. In addition to the usual Sport and Comfort settings, Eco Pro optimizes the use of heating and air conditioning to save even more energy. We noticed the slight changes in the car’s behaviour when on Eco Pro mode—it’s noticeably less aggressive than the Sport mode and makes the diesel seem calmer—but it’s a welcome addition. (Lucire did, after all, attempt an “economy drive” with the Z4 Sdrive35i some years back and accomplished nearly 30 mpg—and with the price of fuel, why not?)
The 43·9 mpg reading we got was thanks in good part to Eco Pro, because we wanted to see how good the Dreier was in the real world. It’s more than likely drivers will use it, and the good news is that despite the change in gearing, it doesn’t make the car any less enjoyable. The reason: the chassis is simply that good. The 320d corners beautifully, with the least amount of body roll of any car in this class, and when testing it in the windy bends of Pauatahanui, the grip was excellent, too. It’s the most capable handler among CD-segment cars, and we found ourselves enjoying the experience so much that the driving mode became irrelevant.
While you aren’t going to leave the Dreier on Eco Pro for tricky overtaking or high-performance manœuvres, we think it’s a worthwhile and very relevant addition to the model line.
BMW has also introduced three specifications with the 3-series: Sport Line, Modern Line and Luxury Line. Sport is the one with the blacked out details outside, which seems to be in vogue in early 2000s. It almost feels like the late 1970s again, when high-gloss black signified modernity—who wanted all that old-hat chrome, which seemed “so ’60s” anyway?—but it works nicely with the shape. What Sport Line gives, inside, is a red stripe across the dashboard and red stitching on the steering wheel, which is a little distracting to look at. When we first checked the whole range out, Luxury Line was unsurprisingly the nicest spec to indulge in, especially if you were a passenger, with plenty of chrome. The idea—especially knowing that the 3-series is the volume seller—is to ensure that there is a version for every type of buyer, a marketing ploy that has been known to the Americans for years. There’s sufficient differentiation between the 3s for this to work, and while Sport is nothing to be sneezed at—as mentioned earlier, you no longer feel disappointed at being in the “entry” spec—there are those who might just plump for the “Ghia” of the range.
While Luxury Line might give the most pleasant interior, our judgement is that Sport Line actually gives a nicer look externally. Christopher Weil’s styling sees a shape with a more aggressive stance than before, with the shark-like nose further enhanced by headlights that could signal a new BMW design theme. The headlights are most prominent at the corners, tapering into the wings—but also sharply narrowing into a slit that blends with the chrome that forms the BMW kidney grille. It’s details like this—especially the balance between the use of chrome and black—that makes the Sport Line nice to look at, allowing you to enjoy the shape more than with the E90. The LEDs inside the lights are subtle—BMW has avoided the individual-jewel-like approach of Audi—while the creases along the flanks steadily rise toward the rear, giving the car a sense of forward movement. It’s at the rear where the F30 is the most subtle: there’s a familiarity here that is seen on the 5-series models that Lucire tested in 2010 and 2011.
It’s different enough to be new—and the overall effect is subtle enough to not scare off volume sales. BMW knows where the golden goose is—a fifth of its global sales come from the Dreier—and it’s not about to kill it off.
Overall, the styling is resolved and adds a touch of sportiness to the 3—and it’s an honest approach. It is sportier than its predecessor, and the looks convey it. But, more importantly, it’s more relevant than Dreiers of old. BMW has managed to create an all-new package that advances the game, with the best chassis in the business. It has recognized the mood of the times and the need to keep carbon dioxide emissions down. A hybrid will eventually be added to the 3-series line, but for now, the 320d seems to be the best bet when it comes to balancing driver enjoyment with economy. It’s new enough to look fresh and buyers who opt for the 3 now can still stand out from the crowd. However, it’s the driving experience that is the 320d’s ace, something which those who are serious about motoring will seize upon above all other criteria. And who can be more serious than a fictional cop who uses a 3-series in Autobahn chases every week? •
The BMW 320d was loaned to Lucire by Jeff Gray BMW, Wellington. Our thanks to Tom Hill for his kind assistance.
The 320d corners beautifully, with the least amount of body roll of any car in this class, and when testing it in the windy bends of Pauatahanui, the grip was excellent, too. It’s the most capable handler among CD-segment cars, and we found ourselves enjoying the experience so much that the driving mode became irrelevant
Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.