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March 7, 2008

Review: 2008 BMW 320d Sport

There’s always something just right about the BMW 3 Series.  Beside the papa bear excess of the 7 Series and the mommy bear conservatism of the 5 Series, the 3 has always balanced the act quite well.  And buyers seem to agree: the 3 Series accounts for more than 50 percent of BMW’s annual sales.  BMW considers the 3 Series so important that it has as much trim choices as the rest of the sedan line-up combined.  Locally, there are at least six—ranging from the poverty spec 318i to the ultra-cool 325i.  With so many choices, which is the best?  Although the obvious is the 325i, the price of ownership stings the wallet a tad too much.  On the other end of the scale, as tempting as the 318i is, it’s just too entry-level.  And then there’s the 320i, but everyone seems to have one of those now.  So, it’s the new 320d then.  Though it may not have that famed inline-6 upfront, it’s offers an excellent mix of style and performance in every sense of the word.

The 3 Series looks striking, modern and dynamic.  It’s a galvanized steel masterpiece with subtle character lines running throughout the car.  A full side-on view reveals the 3 Series’ short overhangs and a body which is almost all wheelbase—making this car look fast even when standing still.  Unlike its rivals, which treats their diesels as mid-level variants, the 320d is actually BMW’s flagship four-cylinder, and as such is treated to an impressive array of toys including 18-inch alloys with 225/40 run-flat tires and active bi-xenon head lamps.  If you’d just want to be critical about the 320d’s styling, there are just two things you can level at it: the odd positioning of the reverse lamp, which looks too tacked on and second, is the bent tail pipe, which looks too diesel.

The dynamism of the exterior is not lost the moment you step inside the cabin.  In true 3 Series fashion, the 320d carries on the fighter cockpit styling (something dating back to the E36), though in here, it’s a bit too cold.  Though the finish of the plastics, leather and wood (replacing the titanium matte trim on the gasoline variants) are top notch, you want some more character.

Adjusting to the BMW’s control layout is easy breezy, and from the get go, rewards the driver with the best driving position in a modern car.  The seats are mighty comfortable.  The buttons are easy to understand and operate with big, clearly marked buttons and large rotary dials.  Even the audio system, which is usually a BMW weak spot is fairly straight-forward.  The fat, three-spoke steering wheel perfectly compliments the 320d’s sporty styling motif, and the multi-function buttons on this car are welcome additions.

Though not generally lacking, the BMW has subjectively less interior space than its exterior suggest.  For starters, the ingress/egress is now even made harder because of the standard moon roof.  The thick center tunnel (the 3 Series is rear-wheel drive, after all) and the lower dash intrude to hip and foot well space respectively, which can pose a problem for the big framed.

Like all other 3 Series, starting up the 320d is a “why tech” affair.  Instead of simply slotting the key in the ignition and twisting, you’ll have to slot in the key-sized card and push a separate start/stop button.  It heightens the driving anticipation for a couple of times, but it turns silly rapidly; unless of course you opt for the Comfort Access keyless entry system (and sorry, you can’t retrofit it to non-equipped E90s).  Once started, you’d be surprised at the not-so quiet engine under the hood.  Quiet the diesel engine may not be, but at least it’s very smooth.

The BMW’s 2.0-liter inline-4 is a powerhouse: 163 horsepower, 340 Nm of torque.  Mated to a proper 6-speed automatic, the 320d proves to be a bullet train.  The wide torque band is nice, especially when it comes to overtaking.

On a tight and twisty road, the 320d is noticeably agile and flawless to drive.  Though the steering is a bit heavy, there’s nice communication in the set-up and the chassis feel very balanced.  It’s easy to keep the 320d pointed in the right direction, and with little sense of under steer and body roll, this is the perfect car for the very enthusiastic driver.  The braking is hard to fault too as it bites with precision and is very easy to modulate.  The story reverses though the moment it hits the open road such as the South Luzon Expressway.  Because of the 320d’s lightning fast reflexes, it acts like a hungry Rottweiler on the food prowl, requiring 100 percent driver concentration.  This is especially true on uneven pavement which seems to unsettle the low-profile tires a lot.  This means the 320d is somewhat tiring to drive over long distances.

Despite this flaw, it’s hard not to like the BMW 320d.  Any time spent behind its wheel is simply pure bliss.  While its rivals have all gone wayward—getting fatter, sloppier and softer than before; this car remains true to its fundamental design philosophy.  Be it ‘sports sedan’ or ‘luxury sports car’, this car does well as both.

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