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BMW 320d SE

Click to view picture galleryBMWs 3 Series Saloon and Touring
  estate models have just received
  their mid-life nip-and-tuck changes.
  The result is an even sharper car in
  every sense

LAUNCHED IN MARCH 2005, THE FIFTH GENERATION BMW 3 Series Saloon and Touring estate models have just received their mid-life nip-and-tuck changes (for the record, the 'younger' 3 Series Coupé and Cabriolet models are not due for their styling 'updates' until late 2009 at the earliest). The 3 Series is immensely important to BMW. It is their best selling model range in the UK and the highest selling model range in the compact executive sector of the UK's new car market.

However, it faces the strongest-ever competition from the all-new Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Unlike the 3 Series models that have received re-styling and equipment upgrades, the Audi and Mercedes-Benz cars are all-new, better equipped and larger than the versions they replace. The 3 Series remains the same size.

The revised BMW 3 Series is offered with a range of five petrol and five diesel engine derivatives, while the popular BMW 318d can now, for the first time, be ordered with a six-speed automatic transmission. Specification levels are ES, SE, M Sport and M3, and prices start from £21,475.

A new 3.0-litre, six-cylinder, 330d all-aluminium engine is available, and it makes use of third generation common-rail diesel injection technology with piezo injectors and a single turbocharger with variable vane geometry.

In the 330d, this new six-cylinder 2,993cc engine produces 245bhp at 4,000rpm — 14bhp up on its predecessor. Torque has also increased by 15lb ft to 384lb ft, and this peak figure is available from 1,750 through to 3,000rpm. Consequently, performance figures for the new 330d Saloon and Touring have improved compared to the previous model. The 330d Saloon now accelerates from zero to 62mph in 6.1 seconds (Touring 6.2) before going on to an electronically-limited top speed of 155mph. The economy and emissions of the new 330d have similarly improved; from 46.3 up to 49.6mpg and from 160g/km down to 152g/km with an accompanying annual Vehicle Excise Duty bill of £145.

The majority of new 330d drivers who favour an automatic transmission will see an additional benefit as their chosen vehicle now qualifies for a lower Vehicle Excise Duty band — D instead of E — thanks to CO2 emissions down to 164g/km.

The performance of the 325d and 335d Saloon and Touring also see improvements in performance and efficiency. Other engines remain unchanged following last year's introduction of widespread engine enhancements. This means the 3 Series model portfolio continues to be powered by the International Engine of the Year for 2007 and 2008 (the petrol 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged unit) and, says BMW, the most fuel efficient and least polluting diesel and petrol engines in their class. All 3 Series powerplants feature direct injection technology and the extensive use of lightweight materials to improve efficiency.

BMW's highly-praised EfficientDynamics technologies are, of course, widely used and, depending on the model/engine chosen, can include auto stop/start, brake energy regeneration, electric power steering, intelligent alternator and optimum gear change indicator.

In this competitive premium sector it's very much all about image, so styling plays an important initial role in the desire to own the latest model — and if one is to impress one's peers, then it has to look different. That's not so easy to achieve when it's a mid-life nip-and-tuck as opposed to an all-new design and a much larger replacement body.

However, BMW enthusiasts will instantly see a more elegant new 3 Series body shape, much of which has been achieved by just detailed styling tweaks rather than any major panel changes. The previous heavy-looking bonnet now features two strong precision lines and there is a re-styled kidney grille, edgy new front bumper with revised air intakes, re-worked headlights and rear light clusters with LED indicators along with light reflecting lines in the side sills and front and rear overhangs which make the Saloon and the Touring seem longer although they are, in fact, the same length as the outgoing models. There are also new style wheels and paintwork options.

Inside, the 3 Series looks much the same although there are detailed changes. The plastics still look hard, the driver's armrest is better positioned and, thankfully, where specified there is a much better, simpler to use iDrive information and operating system. Storage space is still an issue — only when we get the all-new 3 Series (probably 2012) will it have the rear interior space and legroom offered by the new Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class cars. Until then the 3 Series excels as a driver's car because of its superb engines and handling, but its competitors have the edge for space and refinement.

I briefly had the opportunity to try three of the models from the new line-up. The best selling retail model is the 318i SE Saloon priced at £22,765. The 143bhp four-cylinder 1.8-litre unit is as competent as ever — and with CO2 emissions now at a low 142g/km. This means a VED rating of Group C costing £120 a year — excellent for a petrol engine model in a car of this class. Real-life fuel economy was 30.3mpg although officially it should on average return 47.9mpg. Ideal for the retail buyer who covers only limited annual mileage.

The second test model is regarded as the most popular in the range: the 320d Saloon with SE specification and priced at £26,680. Its 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 177bhp turbodiesel unit produces 258lb ft of torque; it has a top speed of 143mph and will scoot from zero to 62mph in 7.9 seconds. Officially, 58.9mpg is the average fuel consumption — 38.1mpg was my figure for some rapid country road driving. This model, too, gets a VED Group C rating. This is still the most sensible, easy to drive, easy to live with model in the range and should remain the top seller.

Finally, the new 330d with the 3.0-litre, six-cylinder engine that puts out 245bhp and 384lb ft of torque. Its top speed is limited to 155mph and 0-62mph takes a keen 6.2 seconds.

For those customers who want the driving luxury of a performance six-cylinder engine, but with cost-effective fuel economy and the least amount of expensive road tax, this is the one to buy. Officially this engine will return 45.6mpg with automatic transmission, and most buyers choose that option. The CO2 emissions are 164g/km which means a road tax bill of £145. The fuel consumption during my test run was 34.8mpg, but that will improve with more sympathetic real-world driving. My test saloon with the auto gearbox and in M Sport specification — the likely most popular combination with this engine — costs £33,885.

Thanks to the traditional rear-wheel drive layout, the handling for all versions is supreme with perfect balance. Only the hard-walled run-flat tyres occasionally disturb what, overall, is a very fine and comfortable drive. And to that you can add smart and classy new looks, impeccable poise, great engine options, performance, fuel economy potential and reasonable purchase and running costs. That, for many a BMW buyer, will outweigh the fact that the 3 Series loses out to the all-new Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class for interior space and refinement. — David Miles

BMW 320d SE
| £26,680
Maximum speed: 143mph | 0-62mph: 7.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 38.1mpg | Power: 177bhp | Torque: 258lb ft
CO2 128g/km | Insurance group 14